Last month David Letterman surprised the world by announcing his retirement from late night television, after more than 30 years doing it.
CBS, managing to avoid the chaos that NBC and other networks had on their hands whenever a new host shift came along, anointed a successor just a few days later: Stephen Colbert will be the new host of the Late Show.
Colbert’s contractual obligations with Comedy Central run out at the end of this year, and beginning in 2015 he’ll be free to take on this new challenge, after successfully hosting his own show, The Colbert Report, for nine years.
Much has been said about Colbert, a big name on his own, being a well-known host with experience that could make a seamless transition into the tamer task of running a network show.
But how much of a proven commodity is he, really? Stephen Colbert, as America and the world know him, is a fictional character. The pseudo-conservative, self-obsessed, Sunday school teacher is an act; an improv character that just kept evolving and developed into its own persona through years of unlikely and admirable commitment. This is what’s made him so fucking impressive, that he could still coast on this character for almost a decade and manage to remain funny and still push the boundaries without becoming stale.
I’d say what he’s done at Comedy Central is probably unprecedented, but taking over Letterman’s long time franchise on CBS will have him be “one of the guys” for the first time, and watching that transition is one of the most interesting things to look forward to on TV next year.
The Colbert Report is pretty much 100% satire, and that’s a delicate act to balance on network television. Sure, people still expect comedy on a late night slot, but in spite of the recently changing landscape in the genre, it’s still a whole different audience. It’s a lot easier to be edgier on Comedy Central. The spotlight is definitely a lot bigger, and even big figures within the right wing media had already been taking jabs at CBS for their hiring choice.
While The Colbert Report gets a largely young audience, that might have to do more with the fact that he’s on Comedy Central than his show catering to a younger demographic. In a way, what The Daily Show and The Colbert Report have done is bring satire and political humor to people who aren’t very political in the first place, or that lose interest in it without its fair share of humor to color it (I’m not criticizing. I’m mostly one of those people.) In current popular culture, these two shows have kind of replaced Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update as the way for the left-leaning, comedy-oriented younger crowd to get their news.
The actual Stephen Colbert probably resembles much more his friend and colleague Jon Stewart than the character he developed over 9 years on the Report. So it’ll be interesting to see how easily the public accepts him as himself. The guy still has a lighting quick mind, with a knack for improvisation, charm and a deep understanding of his comedic talents and what makes him good.
In a way, Colbert is lot more chipper than Letterman ever was; he’s more enthusiastic, committed to characters and has a background in sketch that his predecessor never had. On the other hand, Letterman grew up as a comedian during a different time, one that demanded a more traditional approach with the audience. Letterman is known as the guy who constantly picked the genre apart and deconstructed it to fit his own style, but let’s be honest, the Letterman that was running dark, challenging and elaborate hoaxes with Andy Kaufman more than three decades ago is hardly the same we see if we tune in today. Making the 12:30 to 11:30 switch has already watered down most hosts that have tried it. Conan dealt with that problem during his very short stay hosting The Tonight Show, and while Jimmy Fallon seems to be doing just fine on the ratings, it’s still a much different crowd. For all the edgy stuff Letterman has done in the past, he’s still very much an old-timer in today’s comedy world.
Colbert faces the tough challenge of retaining his niche audience, while remaining engaging and likable enough to capture the more traditional leanings that the network gig demands. He might be almost 20 years younger than Letterman, but he’s still a decade older than Fallon, and he’s not the merry, everyday man that Kimmel is.
Letterman has hosted the Late Show uninterruptedly since 1993, and CBS is known for not wanting to rock the boat and stick with whatever is working. Letterman is also probably the most respected late night host since Johnny Carson, and last year he even surpassed his friend and mentor’s longevity at the late night helm. Even if it’s been a long time since his show had any true edge to it, it’s a tough act to follow, and one that’ll carry with it massive media scrutiny.
“I’m thrilled and grateful that CBS chose me,” Colbert said in a statement after the announcement. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go grind a gap in my front teeth.”
But even without gimmicks, the prospect of a Colbert-hosted show is a promising one for the world of television. One that will hopefully make the whole late night wars a lot more fun to watch.