CBS announced today that Stephen Colbert will replace David Letterman after the latter’s retirement from “The Late Show” at a to-be-determined date in 2015. And Colbert will take his place on the network late-night roster as himself, rather than as the character he honed on Comedy Central for years, a dim but exceedingly confident right-wing pundit. But while the fictional Stephen Colbert character will end, that does not mean that Colbert has to leave behind every element of the persona, or every bit of shtick it generated. Here are five elements of “The Colbert Report” that could — and should — transfer to “The Late Show.”
1. The interview style: On “The Colbert Report,” Colbert has used the putative stupidness of his character as cover to ask sharp questions of his interview subjects, or to draw them out into clear explanations of whatever it is they are promoting. His recent conversation with Sheryl Sandberg on the anniversary of “Lean In” is a good example: Colbert did a good job of representing some of the sillier objections to Sandberg’s project, while also getting her to explain her projects in a clear way. Even as Colbert sheds Stephen Colbert the creation, he should preserve that dedication to the idea that interviews are actually supposed to advance his audience’s understanding of a person, a product or an idea, rather than simply be an occasion to give his guest of the moment a good time.
2. The obsession with lingo and bureaucratic language: “The Word,” a segment on “The Colbert Report” that gave Colbert a chance to monologue on a term of the day, was one of the things that defined the show early on. It let Colbert present a perfectly crafted dispatch from a parodic conservative worldview. But it performed a service that Colbert could continue to provide, even absent the persona: going after the buzzwords that so often substitute for actual thought in many of our public conversations. In fact, dropping the persona might free up Colbert to go after an even broader array of keywords.
3. The running: My colleague Erik Wemple and I were discussing the Letterman-Colbert tradition, and I think he is right to point out that Colbert should make sure to get out from behind the desk and continue to incorporate physical humor into his act. Jimmy Fallon’s willingness to get out and play beer pong or rock out with Michelle Obama has produced some of the best viral bits (not to mention some of the best commentary) of that show’s run. Colbert’s nightly jog across his set to do the evening’s interview is a great way of communicating the character’s self-centeredness. And Colbert has been willing to put his body on the line to get at other forms of ridiculousness, as in this leg-wrestling match:
Colbert may not be able to rap or dance, but he should definitely keep moving.
4. The live events: Maybe Colbert will get too famous, or too busy, to hold grand events such as the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, or his super PAC filing in Washington. But the late-night wars are intensely personal. Even if he is not staging stunts in character, it would be smart for Colbert to, on occasion, make himself accessible, and to create a sense of occasion for his fans.
5. The politics: One of the biggest fears about Colbert’s move to CBS seems to be a sense that he will have to drop the political angle of his show in order to appeal to a mass audience. But while Letterman’s overall audience is larger than the one Colbert draws on Comedy Central, the men draw roughly similar numbers of viewers in the coveted 18-49 demographic. If the rest of the show is going to move away from the crazed act that Colbert has sustained since 2005, why not let the politics stay? The portion of the show dedicated to politics overall and cable news in particular will probably have to shrink on CBS, where Colbert will be making a general-interest show rather than a very particularized critique. But the perspective can still be his, even if it’s expressed differently. And Colbert’s liberalism seems like a reasonably durable draw. CBS should have the guts to let him keep it.