When I first heard confirmation that Stephen Colbert would be taking over David Letterman’s late night post, my reaction was, “Wait, who exactly is Stephen Colbert?” That’s not to say I’m unfamiliar with the visage that will, when Dave steps down in 2015, disappear from Comedy Central and end up on CBS. But, as last week’s #cancelcolbert kerfluffle reiterated for any who had forgotten, the self-aggrandizing, conservative, Republican blowhard Colbert that so many have come to know and love is a character. And it's precisely this fact that will make him an excellent "Late Show" host.
Admittedly, I struggle to remember the origins of the "Colbert" character. Colbert started out as a correspondent on “The Daily Show,” but it’s difficult to recall exactly when his unwaveringly satirical take on conservative punditry first took shape. Consider that a testimony to how effectively he has developed it. Colbert was, obviously, able to cart his bag of tricks from one fake news program to another – arguably more ingenious and certainly more fake – fake news program. But “The Late Show” is neither. For all of the subtle, awkward humor that Letterman has built into it over the years, it’s still a talk show, and, as such, pretty straightforward in its format and presentation. As snarky as a Kimmel or Conan may get from time to time, talk show hosts are generally prized for their earnestness and congeniality. It is highly unlikely that, next year, Stephen Colbert will take a seat behind the famed desk, turn to his first high-profile guest, and keep pretending to be a right-wing asshole. But in their own quieter ways, every good late-night host plays a character, whether it's Kimmel's wry bro-ishness or Conan's goofy surrealism.
None of this is to say that CBS has made the wrong choice. I agree with Jon Stewart that Colbert brings a brilliant skill set to his next gig. But those skills are going to have to be employed in very different ways, ways that his existing fans might find – ironically – inauthentic, or even watered down. With Colbert’s mask, so may the trappings fall away. Die-hards will undoubtedly weep at the notion of saying goodbye to the screeching eagle, invisible right-hand man “Jimmy,” or the beloved, collective sobriquet “Nation.”
The upshot of this upheaval is that Colbert may very well alter the planar landscape of “The Late Show” for the better. Say what you want about Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show,” but I’m sure CBS execs can smell that audience-renewing, viral video-cooking, cash-generating adrenaline bubbling up to their offices. Colbert cannot possibly remake “The Late Show” into “The Colbert Report” in the same way that Fallon simply moved his “Late Night” into an earlier spot with better ratings. But he can certainly infuse it with much of the energy and wit for which his show is known.
A Colbert-fronted “Late Show” could take many forms. Certainly, there will be more sharp, political humor. Though he will now have to sit still as the audience applauds for them, I see more guests of a non-Hollywood celebrity nature – authors, politicians, scientists. Colbert will no longer be presenting a single persona, but he may adopt many; as Stewart commented, the man is a strong actor. He is also an enthusiastic performer. It’s easy to imagine him relishing the opportunity to expand his approach and reach, even if it takes the existing Colbert Nation some time to get used to the change.