Stephen Colbert Gets Last Laugh With Tech Execs

Why are late night shows interviewing CEOs? Here’s what I shared with Georgina Wells at The Wall Street Journal:

On late-night talk shows, stars of the silver screen are being pushed aside by innovators for the mobile screen.

Apple Inc.’s Tim Cook and Elon Musk of Tesla Motors Inc. have been grilled by Stephen Colbert in the three weeks since “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” launched. Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel is due to be in the hot seat this Thursday. The new host of “The Daily Show”, Trevor Noah, is scheduled to interview the founder of dating app Bumble, Whitney Wolfe, on Tuesday’s show.

“We love having our Hollywood people, we love having our authors on, we love our politicians,” says “The Late Show” co-executive producer Emily Lazar. “But these innovators are as powerful right now as any other person who you would have on a late-night talk show. We’re just going where the heat is.”

“It’s not like we never had tech people on the show during Jon Stewart, but we didn’t pursue it actively,” says co-executive producer of “The Daily Show” Hillary Kun. “You will see more of them going forward.”

But smarts don’t always translate well into humor.

Some of these tech guests aren’t as experienced with television appearances as their Hollywood and Washington counterparts. Mr. Colbert’s interrogation of Uber Technologies Inc. chief executive Travis Kalanick took a few turns for the awkward, and Mr. Colbert didn’t let Mr. Kalanick off easily. Mr. Colbert grilled him about UberEATS (“Where is the food? Do they make it in the car?”), surge pricing during a hypothetical terrorist attack, and if Uber really cares about its drivers when it wants to have self-driving cars.

Twenty-four percent of the comments on Twitter about Mr. Kalanick’s appearance on the show were negative, much higher than the 4% of negative tweets in the weeks leading up to the show, reported social media analytics company Crimson Hexagon.

Messrs. Cook and Musk came off better, taking part in the jokes about their technology, from Siri to Tesla’s new robotic charger.

It was another tech executive who is responsible for the Silicon Valley guests. Ms. Lazar said an interview with Brian Chesky, chief executive of Airbnb, led her to think about how much tech is impacting culture. “I was like, oh, maybe I should share my barbecue with my neighbor,” said Ms. Lazar.

Mr. Chesky is slated to appear on “The Late Show,” as is Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, Ms. Lazar said, but she did not give any dates.

Still, even when Mr. Colbert gets the last laugh, appearing on late-night talk shows might not be a bad move for tech executives. The exposure gives them a chance to represent their brands on the front lines of American culture, says New York-based brand consultant Dean Crutchfield. Company share prices are not likely to suffer from a gaffe, he added.

“There is growing interest now in understanding these people more than before. These CEOs are today’s modern rock stars,” said Mr. Crutchfield.

“The Late Show’s” infatuation with tech is not about chasing a younger demographic, Ms. Lazar said. Instead, “it’s the realization that these people are making a big difference in the way we live. It acknowledges the way the world has changed.”

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Author: Dean Crutchfield

In an award-winning career spanning two decades, Dean Crutchfield has created, built and re-invigorated some of the world's most iconic brands.

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