Whenever a late-night TV host announces his retirement, there’s inevitably speculation about who will be crowned the next king of the 11:30 time slot. This in turn has created tremendous interest in a response from me. OK, nobody asked, but it seems appropriate for me to weigh in on one of the few issues I can actually be considered an expert on.
I know Stephen Colbert, and I’ve known most of his staff—because I was part of it. For more than six years and well over 1,000 episodes, I entertained the live studio audience of The Colbert Report. Every night, I went out in front of the most devout members of the “Colbert Nation” and entertained them with a mix of stand-up and improv. It was the best job in comedy I’ve ever had.
Now, with it oficcial that CBS has chosen Colbert to replace David Letterman, it remains to be seen whether he can slip the skin of a character he’s been playing so successfully on Comedy Central. Here’s what matters in evaluating the prospects.
Was Colbert interested in the Late Show? Why wouldn’t he be? Even if he wasn't, he is too smart to let on. Contract negotiations are far more lucrative when you can demand every last penny from your current gig by letting the sides sweat or fight it out.
Will it work? That, of course, is the most important question everyone is asking, so that is where the fun starts.
Colbert is perhaps the greatest comedian of our generation of comics. He can do it all: improv, sketch, stand-up. He can dance, act, and conduct hilarious interviews.
What viewers don’t see is how integral Colbert is to the writing process. Only the writing staff knows whose contributions end up making the show, but you can be sure Colbert has the last say.
The most impressive feat I saw him pull off in my six years at the Report was when he did the show with no writers at all during the writers’ strike of 2007-08. He and his executive producer and former head writer Allison Silverman wrote the show themselves, and in case that doesn’t seem impossible enough, union rules didn’t allow scripts to be loaded in the teleprompter. He wrote the show, then somehow remembered it. I’ll never forget standing backstage and watching him pull that off almost flawlessly night after night.
His current fans will follow him anywhere, and a more accessible variety format will attract new legions.
Colbert has always taken huge risks. He is as fearless as any entertainer of our time, and that is where he gets the most respect from the comedy community.
The greatest measure of his talent, however, is how well he has been able to play the “Stephen Colbert” of The Colbert Report. One can and should argue that playing a character like the one he invented is difficult, even in a five-minute sketch. His ability to sustain this character for so long is what ultimately blows us away. This is a feat he has admitted he was concerned about in the beginning.
Colbert has done this by constantly surprising his fans and audiences. He has reinvented the character so often that he’s never become stale or predictable. He has taken his “Colbert Nation” on a journey that brought us to the Iraq War, the Vancouver Olympics, and the deck of the Intrepid aircraft carrier, to name a few. He has performed with legendary musicians such as Tony Bennett, Barry Manilow, Michael Stipe, and Brian Eno.
Some of Colbert’s best work has actually taken place on other stages and networks. Every night before the show, he does a Q&A with the studio audience. For years, the most frequently asked question was about the 2006 White House correspondents’ dinner, where he infamously “entertained” the president of the United States. They usually wanted to know what President Bush said to him afterward. (If you want to know the answer, you can go to a taping of the Report and ask him.)
Also amazing was his speech/act at the 2012 Time 100 gala, where he gave his friend and fellow Catholic Cardinal Dolan a beautiful ribbing.
Colbert and Jon Stewart even took us to the D.C. mall for a live, outdoor theatrical experience for a “Rally to Restore Sanity” to the place. Colbert has deftly hosted benefits and other shows and given hilarious and poignant commencement speeches. He’s won almost every award, including numerous prized Emmys, some as a writer on The Daily Show and now breaking that show’s streak to win two for The Colbert Report.
Can Colbert drop the character and still succeed? Of course. Hosting the Report has always been far more difficult than a late night network-style talk show. But can he just be himself and be a success? Inside his slick suits, Colbert possesses every weapon and trick a comedian can utilize. As long as it’s the same guy in the same suits, Colbert will more than hold his own on CBS.
More than anything else, a talk show host needs to be “likable” the way Jay Leno always was. More sophisticated fans of comedy will want to demand an “edge” to the material and performance as well. Having both is tough, but not at all impossible. There are quite a few who do that well, including Jimmy Kimmel, Howard Stern, and of course Jon Stewart.
Colbert’s comedic integrity has never been questioned, and he has been able to make us laugh and think every night for years while not only liking but loving him at every moment.
Will he win the ratings game? I bet he will.
But will we let him leave the Colbert of the Report behind? He has developed a unique brand, accompanied by loyalty reserved for fewer and fewer entertainers these days. His current fans will follow him anywhere, and a more accessible variety format will attract new legions.
Colbert and his class of late night hosts have collaborated and appeared on each other’s shows often, sometimes even as a running bit. Some have suggested Letterman needed Leno as competition to bring his A-game night after night. Kimmel, Stewart, and Colbert all share a manager and a comradely respect for each other. Colbert and Kimmel have collaborated for hilarious bits quite a few times, along with Conan O’Brien.
At the end of Jimmy Fallon’s first Tonight Show episode, he did a hilarious bit pretending he’d won a bet with some of the most recognizable faces in entertainment. They marched onstage and paid the new host off. Not for nothing, Fallon ended his impressive parade of stars that night with none other than Stephen Colbert.
Editor's note: This piece has been updated after it was announced Colbert would replace Letterman.