Stephen Colbert has been named as the successor to David Letterman as host of “The Late Show.” Above, Letterman shakes hands with Colbert after Colbert came by for a surprise visit in 2011.(Worldwide Pants Inc. / CBS)
And so it came to pass that Stephen Colbert was announced as the next host of “The Late Show” (as of “sometime” in 2015 to be formerly “with David Letterman”) and what was already thought a likelihood became a certainty.
It seems in every way a sensible move. Colbert, who has been performing monologues and conducting interviews on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” since 2005, is not even changing time slots. CBS gets a proven performer and notably one whose cultural impact is, compared to the competition, out of proportion to the size of his audience; the “Report” averages just over a million viewers, less than half of Letterman’s crowd and something like a fifth of what Jimmy Fallon brings to “The Tonight Show.”
But he has been on the cover of Vanity Fair, Newsweek, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Wired, Outside, Sports Illustrated and the Dartmouth alumni magazine. He has had an ice cream flavor named for him, a species of spider, and a piece of exercise equipment on the International Space Station (the “Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill,” or COLBERT) named for him.
He is already “the Emmy-winning Stephen Colbert.” In which respect, one should also note that his writers will surely be making the move with him.
As NBC recently did with Fallon, CBS gets a successful known property still in the rising arc of his career. It is perhaps, and quite purposely, not the boldest choice — another white male, it will be widely noted, hosting another talk show — but broadcast television networks are not in the business of making bold choices. And unlike prime time, which at least allows many opportunities for failure and replacement, 11:30 becomes the property of one person for what all concerned hope to measure in decades.
Indeed, though we’ve seen him mostly in character until now — a character, the living embodiment of the ironic voice, that he has already declared to be leaving behind — he is very much like the man he’ll replace: intellectual, serious, quick-witted (possibly the quickest wit in the wasteland), honest about himself within limits, skeptical about show business and other sorts of officialdom but respectful of accomplishment. One wonders how he’ll handle a steady stream of actors and actresses, juveniles and ingenues appearing to hawk their often insubstantial wares (as one hopes that a Colbert “Late Show” will bring with it the “Report” rotation of writers, politicians, activists), but one remembers that he is at heart a humanist — a Christian humanist — and supposes that he will treat them kindly.
Apart from the perks of visibility and access and, of course, income, it will surely come as some kind of relief to Colbert not to have carry that single character, the self-admiring conservative pundit, all the way to the grave. (Though there’s nothing to say he couldn’t be revived, with a simple swap of spectacles.) It is impossible, in an exciting way, to know where he’ll go with this. Colbert has been out there virtually alone on his stage, without sidekicks or a crew of regulars. (He began, of course, as one of Jon Stewart’s “reporters” on “The Daily Show.”) Even the one-man band that is Craig Ferguson, whose “Late Late Show” follows Letterman, eventually got himself a robot pal, the animatronic skeleton Geoff Peterson, to play off. (Ferguson’s partisans, considering the Colbert appointment as a snub, are already taking umbrage in his behalf, but his particular form of brilliance seems to me more suited to the freer air of 12:30.)
The announcement also raises the not-insignificant question of what happens to the space where “The Colbert Report” now sits. For one thing, and not the least thing, it keeps the “who besides a white male” question in play. And though television remains on the whole inordinately interested in playing to young white men, there have been hopeful advances at Comedy Central, now the home of “Broad City,” “Inside Amy Schumer,” and “Key & Peele.” Chelsea Handler, parting ways with E! and already a seasoned talk show host, is a free agent. As was the case with Colbert, change starts at the edge and works its way in.