Thursday, April 10, 2014

Colbert Rising

I admit that I wasn't expecting this, and certainly not so soon. CBS only waited a week after Letterman's retirement announcement to name his successor to the "Late Show. The lucky comedian is Stephen Colbert of "The Colbert Report," whose contract with Comedy Central will be up in 2015. I'd seen various rumor pieces peg Colbert as a frontrunner, but I didn't take any of them seriously.

I mean, I love Colbert's work and I think he's a supremely talented satirist, but he didn't seem to check enough of the right boxes. The network late night shows are helmed by comedians with very broad, mainstream appeal. Colbert always struck me as a bit of an acquired taste, especially when you put him next to some of the guys who have been described as an awkward fit for the job, like Craig Ferguson or Louis CK. Sure, Ferguson and CK are a little more experimental and off-kilter than the average late night host, but they haven't spent the last nine years playing a fake version of themselves lampooning right-wing news pundits.

Speaking of the other Stephen Colbert, it's been announced that the persona that Colbert uses on "The Colbert Report" will be retired when he makes the move to CBS next year. The real Stephen will be back, but good grief, I barely even remember him from his eight-year stint on "The Daily Show" anymore. I know that he filled in for Jon Stewart a few times, but for the most part his hosting and interviewing performances have all been through the filter of this satirical construct, and who knows how he's going to perform without it? Okay, I'm being alarmist here. Stephen Colbert has spent nearly a decade successfully putting out his own award-winning comedy program, and has clearly been honing his skills during that time. There are a few of his excellent non-satirical interviews floating around the web that suggest he'll be find without the egomaniacal blowhard routine.

And as a fan of Colbert, this is a great opportunity for him. As much as I enjoy and admire "The Colbert Report," I don't want to see him doing it forever. In fact, to be quite honest, I'm surprised that he's managed to keep it going for as long as he has. I still tune in occasionally, but I grew weary of the fake right-wing schtick a few years ago and stopped watching regularly. It'll be great to see him pick up and move on to something different, hopefully after ending "The Colbert Report" in a truly glorious fashion. And remember, his departure from Comedy Central opens up the post - "Daily Show" slot for someone new. It'll be interesting to see who comes in next, especially as the network had some trouble keeping anything in that timeslot - I vaguely remember "Insomnia" with Dave Attell being the best of the pre- "Report" shows. Maybe another "Daily Show" alum will be up next?

And what about all the other contenders for "Late Night"? I am a little disappointed that Conan O'Brien's not coming back to network television and I still think he should have stayed the host of "The Tonight Show." Ferguson, Stewart, and Louis CK seem to be perfectly happy doing what they're doing, and good for them. It would have been nice to see a lady invited to the sausage party, but then Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have plenty of other opportunities to exercise their talent, and I'm not familiar with Chelsea Handler's work, so I have no real opinion on her. Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno have had their day, and wouldn't have brought anything new or interesting to the table. And Arsenio? Better luck next time.

So now it's going to be Fallon versus Colbert, with Kimmel as the third party candidate. I like Stephen Colbert's odds and think he's going to be a real contender. He's the oldest of the bunch at 49, but he's also the one with the most personality and the most range. He can never be David Letterman, but he's already done a very fine job being Stephen Colbert for nearly a decade. I'm also a little apprehensive that the move to a network means that he probably will have to adjust his style for more mainstream viewers. That sharp satiric edge that has served him so well will probably have to be put away, to be brought out only for special occasions. Many members of Congress may be breathing a sigh of relief.

Then again, it's not wise to underestimate Stephen Colbert. This is the man who delivered that devastating takedown of the Bush Administration at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, and managed to wrangle himself a cameo in one of the "Hobbit" movies by sheer force of his nerdiness. I'll bet he still has some surprises in store for us.

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