CBS should’ve hired the other ‘Stephen Colbert’ to replace Letterman

CBS announced Thursday that Stephen Colbert will take over as host of the "Late Show" when David Letterman retires in 2015.
(John Paul Filo / Associated Press)

After much speculation about who would take over for David Letterman on the “Late Show” after he retires next year, CBS announced Thursday that it will be Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert. That’s a disappointing choice. What we need in a late-night host is “Stephen Colbert.”

CBS CEO Les Moonves explained that Colbert would not host the show as his blustering character. “What you’re going to get is the real Stephen Colbert,” he said. “He said it’s time to do something different. If he’s going to be on our air for 20 years, as we all hope, it’s not humanly possible to keep that character going.”


We’ve seen who the real Colbert is from time to time, and it’s probable that that guy would make for a perfectly serviceable late-night talk show host. On the few occasions he’s broken character -- appearing as a guest on other talk shows, for example -- he seems like a down-to-earth, likable and still very funny man.

But likable and funny are a dime a dozen on the late-night talk show circuit. Unlikable and unfunny are already spoken for as well. The whole reason we’re all fans of “Stephen Colbert” in the first place is that he turns the cliches of the medium on their head. That’s territory Conan O’Brien has walked, sure, but there’s always been an underlying plea for acceptance at the heart of his shtick; not quite as bad as the desperate puppy dog affability of a Jimmy Fallon, but it’s there. On the other end of the spectrum are pedantic scolds like Bill Maher and grinning bullies like Jimmy Kimmel, smirking their way through their routines like they’re doing us all a favor showing up.

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Letterman’s genius was how he sliced through each of these specific flavors of BS. Sometimes deftly, sometimes flaccidly (as in recent years), but we always knew that he knew we were in on the ruse together. At least those of us who paid attention. That’s what makes “Stephen Colbert” the perfect successor to Letterman’s pioneering meta-talk show conceit.


Letterman, at his best, didn’t need to go big or broad to undercut his own show while in the act of filming it, although he wasn’t above that if the bit called for it. If anything, that’s what Colbert has done with “Colbert” even more effectively.

Now more than ever we need that slow bloodletting to alleviate our collective popular culture hypertension, to poke holes in the celebrity industrial complex and the unending assembly line of promotional nothingness. The collegiate showbiz backslapping is well attended to by Fallon and company, but the subtle jujitsu of leveraging an opponent’s own force to take themselves down is in rare supply, and as we’ve seen hundreds of times on “The Colbert Report,” no one, not even Letterman, does this quite as deftly as “Colbert.”


In a rare look at Stephen Colbert explaining “Colbert” to a guest, in this case before a taping with John Kerry in 2007, he said:

“You know that I’m in character. That I’m an idiot,” he said. “I’m willfully ignorant of what we’re going to talk about. So disabuse me of my ignorance.”


“Do I have to?” Kerry asked.

“You don’t have to. You can join the lie if you want.”


That encapsulates his overarching concept, sure, but Colbert proper knows that he’s playing the idiot to more effectively help us find out who the real idiots are. Jon Stewart hasn’t had the bile left in him for years to let anyone come out of his show without at least feeling like they’ve played a great game, sending even the most odious of nincompoops for celebratory orange slices after trying their best. But Colbert, although he might not admit as much when he’s talking about what he does, wants to tear the whole thing down from the inside. You can’t do that when you’re regular fella Stephen Colbert playing nice with guests. You can only do that when you’re playing the fool. As we’ve often heard said, throughout history royalty and despots alike let only their jesters tell them the truth. “Colbert” does that well, true, but he also does something even more important: He lets the despots and royalty tell the truth to him.

It’s hard not to think that all of that is coming to an end as Colbert transitions back into himself, or, at least, a version of himself that will make for a more likable, network talk show host.


“Simply being a guest on David Letterman’s show has been a highlight of my career,” Colbert said in a statement. “I never dreamed that I would follow in his footsteps, though everyone in late night follows Dave’s lead. I’m thrilled and grateful that CBS chose me. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go grind a gap in my front teeth.”

See? He’s already softening. Letterman would’ve never done that. “Stephen Colbert” certainly wouldn’t have either.


It’s great that we’ve answered the question of who’s going to replace Letterman. Now all that’s left to answer is who’s gong to replace Stephen Colbert?



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Luke O’Neil is a Boston-based writer. Follow him on Twitter @lukeoneil47.