The Case for Colbert: He’s Just What Late Night Needs

It’s still a little bit difficult to believe that Stephen Colbert has been tapped to replace David Letterman. Sure, he was the one who industry reporters said had the inside track, but let’s be honest: Any time anybody gets up from any desk in America, someone says, “You know who should replace that person? Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert.” Nevertheless, it’s always startling when a network makes a decision based on quality of talent as well as herd-mentality consensus.

Yes, I’ll miss the blowhard-conservative act Colbert performs so magnificently on The Colbert Report. But if he thinks it’s time to drop the mask, to set that persona aside, I think he’s earned our respect for his instincts. (And it just goes to show how well Colbert has structured that image that he actually had to issue a press statement, in the hours after the announcement, to explain that, no, of course he’s not going to do the Late Show as his Report character.)

I’m especially surprised that CBS didn’t go with the late-breaking dark horse in this race, Neil Patrick Harris. Coming off How I Met Your Mother and his Emmy and Tony hosting gigs, he’s a valuable member of the CBS “family,” and he would have been up for this challenge. He has the various talents that would make him a natural for the new late-night paradigm spearheaded by Jimmys Fallon and Kimmel, one that privileges the variety-show format over chat show, and viral video–making over stand-up. Harris could have hit his competition at all of their key pressure points.

Instead, what CBS has done is this: put in place the most interesting host imaginable for the job that’ll likely come in second in the ratings for a good long time, if not for the entire length of his term. There is no way the fascinatingly complex Colbert — his real personality an unknown quantity for the majority of viewers; an interviewer of keen intelligence; a Sunday school teacher; the man who made slashingly political performance art out of a George W. Bush–era White House Correspondents’ Dinner; someone who has reserved some of his greatest admiration for artists who’ve never been big-tent superstars, such as Stephen Sondheim — is an out-of-the-box, mass-audience, the-kids’re-gonna-love-him solution to the ratings problem CBS has in this arena. Colbert-as-Colbert has revealed more of himself on “Fresh Air” than he has in America’s living rooms.

To anyone with a sense of talk-show history, the new dynamic is simple: Colbert will be the Dick Cavett to Fallon’s Johnny Carson — more intellectually curious, more poised and recondite in his humor, more prone to pull from a wider pool of guests than the latest star plugging his/her movie/TV show. In the 1960s, when Lillian Hellman or Jimi Hendrix agreed to appear on a talk show, they went to Cavett; in 2015, will The Late Show With Stephen Colbert serve a similar cultural function? The Colbert Report is satire, and to paraphrase George S. Kaufman, satire is what gets canceled in six months when you’re doing it on a broadcast network. So Colbert is well aware of the tasks he faces in remaking the talk-show format and morphing into the new stage persona of himself.

Not that outside forces are going to allow him to shuck his past quickly. If CBS didn’t like the conservative heat latter-day Letterman attracted for his occasional sharp jabs at the likes of Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney, just imagine what the network is in for with Colbert. Canny loudmouths who have felt properly stung by Colbert lashings have recently increased their attacks on him as nothing less than a threat to America (hello, Rush; hiya, O’Reilly), and during his first few months, you can bet Colbert’s current-events opening monologues are going to be combed through more carefully than Megyn Kelly’s hairdo for traces of liberal dandruff.

But, hey, that ain’t my problem! As a viewer, the prospect of a Colbert Late Show is thrilling. First, consider what late night loses when Letterman leaves: his enthusiasm for the spontaneous and the authentic; his flinty skepticism regarding showbiz pieties; his right-to-the-end insistence upon deconstructing every late-night trope; his ability to make irony do the work of sincerity in creating an environment that allowed him to let his true, repressed-Midwestern feelings be known. This is why he’s the best who ever lorded it over late night.

Now think of what late night gains with the Colbert ascension. Letterman, even by his own admission, hung around longer than his desire to entertain endured. Audience appeasement will not be a problem with Colbert. There are nights on The Colbert Report when the host is almost deliriously enthusiastic, capering about the set, eager to chomp into the evening’s jokes. Sure, some of that is in-character tomfoolery, but at the desk, Colbert’s enjoyment in performing — the way he responds to the audience; the glee he takes in delivering a particularly well-wrought line — is palpable.

Like Letterman, Colbert did early TV work writing and performing on a variety show (Mary and The Dana Carvey Show, respectively). They both appeared on sitcoms (Mork & Mindy and Strangers With Candy, respectively). One crucial difference, however, is that while Letterman found his way into the business via the bruising stand-up comedy club regimen he never took to as readily as the more resilient Jay Leno, Colbert came up through the ranks of improv theater, and that is a valuable tool when it comes to interviewing. You can often tell during The Colbert Report when he goes off script to react to something a guest has said. He’s going into this job already more loose and confident about grilling a guest than Fallon is; he possesses a wider range of cultural references than Kimmel. Colbert will most likely offer a radical alternative to the current late-night lineup, and “radical” is not a word you hear echoing down CBS halls unless it’s Les Moonves complaining about Pauley Perrette’s latest hair color.

The generational shift in the Colbert decision is intriguing. While Colbert is nearly 20 years younger than Letterman (happy 67th birthday on Saturday, Dave), Colbert is a decade older than Fallon. I’m glad to see that CBS doesn’t wholly buy in to the canard that younger host = younger audience. The people that advertisers court, those in their twenties and thirties, are invariably too smart to be gulled into watching something just because it gets refurbished with a Fresh Young Face. Colbert on Comedy Central is pulling in a much younger crowd than Letterman, but some of that has more to do with Comedy Central, which has branded and programmed itself as a destination for an audience far more spry than your average Tiffany Network viewer. It’s the difference between having CSI as your 10-11 p.m. lead-in versus Broad City: The numbers aren’t comparable but the ad bucks flow to youth.

Colbert’s challenge will be to keep the audience that adored him for his satirical savagery while broadening his base, lulling longtime Late Show viewers to remain while attracting more eyes to the boxes (TVs, laptops, iPads, and phone screens). This imperative gives a new meaning to the host-character’s braggy phrase “the Colbert bump.” CBS Entertainment chairman Nina Tassler said yesterday that Colbert is “the perfect choice to honor Dave’s legacy,” and I’m going to chalk that up to obligatory corporate speak directed at the press, since Tassler doubtless knows she’s aiming for a new audience (and an advertising community) that doesn’t give a hoot about “legacy.”

(Speaking of legacy, let us take a parenthetical pause to acknowledge the man in line of succession who never had a chance at getting this job, the lovely Craig Ferguson. Ferguson brought warm spontaneity to the 12:35 a.m. slot at a time when it had been frozen over with the chilly archness of Craig Kilborn. But Ferguson has never aspired to be The King of Late Night the way Conan O’Brien and Kimmel did; he writes novels and screenplays, he acts, and his idea of a good lark is hosting a game show, as he will in the fall. Ferguson is frequently wonderful, but he doesn’t fit the demo, by temperament or by age, that CBS thinks it needs.)

In the talk-show continuum, Colbert is not just the next wave of the future; he’s the genre’s newest link with its oldest past. When was the last time a network gave airtime to a New York–based horn-rimmed intellectual with a penchant for absurdity and the giggles? Steve Allen, baby, 1954:

On Thursday’s The Colbert Report, the host talked about skipping college classes after staying up late to watch Letterman. He then went on to make a joke about having “an honorary doctorate in fine arts … I can open your eyes to the grand minimalism of Richard Serra’s sculptures.” (Is that the kind of punch line that will soon waft through the Ed Sullivan Theater? I sure as hell hope so, but only a fool would not have doubts.)

In real life, Colbert was a philosophy major who’d toyed with the notion of being a pro scuba diver. Now he’s plunged into a deeper pool. He’s not a boyish people-pleaser like Fallon or a reformed slobbo like Kimmel or a charred husk of his former self like O’Brien. If Colbert can come across as what Stewart described him as being on the Thursday-night Daily Show — “a genuinely good man” — we’ll really have something to look forward to next year.

Ken Tucker is a cultural critic who writes frequently about TV, music, and books. 

Filed Under: TV, stephen colbert, comedy central, CBS, Late Night, David Letterman, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Jay Leno