Five Burning Business Questions for the New Stephen Colbert

Analysis: Savvy host will have to navigate the divide between a clever cable program and a broadcast-network comedy institution

Stephen Colbert looked like he enjoyed his Comedy Central curtain call last night, which is good — because he’s got a hell of an encore in the wings.

Colbert, known for his spoofish portrayal of a bloviating political commentator on his “Colbert Report” for the past nine years, now must tackle an even more demanding performance. He will take the chair on CBS’ “The Late Show,” one of three be-all-to-everyone latenight programs set on the nation’s most-watched broadcast networks.

That move raises some questions. Sure, Colbert has been on other series, like “The Daily Show,” “The Dana Carvey Show,” “Strangers With Candy” and the early Comedy Central sketch-comedy effort “Exit 57,” but these were all in the satirical-comedy vein. “The Late Show” is a broad-skewing production that CBS is counting on to bring in more revenue — it will take ownership of the program, which has been the property of David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants production company ever since it debuted on the network in 1993 – even as rival efforts by Jimmy Fallon on NBC and Jimmy Kimmel on ABC have gained much traction with audiences.

Colbert clearly has the confidence of everyone from CBS CEO Leslie Moonves to Comedy Central host Jon Stewart, but the move raises a handful of interesting questions about how he will step on the path now rising up to meet him:

*Is Stephen Colbert the latenight variety host as funny and winning as Stephen Colbert the character? It’s an important question, because CBS has broken tradition by naming Colbert to its wee-hours throne. Every other latenight host in recent memory, after all, has had a track record of just being themselves in front of an audience. Colbert has inventively played a vain political host — no small feat.

Colbert may have more freedom when his tenure starts, to be sure, because viewers won’t have a particular expectation of how he ought to act. At the same time, he may be untested in other parts of the job. Will Colbert have what it takes to address the nation during moments of crisis, as his predecessor did? (That’s a question neither Kimmel or Fallon has definitively answered yet, either).

*Does Stephen Colbert need a sidekick? Nearly everyone else has one, though in this day and age, it’s not exactly clear why (Chelsea Handler’s work with Chuy Bravo was sometimes worth a lifted eyebrow). When Letterman wraps his “Late Show” tenure, he will take with him Paul Shaffer, whose interjections and loony repeats of whatever Letterman says have become part and parcel of the program.

But would ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel suffer if Guillermo Rodriguez was not on regularly? At NBC, Steve Higgins plays one of the genre’s most understated foils (to be fair, the guy’s got a pretty big job as one of “Saturday Night Live’s” senior producers). Andy Richter may be the last of the strong supporting players –- his point of view seems to help buoy Conan O’Brien’s TBS program and underscore that program’s cerebral humor.

Colbert, however, has more than aptly demonstrated his ability to hold his own.

*Will CBS grant Colbert the freedom to lampoon and satirize all targets? This past summer, Colbert took on online retailing giant Amazon on various episodes of his “Report,” wagging his finger at the company for taking on book publisher Hachette in a protracted battle that limited pre-orders for and delayed delivery of books from that company. During an episode in which an ad from Amazon appeared, Colbert vowed to “wipe the smirk” off of the “smile” logo on one of the company’s many boxes.

CBS in recent seasons has struck lucrative deals with Amazon that help distribute CBS series like “Under the Dome” and “Extant” via streaming video. Would Colbert be allowed to pursue such a line of thinking on “The Late Show”? During a recent panel at the New York outpost of the Paley Center, Letterman’s writers confided that they sometimes change scripts and sketches if it turns out they are poking fun at a likely sponsor. There’s no knowing yet if Colbert intends to rely as much on satire as he has in the past, but the comedian may not have as much free rein on CBS as he did on Comedy Central.

*Will Colbert be allowed to make fun of his sponsors while taking their money? It’s a tactic that served him well at Comedy Central, where advertisers like Wheat Thins and Hellman’s mayonnaise became part of the show. Colbert would skewer the products, talking about them at length and even devising sketches about them. To get such treatment, however, advertisers had to capitulate to Colbert’s humor and satire — much as advertisers like Verizon Wireless and Dr. Pepper had to do in order to get shout-outs on the Tina Fey-produced “30 Rock.”

At CBS, Letterman allowed some advertisers to be woven into the show, but never in such fashion. With Jimmy Kimmel performing live commercials for his sponsors, and Jimmy Fallon doing General Electric-sponsored segments featuring kids and their inventions, the CBS-owned “Late Show” would certainly have the leeway to take on such stuff. “That’s a bridge we’ll cross at some later point,” Nina Tassler, the CBS Entertainment chairman, told Variety in April. The question will be whether executives have the stomach for such Colbert antics, or the finesse to rein them in to some degree.

*What about this consonant business? Yes, it’s been funny to pronounce “Colbert” and “Report” with a silent ‘T.’ Does it make sense to try the same thing on CBS?

All indications suggest Colbert will continue with the non-traditional sounding of his name. After all, it’s how people identify him and after so many years in the business, it would be hard to give up (even if his sister Elizabeth Colbert Busch, used the letter when she ran for political office in South Carolina). Does that mean viewers have to stop uttering the ‘T’ in “Late Show” when Colbert takes the seat? Are we about to enter an era of enjoying “The Lay Show with Stephen Colbert?” Time – with the ‘T’ – will tell.

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