Pop culture pundits are still reeling from yesterday's news that Stephen Colbert will be David Letterman's Late Show replacement in 2015. Based on what we know from Colbert's Comedy Central persona, what's in store for CBS' legendary late night hour?
When Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Seth Meyers slid behind their respective late night desks, we had a good idea of what was coming. Fallon was already the consummate 21st century host. His mussed-up hair, fourth-wall breaking laughter and undeniable cool made him a hipster Carson Daly for the comedy set. Kimmel’s background on The Man Show and The Andy Milonakis Show promised something equal parts absurd and broey—we always knew he would split the difference between Adam Carolla and Sarah Silverman. Meyers was wrought in Saturday Night Live’s image and has proven to be everything you would expect from a Lorne Michaels product.
The announcement of Stephen Colbert’s ascension to David Letterman’s Late Show throne has left pop culture in a strange state—the comedy world has no idea what to expect. At least that’s the comedy blog company line. But, actually, that’s not true. They know what to expect—they just aren’t ready to admit it.
It will be a shame to lose Colbert’s political commentary, and you’d better start coming to terms with its passing. Comedy Central's Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert power hour has been a panacea for liberals through Bush’s awful presidency and the awful behavior of conservatives during Obama’s terms. Anyone who came of age in the last decade fondly remembers watching Colbert with college roommates while ignoring their studies; it’s hard to imagine a late-night show having the same audience. Late night television isn’t a home for a savage satirist; there's only room for the gentlest subversion. The audience for late-night are Midwestern parents and Brooklyn comedians who want to write for post-primetime shows, and pretty much no one else.
This new chapter marks the exit for “Stephen Colbert,” the naïf conservative pundit, and an introduction to Stephen Colbert the man.
What should you expect from Colbert’s Late Show reign? The context clues tell us it will be more of a throwback than an experimental move forward. To date, Colbert’s work actually has less of an alt-comedy twinge than Fallon, Kimmel or Meyers. He is a man who delivers zinger-laden monologues, unleashes rapid-fire puns, sings with his guests and digs deep in smart interviews with smart people. This isn’t exactly Tim and Eric. The Colbert Report has been classic comedy well-executed and flawlessly delivered. Colbert’s CBS show might well look very normal, even vintage. In many ways, Colbert is more the kind of host you would have seen during the Rat Pack era than an absurdist, Conan-style meta-commentator.
So, what will his Late Show look like? The sketches and monologues should be on point. It’s hard to imagine Colbert losing the wit and punning that seems to come to him so effortlessly. Expect great musical guests; Colbert, like Letterman, pushes to expose America to bands he likes rather than ones the network likes. Also expect him to get in on the musical numbers from time to time. Colbert joined Neil Patrick Harris and Patti LuPone for a brief revival of Company in 2011, and he always finds a way to work theatrical corniness into The Colbert Report’s best musical moments. Look for Colbert to try to balance his erudite interests with the network’s demands for A-List couch squatters. Maybe we’ll see a little more Neil DeGrasse Tyson and a little less Julia Roberts than you previously would in that time slot.
All of that being said, expect a little less snark, a little less bite. Late Show will remain what it is: a network late-night show, not a savage cable satire.
Audiences expecting some absurd comic experience from Colbert’s version of Late Show will likely be disappointed. There's no doubt that you’ll see something charming, smart and hilarious. He may even get political from time to time. But don’t go into this thinking you’ll see the man with the flag lapel pin and pasted-on sense of superiority. Expect Colbert to turn the lights out on his labyrinth of self-portraits and his put-on bluster and re-introduce himself to the world as a flesh-and-blood man, not a blowhard character. Yes, he’ll have the same playful glint in his eye, but it won’t be shining out from behind a mask.
Expect to come face to face, after all these years, with the real Stephen Colbert.
Written by Brenden Gallagher (@muddycreekU)
[GIF via Comedy Central's Tumblr]