It was just announced that Stephen Colbert is slated to take over The Late Show after Letterman's retirement in 2015. But which Stephen Colbert can we expect once he makes the move to late night TV? On the one hand, there's "Stephen Colbert", the bombastic right wing pundit, the Patron Saint of Truthiness and Wikiality, and the greatest satirical character of our generation. On the other hand, there's Stephen Colbert, the Second City/ Strangers With Candy alum, Sunday School teacher, and family man who rarely talks about his actual political beliefs (though I think it's safe to say he's somewhere squarely left of Papa Bear Bill O'Reilly... but then, so are most people).
It seems the obvious choice to have Stephen Colbert host The Late Show in character, not only because that's the Stephen Colbert we've come to know and love, but because that's the Stephen Colbert who is most comfortable in front of the camera. It would be a new kind of late night, but CBS is familiar with late night shows that break the mold- after all, we're talking about the channel that lets Craig Ferguson do just about whatever he wants five nights a week.
It's no secret that late night shows are cults of personality, but this will be the most flagrant example, and I can't help but wonder if it will be sustainable. Colbert the character is aggressively hilarious in half-hour increments, but it will be interesting to see whether or not it wears thin over the course of an hour, both for the audience and for Colbert the performer. I have no doubt that if anyone can pull it off, it will be the mad genius who ran for president and marched to keep fear alive, but that's a tall order for any performer, no matter their level of expertise.
I'm also curious to see how Stephen Colbert the character would handle an inherited institution like The Late Show. The Colbert Report has been lovingly crafted over the course of almost a decade as a monument to Colbert-the-character's massive ego, amassing in that time a cult-like following and even a language all its own. Even so, there is something that feels scrappy and personal and ebullient about the show, like everyone involved is having an absolute blast (In college, I was lucky enough to be an intern at The Colbert Report, and I can assure you, they really are). It will be hard for anything to feel scrappy or personal under the Late Show banner. Hell, the desk isn't even in the shape of his initial.
For Stephen Colbert the comedian to be effective as a late night host, he will have to defer in at least some small way to the order of operations already in place, but for Stephen Colbert the character to be effective as a character, he cannot defer to anything. Stephen Colbert the character is a force of nature and Comedy Central, for the most part, stays out of his way and lets him run the show, and I can only hope CBS will do the same. I can't imagine "Stephen Colbert" delivering a monologue set about Kim Kardashian, or sincerely congratulating Channing Tatum on starring in Transformers 8 (or, you know, whatever).
I have a lot of faith in Stephen Colbert, both Stephen Colberts, and I am sure that The Late Show with Stephen Colbert will be an unprecedented success and delight. I just hope that it finds a way to remain as intimate, singular, and special as The Colbert Report.
In any case, congratulations, Stephen Colbert!
UPDATE: Stephen Colbert will not host 'Late Night' in character. “I won't be doing the new show in character, so we'll all get to find out how much of him was me. I'm looking forward to it… ” Colbert said in a statement.