After being hinted at and speculated upon almost as soon as David Letterman announced his retirement this spring, Stephen Colbert — most recently and famously the host of The Colbert Report but also an alumni of The Daily Show (going back to the Craig Kilborn ‘When News Breaks, We Fix it’ days), Strangers With Candy, and Exit 57 – is set to be the next host of The Late Show.
Colbert’s move marks the latest attempt to keep late night television cool, hip, and buzzworthy as the subversive television comedian with the market-tested persona and popularity succeeds the subversive radio and television host who first caught the ear of Johnny Carson back in 1978. Comedians dominate the late night talkshow circuit — Kimmel, Ferguson, Fallon, Maher, Conan, and so on — but Colbert seems to be cut from a different cloth than each of them.
This is possibly because he was already wildly successful — most other hosts move up into The Late Show, and this feels more like a lateral move — but it seems that the curtain call on The Colbert Report is the most important as well as the worst thing about this whole ordeal. In an attempt to keep up with the Joneses, CBS (NYSE:CBS) is killing something fantastic. Here’s how.
Colbert confirms– he will NOT do the CBS show in his Colbert Report character.
— Bill Carter (@wjcarter) April 10, 2014
1. It Means the Death of ‘Stephen Colbert’
Equally phenomenal and irritating — no one squashed a promising interview by staying in character at the expense of content better than Colbert — the Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report is far from the man that CBS is hiring. Colbert’s core audience knows this, of course, even if they’ve only seen him on television. The real Colbert, insofar as anyone can really ‘know’ a celebrity through interviews and clippings, is not that guy.
This is a good thing, of course, because Colbert the character would be a terrible, terrible person in real life. However, off-camera Colbert, the mild-mannered Sunday School teacher from South Carolina, doesn’t seem all that enticing as a host. The beauty of David Letterman was his acerbic non-commentary, his strict adherence to “I’m not saying what I think about this, but you should figure it out if you take half a second to think about what’s happening” that wouldn’t be out of place on The Daily Show.
It will continue, of course. There are still several months before The Report shutters its doors, so there’s time to enjoy the last moments. But unlike, say, Mr. Show or old episodes of SNL, TCR has always thrived on depicting humanity and politics within the frame of current events. Reruns will not be satisfying.
2. The Surviving Alternatives Aren’t Tonally Close
Comics — especially those that wind up on late night television — tend to have a left-wing slant because, as Colbert famously declared at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner barely a year after his show debuted, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.” It remains the single best synopsis of the core tenets that fuel the humor behind both Comedy Central shows. The statement is smart, correct, and insightful.
But while The Daily Show has largely devolved into a single note, episode-long riff on “look, these people are stupid, and we should be outraged,” and Real Time With Bill Maher preaches to the choir by lighting effigies of “the wrong” – The Colbert Report managed to balance the biting political humor with what can only be described as zaniness.
Maybe it’s because Colbert wasn’t a standup comic. Letterman, Maher, Stewart, and Leno all bear the indelible mark of having to slog through an 8 p.m. opening slot at a comedy club and have exactly no one in the audience pay one iota of attention. It’s that vaguely hunted look they get when someone gets disagreeable or threatens to torpedo the entire operation, the fight-or-flight reaction that, one assumes, is born from having to utterly dismember hecklers in short order as to keep your gig going. Colbert’s show was never mean, and all the alternatives are, and that makes it harder to make people realize that reality does, indeed, have a liberal bias.
3. Because It Keeps Network Late Night Alive
What’s the enduring factor behind The Late Show, The Tonight Show, or any of the ‘Time of the Day’ shows? Is it the fact that it’s a common reference point for a majority of television watchers? Or is it the fact that it’s old, and therefore comforting? In a piece about watching only Fox News for a month, John Haggerty wrote that The O’Reilly Factor, which he watched daily during his experiment, “Seem[ed] to offer a sense of permanence, something dependable and constant in a world of increasingly rapid and often disturbing change. Tomorrow the tides will ebb and flow, the sun will rise, and Bill O’Reilly will be pissed off about something.”
That seems to be it. Viewers watch the late night shows on the Big 3 networks because they always have. The difference for the performer, though, is that unlike Comedy Central — which allowed Stewart, Colbert, and company to, essentially, do whatever they want within the time constraints of the show – The Late Show is targeted towards the broadest, most vanilla audience possible. It exists as a cathode fishing net scouring the airwaves for as many late night viewers as possible. It is the antithesis of edge. It is deliberately blunted down, a lobotomized take on recent events. It is where innovation and interest go to die.
This is what The Colbert Report is being sacrificed for. Writing about the pitfalls of the shift, The New York Times’Jason Zinoman illustrated the difference in that “with a smaller audience, a host can assume viewers share more assumptions about a joke than would a large network audience. That’s why Mr. Colbert has been able to produce formally tricky satire with only rare instances of mass confusion.” In 2015, that will no longer be the case.
4. It’ll Neuter His Impact
That’s Stephen Colbert, not ‘Stephen Colbert,’ interviewing Neil deGrasse Tyson at the Kimberley Academy in Montclair, New Jersey. It’s a conversation that’s rooted around science, but it’s a good window into how Colbert might operate as the new host of Late Show. Frankly, it’s not exciting.
It’s smart. It’s entertaining. Colbert, the person, is both of these things. He shows a remarkable acuity, and certainly a holdover from his improvisational skills. He will probably be a great host, but he’ll be forced to talk about middle of the road things for a middle of the road audience. It’s likely he won’t be speaking truth to power on CBS, he’ll be making glib, inoffensive jokes that don’t offer much, if anything. This is fine on the face of it. Comedy needs that. But why Colbert when someone more Fallon-esque could do?