With the announcement that Stephen Colbert will leave his current show and replace David Letterman as the host of CBS’s The Late Show, there has been speculation of what he will do in his new venue and what Comedy Central will place in his time slot. Of course, Colbert going on broadcast TV, the supposedly mainstream entertainment channels, has made his right-wing enemies apoplectic as a further sign of traditional values being destroyed, with Rush Limbaugh fuming that “CBS has just declared war on the heartland of America. No longer is comedy going to be a covert assault on traditional American values, conservatism. Now it’s just wide out in the open.”
It appears that Colbert has long been eager to take over from Letterman and he has made it clear that he will be retiring his Colbert Report persona and be himself. ‘Stephen Colbert’ appeared on The Daily Show to say goodbye and that he would be leaving TV for good
(This clip aired on April 23, 2014. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post. If the videos autoplay, please see here for a diagnosis and possible solutions.)
Although I will miss his show, I think it is a good move. I had wondered how long he could continue to do what he has been doing because sustained parody is really hard and it is a great tribute to his skill that he pulled it off as long as he did and actually seemed to get better as he went along.
But that does not mean that his new show will conform to the same pattern as other such talk shows. I have not watched such shows in their entirety for many years but as I recall they begin with a monologue by the host, there is an in-house band and also sometimes a sidekick to banter with, segments in which there is some music, other artists do their acts, and celebrities come to plug their films and chat with the host. As far as I am aware, they do not discuss serious topics or books or have on authors, nor do they have sustained bits of political satire the way Colbert’s show currently has.
I would be surprised if Colbert’s show sticks to that tired format. He is a creative person and I fully expect him to try something quite new. Colbert appeared on the Letterman show on April 22 to chat with the person he is replacing and the way that he kept saying that he would continue to do what Letterman has done for so long suggested to me that he would do something different. It may be that being his alter ego for so long has become a little tiresome and that he wanted a challenge. I think he has the clout to force CBS to agree to go in a wacky new direction.
After all, The Daily Show began in 1996 with Craig Kilborn as the host and it was similar to the other late night talk shows in that it focused on pop culture. When Jon Stewart became the host in 1999, he made it far more political, using comedy to talk about serious issues and he succeeded in greatly expanding its reach, suggesting that people do not want fluff all the time. Colbert may try to tap that vein with broadcast TV too.
Comedy Central has a more difficult task in replacing him. Colbert created something unique in TV, a completely different persona that he maintained show after show for nine years. Jon Stewart is very good at what he does but what he does can be replicated, since his persona on the show is not a completely artificial one. Jon Oliver filled in for him quite adequately. It would be difficult for someone to do exactly what Colbert did without being seen as derivative.