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Viacom Wishes the Real Stephen Colbert Would Leave the Old Stephen Colbert Alone

Like any late-night host, Stephen Colbert has always been something of a character. Now his former employer wants to know which one it’s going to be.

Colbert for nearly a decade played a bloviating, right-wing talk-show host on Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report” to great renown – so much so that it got him a job at CBS hosting that network’s “Late Show” after David Letterman stepped down from the job. When the host revived the character last week as part of a live series of shows playing off the Republican and Democrat political conventions, he won notice from fans and critics, and, apparently, lawyers at Viacom, the owner of the cable outlet that aired his “Report.”

Colbert made mention of this fact during a live show that aired in the wee hours of Thursday morning, joking to the audience that an unnamed company with an interest in the old Colbert’s affairs had made some sort of outreach questioning its appearance on CBS. It’s understood that all the funny business had some basis in reality – CBS and “Late Show” staff did hear from Viacom personnel. A “Late Show” spokeswoman declined to comment, and a Viacom representative referred a query to a spokesman for Comedy Central, who also declined to comment.

Viacom’s outreach goes to show that behind all the laughter in late-night, there’s a lot of serious maneuvering as well. Comedy Central is home to “The Daily Show” and “The Nightly Show,” the latter of which vies directly with Colbert in the 11:30 p.m. half hour. In a world where many late-night fans watch the program through streaming-video clips the next day, all the hosts compete for attention, no matter what time their shows appear on the TV schedule. Why should CBS be allowed to use intellectual property developed on Comedy Central’s dime?

The corollary, of course, is that Colbert developed the property in question.

There’s precedent for corporate caution. When David Letterman abandoned NBC for CBS to start “Late Show” in 1993, he was forced to do so without many of the comedy segments he had developed during his tenure there. To get around that legal block, Letterman and his staff simply changed some names and titles and went on with the show. Larry “Bud” Melman, the odd man who was sort of a “Late Night” mascot, reverted to using his real name, Calvert DeForest, and made regular appearances on “Late Show.”  The famous “Top Ten” list Letterman developed on “Late Night” became the “Late Show Top Ten.” The “Viewer Mail” segment on “Late Night,” in which Letterman would purportedly read viewer letters, was transformed into the “CBS Mailbag.”

Colbert seemed to indicate on this morning’s program that he would follow Letterman’s path. His old “Colbert Report” character would be seen no more, he said  – but the character’s “identical cousin” would become a regular part of the series. Perhaps he’s borrowing a plot device from “The Patty Duke Show,” a 1960s sitcom featuring the titular actress as twin cousins. And though Colbert revived his popular “The Word”segment that was a “Colbert Report” standby on CBS last week, he did a similar segment today called “The Werd.”

One wonders why the two companies can’t just get along. Viacom, after all, is – like CBS – controlled by Sumner Redstone through his family’s National Amusements Inc. movie-exhibition company. Indeed, between 1999 and 2005, the two companies were one, after Viacom purchased CBS Corp. Even thought they split, there has been renewed chatter about having them come together again, now that Redstone is in decline and in the midst of a squabble over control that involves his daughter, Shari, and Philippe Dauman, the chief executive of Viacom.

The two may be bickering over nothing. In an interview with Variety last week, “Late Show” executive producer Chris Licht suggested the “old” Colbert would appear sporadically. “It’s a tool in the toolbox,” Licht said of using the character. “I would not look for an appearance once a week or anything like that.”

Whether or not viewers are tuning in to see Colbert, his former self or that former self’s lookalike relative, there may be little Viacom can do to limit the character’s future appearances.

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