CBS naming Stephen Colbert as David Letterman’s replacement on “The Late Show” isn’t too surprising. There were only so many realistic candidates (among talk show hosts, comedians, actors and raunchy E! personalities) that could take Letterman’s place when he exits the long-running show next year. Letterman changed the late-night TV game between his run on NBC’s “Late Night” and starting the “Late Show” franchise in 1993; and while it’s tough to replace a pop culture icon, Colbert, in terms of pedigree and sense of humor, makes the most sense.
“We’ve had the smartest guy in late night for many years, and replacing Dave was no small feat,” CBS entertainment chairman Nina Tassler told Broadcasting & Cable. “We feel that Stephen really respects Dave’s legacy.”
In the aftermath of CBS’s announcement on Thursday, there are so many questions — especially given Colbert’s own legacy with the character he created on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.” (In a statement that wished Colbert the best, network officials indicated that the show will wrap up near the end of the year). As far as the new “Late Show,” CBS said “specific creative elements” — location, producers and a writing staff — will be announced later.
Still, here are some of the bigger questions lingering as the next big late night shuffle looms.
1) How will Colbert play on CBS versus Comedy Central?
It’s hard to tell how the mainstream audience will feel — but in a lot of ways, Colbert is similar to Letterman with a self-deprecating, biting sensibility. That could play well among Letterman fans. However, it’s tough to say because most of the late-night audience probably only knows Colbert from “The Colbert Report” where he plays the fake ultra-right wing cable news host. Or, as he initially described the character to the New York Times in 2005, “He’s a well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot.” Obviously, Colbert will just be himself on “The Late Show”: But can late-night viewers separate the two? As we just saw with the #CancelColbert controversy — people were outraged when a joke on the show was presented out-of-context on Twitter — some people still don’t get that Colbert’s Comedy Central persona is satire.
2) So is this definitely the end of the character?
Yes. When “The Colbert Report” signs off Comedy Central, we will bid the fake, often-outraged conservative cable news host Stephen Colbert goodbye. “I won’t be doing the new show in character, so we’ll all get to find out how much of him was me,” Colbert said in a statement via CBS. “I’m looking forward to it.”
3) How much say did Letterman have in selecting Colbert?
Letterman and his production company own “The Late Show” right now, but Variety reports that once he leaves, CBS will take over ownership. So Letterman didn’t necessarily have to sign off on his replacement, though CBS execs have said that he was involved in the process. Letterman released a goofy statement about it, just to be supportive: “Stephen has always been a real friend to me. I’m very excited for him, and I’m flattered that CBS chose him. I also happen to know they wanted another guy with glasses.”
4) Who will replace Colbert on Comedy Central?
There’s still that long list of possible Letterman replacements — though that’s likely to get shorter, since Comedy Central looks for a certain kind of personality. E!’s Chelsea Handler makes the most sense, since she reportedly wants out of her current show — though that rumor could just be a negotiating strategy. Either way, Handler’s wild personality would be a logical fit for Comedy Central’s younger audience.
5) Who will be in Colbert’s band?
That is one huge mystery — almost all late-night shows feature a band, and they’re becoming more hip lately, with the Roots accompanying Jimmy Fallon and Fred Armisen leading Seth Myers’ “Late Night” band. Colbert is pretty musically talented — he did a stint on Broadway in Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” and sings quite impressively on his occasional Christmas music specials. Elvis Costello is one of his favorites and a frequent musical guest, but Costello as late-night bandleader seems unlikely.