No, he won’t be performing in character.
CBS made the sensible choice and hired Stephen Colbert, tireless faux right-wing blowhard of Comedy Central’s "The Colbert Report," to take over from the retiring David Letterman as host of "Late Show." In bringing in the 49-year-old Colbert for the next five years, CBS has a new host with a proven track record of hosting a late-night show, and a rabid built-in fan base.
Colbert, for one, had anticipated the potential promotion, pegging his current contract with Comedy Central to end at the same time as Letterman’s, to minimize any impediments to taking over Late Show.
With his arrival, late-night television has undergone a near-complete makeover in the last two years. Letterman, Leno, and Koppel are all gone or on their way out, and Colbert will match up against Jimmy Fallon at NBC and Jimmy Kimmel at ABC (and Conan O’Brien at TBS, although his show has managed to create almost no buzz during its three-plus years on the air.)
In a key sense, nothing has changed; one generation of white male comedians-turned-talk-show-hosts has succeeded another. (Is no network executive out there curious what might happen if they handed the keys to a late-night show to Sarah Silverman, or Tig Notaro, or Hannibal Buress?) Undoubtedly, though, some of the cobwebs and mildew that have covered late-night TV in recent years have been swept away. Fallon and Colbert give late-night comedy a dynamism and hip credibility that it has lacked for the past half-decade.
Colbert is a proven commodity and a genuinely beloved TV star, but the show CBS holds in reserve for him is substantially—and confoundingly—different from the one he currently hosts. (One cannot help but picture Colbert, like Louis C.K., locked in some CBS conference room as we speak, letting David Lynch harangue him about his failings as a comedian.)
Given that it was never likely that the perpetually conservative CBS was going to be the one to blow up the model, hiring a woman or minority, or even—heaven forfend!—trying something different altogether, Colbert is a simultaneously edgy and safe choice. He is a limber wit, an all-around showman à la Fallon (did you know he starred in a Sondheim show?), and once hosted a Christmas special. (OK, so it was a Comedy Central Christmas special, and began with a rousing version of a ditty called "War on Christmas" with country star Toby Keith.)
But Colbert is also the guy who went to town on President Bush at the White House correspondents’ dinner in 2006, ran for president, and wrote a book called "I Am America (And So Can You!)." His presence at Late Show does not automatically cede the younger audience to Fallon or Kimmel.
Colbert made his name as a fake cable-news host, parodying the vapidity and hectoring of Fox News. Now, even if he drops the act, the faint air of parodying the stodgy late-night format will likely remain. The Colbert Report was a one-note parody of something like "The O’Reilly Factor" that proved surprisingly limber and flexible over nearly nine years. Even his shtick — like running out, palms to the sky, to the cheers of the audience before each interview segment — became endearing after a time.
One key question hovers over the shift: Will Colbert take over "Late Show," or will "Late Show" take over him? Late-night TV has long been a comfortably familiar — perhaps too familiar — zone: the middle-aged guy in the suit, the opening monologue, the brisk patter with celebrities, and the like. CBS didn’t break the once-famously edgy Letterman during his twenty-one-year run at "Late Show," but it has been a long time since the show was a must-watch, or since Letterman felt particularly relevant.
A comedy show in the guise of a news show, "The Colbert Report" mocked a familiar model by carefully echoing it. In comparison with "The Colbert Report," Colbert’s "Late Show" will be a talk show — in the guise of a talk show. Will there be room for Colbert’s trademark subtle (and not so subtle) mockery? Politics will undoubtedly be almost completely absent; CBS is unlikely to cede half its audience by letting Colbert kid the GOP.
Like cable news, late-night television is in desperate need of similar reinvention, and undermining. Cable news was fatally self-serious; late-night TV is often fatally familiar. How often in the last decade has anything genuinely surprising happened on a late-night show? Fallon has taken a few steps toward shaking things up with his understanding that a solid portion of his potential audience is more likely to see a particularly funny sketch at work the next morning than at midnight on TV. But the DNA of late-night TV has still hardly been altered since Johnny Carson’s retirement almost a quarter of a century ago, and when most everything else about television has been rendered unrecognizable.
As much as a new kind of host (Amy Schumer!) might shake up the stodgy late-night format, so might a willingness to unravel the monologue-skit-interview-music model that nearly all late-night is still beholden to. Colbert, savager of received wisdom, has an opportunity to revamp bland late-night in his image — if CBS lets him, and if he wants to do that. "Colbert Report" proves that he is capable of it. But will the audience for "Late Show" love Stephen Colbert as much as Comedy Central’s loves "Stephen Colbert"? CBS is betting heavily on the answer.