Stephen Colbert was announced Thursday as the next host of The Late Show (as of “sometime” in 2015 to be formerly “with David Letterman”) and what was already thought a likelihood became a certainty.
It seems in every way a sensible move. Colbert, who has been performing monologues and conducting interviews on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report since 2005, is not even changing time slots. CBS gets a proven performer and one whose cultural impact is out of proportion to the size of his audience; the Report averages just over a million viewers, less than half of Letterman’s crowd and something like a fifth of what Jimmy Fallon brings to The Tonight Show.
But he has been on the cover of Vanity Fair, Newsweek, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Wired, Outside, Sports Illustrated and the Dartmouth alumni magazine. He has an ice cream flavor, a species of spider, and a piece of exercise equipment on the International Space Station named for him. He is already “the Emmy-winning Stephen Colbert.”
As NBC did with Fallon, CBS gets a successful known property still in the rising arc of his career. It is perhaps not the boldest choice — another white male hosting another talk show — but broadcast television networks are not in the business of making bold choices. And unlike prime time, which allows many opportunities for failure and replacement, 11:30 p.m. becomes the property of one person for what all concerned hope to measure in decades.
Indeed, though we’ve seen him mostly in character until now — a character, the living embodiment of the ironic voice, that he has already declared to be leaving behind — he is very much like the man he’ll replace: intellectual, serious, quick-witted, honest about himself within limits, skeptical about show business and other sorts of officialdom but respectful of accomplishment. One wonders how he’ll handle a steady stream of actors and actresses, juveniles and ingenues appearing to hawk their often insubstantial wares, but one remembers that he is at heart a humanist — a Christian humanist — and supposes that he will treat them kindly.
Apart from the perks of visibility and access and, of course, income, it will surely come as a relief to Colbert not to have carry that single character all the way to the grave. It is impossible, in an exciting way, to know where he’ll go. Colbert has been out there virtually alone, without sidekicks or a crew of regulars. Even the one-man band that is Craig Ferguson, whose Late Late Show follows Letterman, eventually got himself a robot pal, the animatronic skeleton Geoff Peterson, to play off. (Ferguson’s partisans, considering the Colbert appointment a snub, are already taking umbrage.)
The announcement also raises the question of what happens to the space where The Colbert Report now sits. For one thing, it keeps the “who besides a white male” question in play. And though television remains inordinately interested in playing to young white men, there have been hopeful advances at Comedy Central, now the home of Broad City, Inside Amy Schumer and Key & Peele. Chelsea Handler, parting ways with E! and already a seasoned talk show host, is a free agent. As with Colbert, change starts at the edge and works its way in.