Stephen Colbert was pretty low-key on “The Colbert Report” Thursday night when talking about his new gig replacing David Letterman on “The Late Show” in 2015 — then again, “Stephen Colbert” on his show is just a character, so he can’t be too excited about it.
At first, it looked like a grinning Colbert was going to say something: He couldn’t even start the show because of so much applause and the studio audience chanting “Ste-phen! Ste-phen!” — much louder than usual.
“There was some big news last week that slipped through my news crack,” Colbert started. “And it concerned someone I’ve admired for years. And yet, surprisingly, is not me — I’m talking about David Letterman, who last Thursday night, announced his retirement. And I am going to miss this good man.”
“Dave has been on the air my entire adult life. ‘Late Night’ debuted my first year in college,” he continued. “I learned more from watching Dave than I did going to my classes — especially the ones I did not go to because I had stayed up until 1:30 watching Dave.”
“This man has influenced every host who came after him and even a few who came before him, he is that good — and I gotta tell you,” Colbert said, gearing up for the punchline. “I do not envy whoever they try to put in that chair.”
Cue wild applause from the crowd and even more chanting of his name.
“Folks, those are some huge shoes to fill,” Colbert added. “And, some really big pants.” Then he segued to his next segment, and that was all.
But was there some subtle boasting of his new gig? Later in the show, Colbert showed a clip of Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly (“Papa Bear”) taking a shot at him.
“Recently, Colbert mocked me on the subject of inequality,” O’Reilly said in a clip. “Only about 1 million people watch his late-night program at 11:30, but he is the darling of the far left Internet, which rhapsodizes over him.”
“Bill’s right,” Colbert said. “Hey folks, I’m not happy about it, but for some reason, the far left Internet loves me. I mean, I’m in all the hashtags!” (Of course, the now-famous #CancelColbert popped up on the screen, as the audience went crazy. But no mention that Colbert’s ratings — and profile — will soon skyrocket on a mainstream broadcast network.)
Meanwhile, a half-hour earlier on “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart kicked off his show with a tribute to his good friend.
“As you can imagine, it’s been a bit of a wild day,” Stewart began. “You may remember a few years back, there was a gentleman on this program by the name of Stephen Colbert.”
“Skin like porcelain, a very talented actor, writer, dancer, improvisational comedian,” he said as the audience cheered. “We would occasionally send him out into the field, usually with some type of fruit and we would see where the day took us.”
[Cut to 2003 clip of Colbert “reporting” from London about allegations that Prince Charles had a “gay experience.” Colbert was eating a banana while doing the report, and completely broke character as he was laughing so hard he couldn’t get through his lines.]
Stewart was cracking up as the video ended.”By the way, we spent all day looking up old stuff on the Internet of Stephen. It’s really fun,” he said, proving “The Daily Show” isn’t that different from any other office in America. “I mean working! We were working.”
Then Stewart got serious, and gave Colbert a very sweet tribute that is best just transcribed in entirety:
Truly one of great pleasures of doing this show has been trying to maintain professional composure while Mr. Colbert is making me laugh uncontrollably. So the exciting news today is I no longer need a cable subscription for the privilege of watching Stephen Colbert: Our good friend Stephen Colbert will be heading to CBS to take over “The Late Show” from, for at least me, the comedian broadcaster who is the best there ever was, David Letterman. And I think — here is the exciting thing for me, I think Stephen Colbert is up for the challenge. So while we wish Dave the absolute best for a well-earned retirement, there’s no greater joy for seeing a genuinely good man who works as hard as he can every day and deserves all the success in the world actually get that success.
“Here is what I’m looking forward to: To be able to walk down Broadway and look up at the Ed Sullivan theater marquee and see “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,'” Stewart continued. “Assuming that is where they tape it.”
Then he couldn’t help wrapping up with the joke: “There is a theater across the street from us, which I believe is currently referred to as the Hustler Club. Both venues pretty familiar with the presence of Ed Sullivan,” he said, to much laughter from the hyped-up audience.
“My point is this,” Stewart concluded, “Godspeed to both men.”