Colbert sans ‘Colbert’? A shock for Comedy Central fans, but a smart choice for CBS

The host of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" is set to head up "The Late Show" -- likely out of character. Here's a look back at Stephen Colbert's most candid moments. (Casey Capachi/The Washington Post)
Hank Stuever
TV critic April 10

CBS put a swift end to speculation and announced Thursday that Stephen Colbert will take over as host of the network’s “Late Show” sometime next year when longtime host David Letterman retires. It’s a five-year contract. It’s also a welcome and possibly daring choice in the late-night genre, which could use the inventive, concertina-wire wit and mastery of tone that Colbert possesses.

Nation, I can tell you’re mildly alarmed. Don’t be.

Hank Stuever has been The Post's TV critic since 2009. He joined the paper in 1999 as a writer for the Style section, where he has covered an array of popular (and unpopular) culture across the nation. View Archive

In announcing the deal, Colbert and CBS felt the need to make it clear that “Stephen Colbert,” the conservative firebrand cable-news pundit he has played to great effect on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” for nine years, is not coming along for the ride.

Instead, Colbert will host “Late Show” as himself. “I won’t be doing the new show in character, so we’ll all get to find out how much of him was me,” he said in a statement.

All along, there has been the perception that viewers struggle to understand that Colbert plays a character. This doesn’t have to be as confusing at it might seem. We should eagerly look forward to seeing Colbert ditch “Colbert.”

It’s not like we’re talking about Pee-wee Herman or the Easter Bunny here. It should be clear to anyone who has enjoyed “The Colbert Report” that there is a whole lot more to the man behind that show’s essential shtick. Colbert’s background is in theater and improv comedy. He’s a gifted singer and dancer. He’s a married father and devout Catho­lic. He keeps his personal politics and beliefs low-key, probably to enhance the character he plays on TV, or maybe because, like Letterman, he can easily coast above the fray.

And if you’re a very perceptive fan of “The Colbert Report,” then you shouldn’t want him to be required to play that part through endless election cycles, just so you can go to bed with the smug satisfaction that politicians (mostly conservative ones) and the clueless news media have been mocked once more with another strong dose of ­nuanced parody.

Since its debut in 2005 as a companion piece to “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” “The Colbert Report” has served its fans as a welcome relief to the noise of politics — by adding more noise. First it took on the jingoistic tone of the Fox News Channel during the post-9/11 years, mining American culture’s red-blue divide for laughs. The years went by, Barack Obama was elected to two presidential terms, and “The Colbert Report” never wavered, adjusting its targets and providing a welcome jab at the ineffectual gridlock of Washington.

This could happily go on forever, but why should Colbert have to be the one to do it? (Especially when Stewart is still going strong?)

Colbert, who will turn 50 next month, has proven adept at conversing with just about any guest on “The Colbert Report” one can imagine — from elected officials and scientists to actors and authors. The layers of irony routinely practiced on “The Colbert Report” (in which the guest knows beforehand that he or she will be interviewed by a caricature of a media monster) have been excellent practice for what could be a higher level of chitchat on “Late Show.”

This is the quality that the late-night field needs most. We need a seriously funny adult to talk to other interesting adults for an audience of adults, in this century as it is lived, with a gift for skepticism and as free as possible from Johnny Carson nostalgia. On NBC, “The Tonight Show’s” Jimmy Fallon is sweet, but he only seems interested in his guests as recess playmates and participants in a sketch show. On ABC, Jimmy Kimmel’s conversational style is perfunctory and witty, sometimes probing, occasionally sneering, but not always that interesting.

There is still the matter of ratings, even as all of the TV industry’s most reliable models and metrics are essentially held together with duct tape these days. Letterman is leaving because he feels like it, but it can’t be purely coincidental that the latest “Late Show” numbers aren’t encouraging. Since his ­debut in February, Fallon has enjoyed a nightly total average Nielsen rating of just over 5 million viewers; Letterman’s average is about 2.77 million over the same seven weeks. That gap narrowed considerably in last week’s ratings, but Fallon still has a strong lead. Kimmel is averaging about 2.65 million. (“The Colbert Report,” for comparison, averaged about 1.35 million viewers last week.)

Late-night viewers have a year or so to get comfortable with the idea of Colbert replacing Letterman. Not everything about “The Colbert Report” should be flushed away with its make-believe host; like all late-night shows, the new version of “Late Show” will need more than just guests and a live band. The same critical mind (and writing staff, one hopes) that gave viewers such lasting concepts as “truthiness” and “factose intolerance” will now go to work coming up with the next version of whatever will replace the mother of all late-night bits: the Top Ten List.

It’s a tall order, maybe an impossible standard to match, but of all the names that were tossed around in the past week as possible Letterman replacements, Colbert seemed most likely — and, more important, most able.

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