Oh television, you capricious beast you. One week, Stephen Colbert is the focus of a hashtag-led campaign to have his show canceled amid a race row, the next it is announced he has landed one of the plummest jobs on late-night television.
The outstanding puzzle, the one which Colbert, CBS, and even Colbert’s fans will no doubt stoke playfully in the coming year, is which Stephen Colbert will rock up to present his first edition of The Late Show, after David Letterman’s retirement in 2015. He has already indicated it will not be the bug-eyed, conservative-satirizing hyperbolist of The Colbert Report, which has disappointed some fans.
“I love The Colbert Report, but I think Stephen Colbert is selling his soul to CBS for more money and more fame,” wrote one to The New York Times. “Late-night shows are a constant stream of the same people talking about themselves, their careers, their books, and they are simply part of the vast, repetitive popular culture pandering to the same interests.”
In a statement, Colbert said: “Simply being a guest on David Letterman’s show has been a highlight of my career. 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.”
The “creative direction,” date of Colbert’s succession, even the geographical location of the new show, are still unknown. Fans are already mourning Colbert losing his distinctiveness; no more journeys to Kentucky to uncover the gay hairdressers destroying America, or skewering of words of the day, most notably “truthiness.”
The for-fans troubling mystery, then, is who and what will change: Colbert, his voice and editorial nous, or CBS? One has to accommodate the other. Will the network give Colbert a creative free hand, or will Colbert become safer, more vanilla, neutralized? How himself will he be? His act is so engrained, and the boundary of his character on The Colbert Report so adroitly blurred around who Colbert really is, that whatever his tone, it will come as a surprise to those familiar with watching him on Comedy Central since 2005. One probably to-be-unrealized personal dream is that the CBS Colbert chooses as his lead guest an academic with a fascinating book, over the Hollywood action hero. Result: America goes to bed intellectually refreshed, rather than dulled by celebrity unctuousness.
Larry King put it best when he interviewed Colbert in 2007: He wondered if there was a Stephen Colbert at home, another in the studio, and a third one. “I can’t tell you where he goes,” Colbert deadpanned, refusing to answer such a good question, saying he might run for political office one day.
The youngest of 11 children, who grew up in Charleston, S.C., Colbert once joked that his siblings still considered him the baby of the family (“Oooh, he’s driving now”). A committed Catholic, he lives in New Jersey with his wife and their three children. He once joked about his young daughter hearing him on the phone to a comedy writer, saying “You didn’t mean what you were saying.” She was beginning to understand irony, he noted proudly. He has told his children that he was “profoundly ridiculous.”
If his comedic persona has been extreme, so is the anger at the political system thrumming beneath it, and the hypocrisies, absurdities, and prejudice played out on its canvas. This reached its zenith when he and Jon Stewart held their Rally to Restore Sanity And/Or Fear in 2010. Conservatives, notably Rush Limbaugh, leapt on CBS today to complain that late night would now be an overtly left-wing roustabout. Nothing less than “a war” had been declared on the American heartland, Limbaugh said.
The worry on his fans’ part, given his radicalism on screen, is that Colbert will have to ultimately fit in with the conservative mores of late night. Until the appointment of Jimmy Fallon to The Tonight Show on NBC, the generic path back to Johnny Carson was still faithfully plotted and maintained. But perhaps these concerns should be tempered: With the departures of Jay Leno and Letterman, and the appointment of younger, less well-behaved comics, late night suddenly has a new friskiness about it. A flailing genre seems revitalized, if “revitalized” means youth, though not female, or black, or openly gay talent.
In his first month on air, Fallon added to Leno’s audience. His problem, as one critic said, is that as an interviewer he tends to perform, rather than interview, to ingratiate rather than interrogate.
In the most recent statistics from late March, Fallon was beating Letterman, with Kimmel trailing in third. For industry watchers, come 2015, this is a Colbert vs Fallon game.
Colbert and CBS should feel emboldened by the successful incursion of relative youth into late night; the heartland audience suddenly appears less conservatively amorphous. After years of being a placid backwater where silver-haired men sent America to sleep with folksy jokes, knowing winks, and indulgent chats with celebrities, late night’s waters are refreshingly choppy and disturbed. The first lady feels confident enough to appear in parodic sketches, as long as they—in a rare Fallon misfire—clunkily promote her health-care initiative.
If you are not one of the almost four million viewers of Letterman, or the Jimmys Fallon and Kimmel when their shows are transmitted, you will see their news-making sketches that featured on their previous night’s shows the next morning online.
The generational shift was first signaled by Kimmel, the first of the new intake, who took on his ABC show in 2003, after helming—with Adam Carolla—the male-behavior satirizing The Man Show, which featured—satirically, of course—a group of buxom dancing and trampolining women called the Juggy Girls.
But apart from a set of spiky, funny skits with Matt Damon, culminating in the actor taking over the chat show and a memorably uncomfortable interview with Kanye West, Kimmel’s edge has mellowed. With Fallon and now Colbert, a staid and slumbering genre is getting an injection of comedic life, which will also likely free up Kimmel.
One thing remains annoyingly clotted and constant in the shows: the celebrity interview. No presenter has yet managed to maintain any constructive distance between themselves and their Hollywood guests. Film stars and politicians are still bussed in to sell their products, in the most craven way possible. If Colbert’s contribution would in any way to disturb this queasily stifling love-in, it would be achievement enough.
“I don’t have that gear, I don’t think,” Jon Stewart said of not being the pick to present The Late Show. “I just don’t really have it anymore. I really like what I do, not that Stephen doesn’t. But he has a real opportunity to broaden out in a way that I don’t.” Indeed, Colbert’s performer’s intelligence will most likely see him craft the right persona for late night; if that Colbert isn’t the extreme satirist of the last nine years, he will also not be rendered predictable and de-incendaried. While we know Fallon and Kimmel’s personalities, the very unpindownability of Colbert is a plus. For all his ubiquity, not in role he is a blank slate.
Just last month in a deliciously fun game of “Truth or Truth,” on an episode of The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, the final question was Colbert’s to Fallon. Apart from his own show, what was Fallon’s favorite late-night show that aired at 11.30 p.m., Colbert asked. Fallon took his own sweet time. “Re-runs of Rizzoli and Isles,” he said, finally. “Great show.” Did Colbert, or Fallon, know then that Colbert himself would be a possible answer, and Fallon’s competitor? Neither man’s face betrayed a thing.