Will ‘Late Show’ gig ruin Stephen Colbert?

New York Times News ServiceApril 9, 2014 

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This Jan. 31, 2014 file image released by Starpix shows Stephen Colbert at the Shape Magazine and Men's Fitness Super Bowl Party in New York.


It took one week to go from cancel Colbert to coronate him.

On Thursday, CBS announced that Stephen Colbert, will replace David Letterman on "the Late Show." Colbert signed a five-year contract with the network. His gig at "The Colbert Report" ends in December 2014. He will take the seat sometime in 2015.

That Colbert, a native of Charleston, is drawing focus is no surprise. His contract with Comedy Central is up at the end of the year, and while he performs inside a satirical character on “The Colbert Report,” his ability to transcend mere mockery reveals a sharp improvisational comic mind operating at the speed of a supercomputer. No comic on television right now is succeeding at an act with a higher degree of difficulty. That’s why I’m worried he will get the job.

Now that probably sounds a little like the kind of pivot Colbert would make on his show, one that takes a position but tips you off that he really means something more like the opposite. But finding the right format to suit a great talent is harder than it looks, and it’s a genuine concern that a network show in a fiercely competitive field could shrink Colbert’s ambition.

LINK — SC CELEBS: Stephen Colbert, Darius Rucker and news about others with SC ties.

The media coverage suggests network talk shows still have cachet, but the landscape has changed so dramatically that some of this buzz feels infused with nostalgia. In a culture now filled with niches, audiences are smaller across the board, and the shows taking the biggest risks are on cable. Part of the reason is that with a smaller audience, a host can assume viewers share more assumptions about a joke than would a large network audience. That’s why Colbert has been able to produce formally tricky satire with only rare instances of mass confusion.

To get a sense of how the cable-network balance of power has shifted, consider that the star no one seems to be talking about for Letterman’s job is Craig Ferguson, a network host for more than a decade who has produced a fun, freewheeling talk show that follows Letterman’s.

To put it bluntly, why should Colbert mess with a good thing? In our new fractured landscape, where there are more places to find funny people performing than ever, not only do network late-night talk shows seem more bound to tradition than those on cable, but their focus is changing.

Jimmy Fallon has earned impressive ratings in his first months as host of “The Tonight Show,” and in his smooth transition to an earlier time slot, he’s proved to be an appealing performer. But listen to even his most devoted fans, and they are more apt to praise his charm or likability than his humor. No one thinks Fallon is the funniest comedian who could have been chosen to host “The Tonight Show.” But he brings different talents to the job: an ingratiating enthusiasm, some deft song and dance, and a gift for getting stars to play along.

That’s not to be underestimated, since talk shows have always been about both comedy and personality. But the focus lately seems to be tilting away from comedy. The early success of Fallon may shift the show toward the variety or even morning-show genres. 

Late-night shows were always problematic for certain kinds of comedy. Nothing is more anathema to humor than promoting a self-important Hollywood movie. And when a good stand-up set can take years to refine, how in the world can we expect a host to deliver a funny monologue every night?

“The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” has found ways to stay fresh through topicality and political conviction. So has Colbert, but he added a rich satirical edge that has become a rare and vital kind of performance art that can nimbly engage with the news. From a comedy fan’s point of view, the worst-case scenario would be to lose “The Colbert Report” and gain just another show with a topical monologue and celebrity chat.

On the other hand, Colbert has defied expectations before. When “The Colbert Report” debuted in 2005, a nightly show satirizing Bill O’Reilly seemed like it would eventually be a dead end. Colbert proved otherwise — and could do it again. He has evolved inside his character, finding room not just to express complex points, but also to offer moments of delirious silliness and even earnest emotion. His interviews in particular are marvels of wit and curiosity.

Colbert could reinvigorate late-night talk and provide a radically different alternative to Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel. No one should begrudge him for trying to move to a bigger stage. Taking on a difficult new challenge is worthy of respect. But winning a much-sought-after network late-night job can backfire. Just ask Conan O’Brien.


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