It’s a testament to Stephen Colbert’s great abilities that, when news hit Thursday that he would be succeeding David Letterman as host of CBS’s “Late Show” next year, many were mystified. Colbert is a character, the Twitter chorus cried out, not a talk-show host. He’s a construct, not a real person.
But of course Colbert is very real, not to mention personable and, occasionally, sincere, as anyone who has heard or seen him interviewed knows. He’s just such a killer improvisational actor that he has been able to fool viewers into forgetting all about the actual Stephen Colbert.
He has turned his right-wing blowhard character, host of Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report,” into a compelling national figure, and extended that parody seamlessly into the real world, with runs for public office, the creation of a super PAC, and a news-making turn at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner. He has made what is essentially a comedy stunt thrive far longer than seemed possible; imagine Jonathan Swift’s mocking essay “A Modest Proposal” stretched into a series of novels.
That’s why there is little doubt Colbert will adapt quickly to his new mainstream gig, about which he said in a statement, “I won’t be doing the new show in character, so we’ll all get to find out how much of him was me.”
The language-loving inventor of “truthiness” is a proven, fast-on-his-feet entertainer and intellect with a lot of range beyond political satire, including a gift for musical theater and an abiding love for pop culture and J.R.R. Tolkien. He has won four variety-show Emmys since “The Colbert Report” premiered in 2005, and he really should have been competing for best actor in a comedy, too. He is an extraordinarily agile interviewer; watch him talk to guests, process what they say, and come back at them in an instant on “The Colbert Report” — all while in character. That’s a complicated juggling act.
Most of all, he is the creator and driving force of the most innovative and original late-night show of recent decades, a Fox News spoof that is as substantive as it is ironic and hysterical. Arguably, he is the most multitalented comic, compared with Steve Carell, John Oliver, and Ed Helms, to emerge from the contemporary star factory that is “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”
And let’s hope his new talk gig will adapt to him, too. CBS needs to let him forge his own way, play around with the formatting and tone of the “Late Show,” without pressuring him to abide by the stale conventions of the genre. The “Late Show” has always been a more idiosyncratic alternative to “The Tonight Show,” and that tradition ought to continue. The biggest mistake CBS could make would be to push Colbert into becoming a predictable agent of the late-night publicity factory, for fear of losing Hollywood guests looking for soft sells. That promotional touch comes naturally for Jimmy Fallon on “The Tonight Show,” but Colbert needs to preside in his own way.
Presumably, the network is drawn to Colbert’s demographic, as well as to the 49-year-old Colbert himself. The audience for “The Colbert Report” is one of late night’s youngest. The average age of a Colbert viewer is 42.3, compared with 58.2 for Letterman, 57.1 for Fallon, and 54.3 for Jimmy Kimmel. In order to attract those Comedy Central kids to CBS, Colbert will need to have freedom enough to deploy some of his take-no-prisoners political humor and his playful interviewing style. He’s a gentleman, that is clear from his non-“Report” appearances, but he always has a hammer and a spike at the ready in his pocket. Let him use them.
Shortly after Colbert’s new job was announced on Thursday, some critics complained that the network had overlooked many qualified women for the “Late Night” spot. The rest of the network nighttime lineup is filled by men.
But the harshest ideological shot to the Colbert choice came from Rush Limbaugh. Calling him Colbert with a hard “t,” the radio host started the inevitable backlash from the right.
“CBS has just declared war on the heartland of America,” he said on his radio show. “No longer is comedy going to be a covert assault on traditional American values, conservatives — now it’s just going to be wide out in the open.” CBS will need to stand up against the attacks and potential boycotts, and defend Colbert’s comedic license. Let’s hope the honchos at the network, known for having the most viewers but not the youngest (that would be NBC), understand what they’re getting into.
Alas, with Colbert’s appointment comes the loss of “The Colbert Report,” which will be a hard change for Comedy Central as well as the fans. The network has had a strong one-two punch with “The Daily Show” and “Colbert,” shows that lend themselves to brand-extending viral clips and books. But it’s time for all of us to let go of the knee-jerk conservative pundit with the archly raised eyebrow. He has made his points, and made them well for a long time. Now it’s time to enjoy the work of the versatile comic with the bright wit and the taste for absurdity, the one who’s always been there, smiling behind the eyes of “Stephen Colbert.”Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.