Skeptics will wonder how long CBS had Stephen Colbert in its back pocket, given how smoothly the baton pass worked out. But whatever the back story, the network has found the perfect choice to replace David Letterman, in a coup that could potentially reset the latenight race to a scenario much like the one that existed for years between Letterman and Jay Leno.
Anyone fretting about Colbert’s ability to hold down an hour or step out of the self-absorbed conservative talkshow host persona he’s affected on “The Colbert Report” clearly hasn’t been paying attention to the obvious, which is Colbert’s gift for improvising in that character is virtually unmatched. (Sacha Baron Cohen would be a close cousin, but it’s a different vibe.)
Those talents should serve him extraordinarily well in creating the show at the desk – the area where Letterman (and before that Johnny Carson) traditionally outshone Leno, and a skill all hosts must rely upon on those nights when the writing simply isn’t there.
By landing Colbert, CBS has almost instantly established its new franchise as the likely critical darling and prestige player in latenight. And while those might sound like intangible qualities, the respect of the community was certainly helpful in continuing to book top guests and stay in the thick of the conversation even when Letterman was the clear No. 2 in the ratings.
Colbert’s talent at playfully bantering with guests – again, as quick as anyone in recent memory – also reflects a contrast with Jimmy Fallon, who despite his knack for musical parodies and viral videos can at times be cloying or empty in the interview format. So even if “The Tonight Show” begins with a head start ratings-wise, there would seem to be ample opportunity for Colbert to carve out a healthy niche, especially on the more expansive stage CBS provides.
If NBC has been slapping high fives about Fallon’s start, legitimately so, there should still be caution regarding how well he’s going to wear, and what Colbert injects into the latenight derby.
Perhaps most intriguingly, the Colbert casting could bring latenight in a roundabout way back to where it was: With NBC claiming the slightly broader and more vanilla show, while CBS can boast the coolest kid on the block (and not incidentally, a built-in winner for when it has events like the Emmys in need of an emcee). That leaves ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel as something of the wild card, falling somewhere between the two, but clearly short of the cachet Colbert enjoys.
Finally, one inevitable point about politics: Some conservatives will no doubt grouse about CBS tapping an obvious liberal, especially after Letterman outraged them by turning George W. Bush and Sarah Palin into punching bags. (Never mind all the years he spent skewering Clinton; in recent years Letterman chose sides in a much more overt way than Leno ever did.)
Yet given the modest ratings we’re talking about on a night-in, night-out basis, no host has to be all things to all people – and the menu of A-list conservative comedians, frankly, is hardly glutted with options. Besides, if Colbert can expand on his Comedy Central base, the fact Fox News’ Tucker Carlson doesn’t like him won’t prevent him and CBS from enjoying a long and prosperous run.
Latenight succession is always a dicey proposition. There are invariably concerns hosts from cable or even the 12:30 slot (hello, Conan O’Brien and Craig Ferguson) will be too quirky and narrow to thrive if they’re promoted.
But even if the last letter of Colbert’s name is silent, taking all those factors into account, CBS at least appears to have dotted all the I’s and crossed all the T’s.