Now that the dust has settled after the announcement that Stephen Colbert will be replacing David Letterman on “The Late Show” next year, it is time for some thoughtful analysis.
By Matt Hanson
I remember when Stephen Colbert (or, more accurately, “Stephen Colbert”) was just a twinkle in Jon Stewart’s eye. True, Colbert had a solid career before he joined the fledgling cast of The Daily Show way back in 1997. He’d been a player in Chicago’s fabled Second City improv group, been a part of the all-star writing crew for the ill-fated Dana Carvey Show, and he’d worked with his friend Amy Sedaris in the cult favorite Strangers With Candy, but it’s clear that The Daily Show was what made his name.
In a way, The Daily Show is what Saturday Night Live was to a generation of comedians: a combination talent pool and launching pad. The cast usually consisted of soon-to-be-big names like Steve Carell, Lewis Black, Rob Corddry, and many more. But there was always something special when there was a Colbert bit on the show that night, especially during the fresh hell of the early years of the Bush Administration and the Iraq War. Colbert, purveying his inimitable combination of Chevy Chase and Jonathan Swift, all false gravitas and poker faced nerd-core smarm, was usually the highlight of the show. My friends and I would lean in whenever there was a Colbert segment—a report, if you will—and I remember seeing entire rooms full of drunk people spontaneously shut up once he came on the screen. I vividly recall seeing the odd parody bumper sticker for a then-hypothetical show that would be called The Colbert Report. If only, I thought, if only….
Now that Colbert has been tapped to take over The Late Show next year after David Letterman retires, it’s an exciting time to be a fan of his. It also comes as a mixed blessing, not to say an invitation to worry. For one thing, late night TV as an institution—to say nothing of a concept—doesn’t necessarily have the juice it once did. Now we insomniac comedy consumers look elsewhere for our kicks. Youtube, TiVo, and Reddit, just to name a few, offer your comedy fix without the burden of time slots, network censorship, and advertisement breaks. I grew up obsessively watching late night TV in the 90s, partially because I am a part of a generation who still thought hanging out with that kind of TV host was way of sitting at the big kid’s table. I don’t anymore. After the Gotterdammerung of Johnny Carson’s retirement and the knives-out ego fest of naming his replacement I ended up taking my entertainment dollar elsewhere and hardly noticed the difference.
It’s fitting that Colbert will be specifically replacing Letterman, too, in terms of suggesting a cultural sea change. Part of the reason late night TV started to fall off its once-central place on the cultural radar is because of who stepped in behind the respective desks. As far as I’m concerned, the difference between Jay Leno and David Letterman is the difference between talent and genius. Leno is an amiable guy from a small town, told the jokes, schmoozed with the starlets, did the job and did it inoffensively. Bill Hicks, once a friend of his, never forgave him for doing Doritos commercials. Hicks was also censored by Letterman, while he was dying of cancer as it happens, but you can’t have everything.
But Letterman was anarchic free jazz to Leno’s pacifying Muzak. While Leno and his writing staff were making fun of McDonald’s and doing Marlon Brando fat jokes, Letterman almost died doing a human Alka-Seltzer bit. He generated his own brand of gap-toothed Hoosier Dadaism every night, and it showed. Just off the top of my head, I can think of any number of magic TV moments: Andy Kaufman throwing coffee at pro wrestlers, years of Stupid Human Tricks, and guys in bear suits eating meatloaf off of park benches in New York.
Let’s not forget the celebrity interviews, either. Didn’t everything interesting end up happening on Letterman, anyway? I’m thinking of Madonna’s obstinate use of the F-bomb in a single visit, Drew Barrymore flashing Letterman on his birthday, Joaquin Phoenix’s inexplicably vombified tète-a-tète, the list goes on. Tom Waits and Hunter S Thompson were regulars, to say nothing of Rupert from the Hello Deli. In contrast, the only noteworthy thing I can remember happening on Leno, celebrity-wise, was Hugh Grant’s po-faced apology to the scandalized American public for his indiscretion with a lady of the night. I think George W. Bush went on there to announce his candidacy or something, too. In these cases the choice for replacement matters. I’ve never been too fond of Jimmy Fallon (I personally liked him better when he was Adam Sandler, all nervous and boyish and singing songs about his sweatshirt), but it is telling that his best bits consist of him doing really spot-on imitations of dead rock stars. The presence of the legendary Roots crew notwithstanding, Fallon’s essentially doing really good karaoke.
Apparently Stewart had some interesting advice for Colbert once the Report started. From what I’ve heard, he advised him that the best way to make the show work was to let the audience in on the joke. “Stephen Colbert” would get tiresome very easily if the audience were subjected to a borborygmous right-wing caricature night after night unless they saw the host cracking up at his own character’s ridiculousness once in a while. Parody can mutate into a quasi-endorsement of the very thing it is setting out to satirize if it goes on long enough. Just watch Network if you want a demonstration of how easily truthiness can take the place of truth, not to mention become its ostensible opposite. Oliver Stone probably never realized how a million crass yuppies watched Gordon Gecko in Wall Street and saw a man they would give their eyeteeth to emulate. Aside from the occasional claustrophobic moment, to watch The Colbert Report is to see Colbert having a lot of fun with “Stephen Colbert” and thereby enjoying the show even more by proxy.
CBS has stated officially that Colbert will not be hosting the Late Show in character and this is for the best. In every interview or public talk of his I’ve seen, Stephen Colbert the person is consistently witty, engaging, and genuinely curious. He’s a guy from South Carolina who teaches Sunday school and once did a dramatic reading of Ulysses as Leopold Bloom. He’s a Lord of the Rings expert and he can sing and dance. His politics probably won’t be as big a part of the Late Show as they were in the Report, but I don’t see any reason to think they’ll disappear completely. It’s all about how willing he will be to start messing around with the form that he inherits. Will he play it safe, or will the inmates finally be running the asylum? The heir to Letterman should strive for no less than the latter.
It will be interesting to see just what he does, if anything, with the time-honored late show format —monologue, sketch, guest, guest, musical group or stand up comic and then goodnight, America! Will there be dance numbers? Bear attacks? He could bring a little bit of class to the joint and continue his penchant for amusing and insightful interviews with writers and scientists and suchlike. Some critics have worried that one of the best comedic interviewers of our time will be relegated to chatting with the stars of the fifth sequel to The Hangover and quizzing Charlie Sheen about his taste in tiger blood. To be honest, I don’t see a downside there. So long as American culture is going to keep pumping out vapid celebrities and reality stars Colbert might be just the guy to give them the spanking they deserve. All I know is, if Colbert serves Chris Christie or whoever a Hot Pocket from out of a microwave stolen from the green room at Fox and Friends, I’ll die a happy man. It might even get me watching late night TV again.
Matt Hanson is a freelance writer living outside Boston. His poetry and criticism has previously appeared in The Millions and Knot From Concentrate, He was a staff writer at Flak Magazine until its untimely demise. Ekphrasis, his poetry chapbook, was published by Rhinologic Press.