Today’s announcement that Colbert will be replacing Letterman on the Late Show makes zero sense to me, economically or personally.
The move destroys Comedy Central’s 11 to midnight block, the consistently best hour of television anywhere. Whoever they find to replace Colbert will either be an uninspired retread, like having Samantha Bee or Wyatt Cenac riffing on their pretend anchor personas, or some glib internet exploiting lightweight like Daniel Tosh or Chris Hardwick.
Obviously, I’m not a television executive. But I doubt this is going to make economic sense for CBS. Colbert’s audience is loyal, but I would guess more to the show and to the character than to Colbert himself. You’re not going to find a bigger fan of the Colbert Report than me and I doubt I’ll ever watch his CBS show.
Watching him riff through an interview while maintaining his character’s voice is an amazing high wire act. The fact that he does it so well, making clever, insightful points so consistently, is a miracle.
The fictional underpinnings of the persona make it easier to watch than a show where a host is just being himself. There’s somehow less of a stress point of thinking that it’s a real person. The layer of “just kidding” makes the show entertaining and bright despite its current events-driven content. Even though the Colbert Report is just as smart and serious as the Daily Show, it feels like watching Wheel of Fortune after Jeopardy because of its central fiction.
In an interview with Vulture, Jon Stewart said that Colbert is going to show a range of skills that he’s unable to display as his character. And while I’m sure he’s a talented guy, I have much interest in seeing him spread his wings than seeing him continue his character thing.
The format of late night television is almost certainly going to constrain him. Eventually, he’s going to have to prompt Cameron Diaz to talks about the pranks pulled on her new movie or interview a trainer from the San Diego zoo about a chimp.
But even if he’s able to rise above the built in mediocrity of network late night programming, he’s still likely to be at least a little neutered. Being on network TV surely means Colbert will have to at least water down his politics. And politics is a huge part of his show. Otherwise it’s fake vanity and ironic embrace of corporate sponsorship.
And he comes in as a politically polarizing figure. Rush Limbaugh has already come down hard on the decision, saying “CBS has just declared war on the heartland of America,” which wouldn’t make a dent in Colbert’s smaller, more elite cable audience but could convince grandpas to tune into that nice Jimmy Fallon fellow instead of Colbert.
From a cynical, cash-driven point of view, I’d have to guess that that Chelsea Handler would have been a better choice. I’m not a fan. In fact I’ve never seen a single episode of her show. But she was getting better ratings than Conan O’Brien with far less hype. I think she commands a loyal, largely female audience, one that is otherwise probably not watching late night TV. And she probably would come a lot cheaper than Colbert.
And if you don’t go with Handler, there’s another undervalued late night host you could scoop up for what’s probably less than market value: Jay Leno. Again, I’m not a fan AT ALL but I can’t see how that wouldn’t be a win for everybody involved. I don’t think Leno was enthusiastic about leaving the Tonight Show. According to reports, he got paid less than Letterman despite drawing higher ratings.
The two Jimmys are going to continue to try to draw in coastal elites with their Youtube-targeting material. Without politics or a character, Colbert is likely to mine a similar, knowingly snarky/absurdist vein. That leaves that Leno-loving heartland, the one that Rush Limbaugh believes is at war, up for grabs.