Stephen Colbert: The End Of One Joke, The Start Of Many More

Apr 10, 2014
Originally published on April 11, 2014 7:37 am

CBS just ended the longest-running joke in TV history by naming Stephen Colbert to succeed retiring late-night host David Letterman

That's because Colbert, who has won all kinds of acclaim playing fictional right-wing cable TV news host "Stephen Colbert" on The Colbert Report, will now play a new character when he takes over Letterman's Late Show:


New York Times reporter Bill Carter tweeted a quote from Colbert confirming that: "I won't be doing the new show in character, so we'll all get to find out how much of him was me. I'm looking forward to it."

Colbert's former boss, The Daily Show host Jon Stewart, seemed to presage the news, telling New York magazine's Vulture blog on Wednesday that Colbert would be "amazing" as Letterman's successor.

"He's done an amazing job with just that very narrow cast of character, but he's got a lot more he can show," Stewart said at an after party for Nicolas Cage's new movie, Joe. "He's got some skill sets that are really applicable, interviewing-wise, but also he's a really, really good actor and also an excellent improvisational comedian. He's also got great writing skills. He's got a lot of the different capacities. Being able to expand upon [those] would be exciting."

Letterman's reaction, in a statement released by his Worldwide Pants production company, was predictably brief and droll: "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."

Media writers have speculated for days on who could take Letterman's mantle. The best successor had to be established enough to hold onto longtime Letterman fans but forward-thinking enough to compete with the two Jimmys — Fallon and Kimmel — for younger viewers prized by advertisers.

Colbert's name jumped to the top of the list following news reports that the Comedy Central star had structured his own contracts to sync up with Letterman's deals. As a host already popular with the cable channel's younger audience and backed by a long history of attention-getting stunts, he is indeed a perfect choice.

In 2006, Colbert stunned attendees with a searing satire of George W. Bush at the White House Correspondents Dinner; six years and one president later, he formed his own superPAC during the 2012 election campaign. He's also sung onstage with Neil Patrick Harris in a revival of Stephen Sondheim's Company, written books and released his own Christmas album in character.

Those who hoped CBS might change the late-night landscape by picking a woman or person of color to succeed Letterman may be the most disappointed. Names like Aisha Tyler, Tina Fey and Jane Lynch were always unrealistic, if interesting, possibilities for the job.

But CBS may have another chance to elevate an unorthodox host, depending on the reaction of Craig Ferguson, host of the program airing after Letterman, The Late Late Show. Reportedly, Ferguson had language in his contracts enacting a penalty if CBS didn't give him the job or at least the right to turn it down; if Ferguson winds up leaving the network, 12:35 a.m. would again be an open time slot.

Regardless, one of TV's most agile comedy minds has now been handed the keys to CBS's late-night comedy store. Fans who worry he might be tamed by the conventions of the network should remember one thing: This is a guy who turned a parody of Bill O'Reilly into one of television's most surprising and impactful shows.

I can't wait to see how he reinvents CBS late night next year.

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All the speculation about who might replace David Letterman is over. Only a week after Letterman announced his retirement, Comedy Central star Stephen Colbert is getting the job. On his show last night, Colbert said Letterman's shoes will be tough to fill.


GREENE: Colbert will take over "The Late Show" next year. He signed a five-year contract with CBS, and the deal could remake late night TV once again. Here to talk about what this means for comedy and television is NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans. Good morning, Eric.


GREENE: So do we have a Top Ten reasons why Stephen Colbert is the right pick here?


DEGGANS: I don't know if I've got 10 for you...


DEGGANS: But I can tell you that in a lot of ways Stephen Colbert is a perfect choice. He's talented and accomplished enough that Letterman fans, and critics like me, are going to say this is a great choice. And he's popular enough with Comedy Central's young fans that he can compete with Jimmy Kimmel, on ABC; and Jimmy Fallon, on NBC; who are strong with young male viewers, especially.

Now - and Colbert wanted this job. You know, reportedly, he had synched up his contract at Comedy Central to end when Letterman's agreements did.


DEGGANS: And the biggest question mark we've got left here is, what kind of show is Colbert going to do because he currently plays this fictional cable TV news host who's also named Stephen Colbert, on Comedy Central's "Colbert Report," and I'm really hoping he's going to figure out some way to break this really restrictive formula that we've seen in most late-night TV shows.

GREENE: OK. This is a really interesting point because some viewers - and myself included - didn't realize at first that Colbert, on his current show, is actually playing a character, not being himself. I mean, so he won't bring this character to CBS? Things will be different?

DEGGANS: No. Colbert told The New York Times yesterday that he plans to do the show as himself, which means that for "The Colbert Report" fans like me, there's a little bit of sadness in seeing the show go away and this character go away - because he was so adept at satirizing issues while educating us about them, from poking fun at campaign finance by starting his own SuperPAC, to making George W. Bush squirm while keynoting the White House Correspondents Association's dinner in 2006.

And I think we have a clip from that.


GREENE: That was quite a moment. So what does this hire mean for the rest of late-night television, Eric?

DEGGANS: It's tough to understate the loss of "The Colbert Report." When it debuted, we hadn't really seen a show try something like this; where the star was playing a fictional character who shared his name and was dishing satire on real issues and people. I think the show's gift to the audience was teaching us how to process that kind of complex humor every time we watched an episode.

And personally, I would just love to see Comedy Central elevate somebody from "The Daily Show" to 11:30 - like Samantha Bee or Aasif Mandvi - to continue that kind of humor.

GREENE: And what about for CBS? Is this something that could give them a real boost?

DEGGANS: Well, Craig Ferguson, who hosts the program after Letterman, "The Late, Late Show," if he feels passed over and decides to leave, that gives CBS an opportunity to diversify; maybe bring a woman in, bring a person of color in there. And some people think this type of show may be old hat, but TV outlets are creating more of these kinds of shows, not less. So I think we're going to see more of this on the landscape.

GREENE: All right. NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans. Thanks, Eric.

DEGGANS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.