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I, your host of TV Zone, am tired to the point of catatonia of hearing the question asked repeatedly of one Stephen Colbert: But can he break character to host CBS' "Late Show" when David Letterman retires next year?
I've heard this question everywhere -- maybe even in my own head when I first wrote over a month ago that Colbert was CBS' first choice to replace Dave. I heard it during a radio interview I did last week, and was even asked by a very smart host; I heard or read it in pieces in various places, or sundry "listicles," that cited Colbert as a leading candidate.
The whole subtext is simple: "Oh surely Colbert could never break character . . . he is who he is because he is who he is, and the tautology cannot be broken because . . . well, dammit, because it just can't."
That's essentially the entire argument, and it's as dumb, or circular, as it looks.
Fact is, if Colbert were to replace the second greatest or the greatest late-night talk-show in this business' history, he would push this franchise into another realm where late-night TV seldom dares venture, on the assumption that viewers are "tired" or "idiots" or "really do care about what James Franco had for breakfast that morning."
Colbert shares a characteristic with Letterman -- both are deeply serious guys who treat comedy not as a series of one-liners but as part of an entire ecosystem where the bad should be punished, the corrupt called out, the inept brought to witness.
Letterman only intermittently applies his sense of outraged injustice; Colbert lives it night after night, he breathes it, or I suppose I should say he fire-breathes it.
That's right -- he's one of the "Game of Thrones" dragons; I forget which one.
This is where the "can he step out of character" business comes from. His alter-ego is a device that can be used as a battering ram -- a trick that can devastate any target in part because he is playing the blowhard who is the target.
In that regard, the question is a valid one: "The Colbert Report" has been a remarkably successful show because the host has been so consistent.
But Can He Step Out of Character?
He can be silly, absurd, and (umm) unserious.
He can do monologues -- standard or unstandard, take your pick; sketch comedy (that, too).
He can do everything you want your late-night host to do -- in part because he's already done it -- but he will also bring that added measure of social/political insight and commentary that exists nowhere on the broadcast networks at the moment.
If you watch the clips below, you will see someone who has the instincts of a journalist, and who knows exactly where the carotid artery is located. (I long ago believed he should have won some sort of special Pulitzer for his work on Super PACs . . . but he got an Emmy instead.)
As mentioned, he's serious but he is also human, accessible. The Real Colbert never seems pompous or full of himself, but he strikes me as an eye-level kind of guy: In other words, someone who knows how to talk to people, and not talk at them.
His "Late Show" would be excellent.
Now, will this happen or are there other good candidates out there? It is in no way a foregone conclusion, but as I have noted earlier, CBS is seriously considering him (that much I do know).
There are also other extremely qualified candidates out there, including one in-house, Craig Ferguson.
It's also far too early to be handicapping this race. But the whole point of this post is to debunk once and for all the tired know-nothing canard that Colbert "can't possibly step out of character."
I suspect this post will not debunk it, but at least I tried.
To the clips!
From last night's "Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," this nice little gift: A Top 10 list tribute to David Letterman, effectively designating the top 10 reasons why David Letterman is retiring. The first five are the best, just to give you a heads up. Plus Fallon's opening to this is both gracious ... and interesting:
"The Simpsons" have put together a couch gag for David Letterman - already - and it's certainly worth watching, heaven knows. (I mean really: You haven't really done anything until you're the subject of a couch gag, right? Guess Dave's done something...)
Set to "Rhapsody in Blue"...but you knew that...
You may have heard that David Letterman announced his retirement yesterday, and as any Letterman fan well knows, there's nothing like material that's generated by your own life (or in this instance, Dave's...). He taped his Thursday "Late Show" Retirement Edition yesterday at 3:30 p.m., and then promptly taped the Friday edition at around 5 (or thereabouts...). Here's a clip from tonight's show, and yes -- expect retirement jokes, good ones...Billy Crystal appears tonight as well; as has been noted, Crystal appeared on Jay Leno's last "Tonight.:"
David Letterman in retirement: The very phrase is daunting, an existential conundrum. A riddle without an answer.
We kid, but not by a large margin: Letterman in retirement does not compute. He is devoted to his show, his staff, and the daily routine of putting out broadcast television's best talk show, late night or otherwise. He does not have, or is not known to have, hobbies, or anything that would comprise a time-consuming pastime which people in retirement are supposed to typically consume their time with: Golf, tennis, travel, the grandkids, Myrtle Beach . . . Mowing the lawn at the North Salem place? Hard to imagine.
But that doesn't mean he has no outside interests -- those are well-known and well-established. He has an LA-based charitable foundation, has close ties to his alma mater, Ball State; there's a budding record company and, of course, Worldwide Pants.
Probably the most exciting outside venture is Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing -- his IndyCar team that he owns with former racing great Bobby Rahal and which had considerable success in the middle of the last decade, and only recently returned to full-time competition, and is also involved with the American LeMans circuit (they race a custom built BMW).
Letterman is every bit the motor head Jay Leno is, absent the compulsive need to buy everything on wheels. Dave is not exactly a collector by nature.
But these ventures are already operating concerns -- successful side-businesses with their own staffs. Does David want to become involved more fully with each of those when his absentee ownership status has sufficed nicely all these years? Presumably a question only he can answer.
Then, there is this question: What about a return to television in some capacity? That presumes the old saw that great TV talents just can't stay away from the hot light -- that Bill Cosby just has to get back in the game, or that Oprah can't be far from TV so she'll just buy a network instead, or that Jay really will go to Fox, and so on.
Of course I don't buy it. Letterman really doesn't need it. He really doesn't need the fame or fortune -- he doesn't have that burning desire to be loved, to hear the audience applause or to be fulfilled -- as part of some sort of deep-seated narcissistic impulse -- by the omnipresence of cameras and that blinking red light.
He's long had a curious ambivalence to fame -- which is part of his appeal, certainly. I can take this stupid job and shove it has long been implicit in the Letterman MO -- a sense that the world is mad, television is madder and there's certainly no reason to go completely insane along with it.
For that reason, don't bet on a TV future in retirement. But that doesn't mean there couldn't and shouldn't be one. A Charlie Rose-like show, hosted by the Thoughtful Dave, with thoughtful questions offered in the spirit of thoughtfulness . . . a deeper exploration of his interests absent the quips or jokes or Paul Shaffer one-liners over to the side (not that there's anything wrong with any of that . . .)?
Something a little more PBS-like, or fringe-cable-like? Once a week even?
Only Dave has the answers to these questions. We'll see how he answers them.
We know David Letterman is irreplaceable. But who will replace David Letterman?
There are many names, few truly qualified. Which means you must immediately rule out the superficially appealing names because they will never happen.
These include people like Jerry Seinfeld or Neil Patrick Harris or someone I'm not thinking of at the moment (Pee Wee Herman, Bruce Jenner . . .) They have never hosted a late-night talk show, and I am mindful of many stories of late night past: Stars like Billy Crystal (who had the sense not to do one for Fox) and Chevy Chase (who did not have the sense to do a show for Fox) believing that this gig must be a cinch.
("Hey, you show up, tell a few jokes, talk to some guest, then say goodnight . .. ")
This is the hardest job in show business, by far. It's every day, weekends off. It's grueling work where you manage huge staffs, spar with networks -- the worst part of the job -- and then stand out there every night and try to be funny. It's lucrative, but I can't imagine Jay Leno or Letterman did this for the money, which was ridiculously good, as they would be the first to admit.
So who does this leave?
To a list.
Stephen Colbert: Front-runner, without question. His contract at Comedy Central ends this year, CBS is interested (I have heard this from a senior industry executive) and he is very good and very funny. Questions, no doubt, about whether he will "break character." Should be a cinch. Plus, he's an excellent interviewer.
Jay Leno: Jay's name has to come up here. He's one of the most successful late-night talk show hosts in history, and he's unemployed. Why shouldn't it come up? One possible reason: His "Tonight" attracted an "old" audience (pushing 60, on average, which is old, I guess.) TV covets youth.
Chelsea Handler: The dark horse candidate and the long-shot candidate. She's leaving E!, she's funny, she has a following, and she knows how to do late-night TV. Drawback: She's a she. Late-night TV hosts are usually men. Don't blame me -- I don't make up the rules. Plus, she's leaving E!. I mean really . . . "Former E! host replaces Letterman." Rather sad headline, wouldn't you say?
Jon Stewart: Of course everyone wants Jon Stewart -- but could some watered-down approximation of "The Daily Show" work at "Late Show?" Hard to believe, possibly harder to stomach. Stewart is -- I don't use this word lightly -- a genius at what he does. He would be miserable to the point of throwing-himself-in-front-of-oncoming traffic to chat with the latest star selling the latest lousy movie. But who knows what's going to happen? He's certainly smart enough to figure out some sort of inventive way to reshape "Late Show." I still say: Long shot.
Craig Ferguson: The in-house star and a long-shot. Ferguson is excellent, funny, inventive, interesting, and has a terrific animatronic sidekick in Geoff. But "Late Late Show" always lost to Jimmy Fallon's "Late Night." How would a Ferguson "Late Show" then do opposite Fallon's "Tonight?" (Again, I don't make up the rules.)
Here it is, a bit of TV history: David Letterman telling the world that he'll end a remarkable 32-year run in 2015.
David Letterman announced his retirement last night, but why now? Quickly, some background: Here's what I wrote a couple weeks ago., but to add to this -- there's no indication this was any decision other than Dave's.
What about Dave? Letterman turns 67 April 12. He is -- yes -- the second greatest late night talk show host in TV history, and also the second oldest: Johnny Carson was 66 when he retired in 1992.
The rule in television is, just to restate, ironclad -- older audiences mean reduced profits, and with younger crowds at ABC and NBC, there will also be pressure at CBS to lower its average age, by grooming a new generation of "Late Show" viewers with (alas) a new "Late Show" host.
Letterman, who has a contract through 2015, has given no indication that he plans to step aside -- or as he put it to Oprah during an interview a year or so ago: "When it’s time to go, somebody else tell me. Because I don’t know when it’s time to go.”
No one wants to see Letterman go. I never want to see Letterman go. He is the greatest, most entertaining, most inventive late-night host in my lifetime. He is Dave. There is no other Dave and never will be.
That said . . . reality is reality. Letterman will be moving along someday. For whom? Replacement possibilities remain the obvious ones -- and Craig Ferguson is not among them.
Because "The Late Late Show" host lost regularly to Fallon's "Late Night," there's appears to little chance he would succeed at 11:35 opposite Fallon again, or so the logic goes. A shame: Ferguson's "Late Late Show" is endlessly amusing, his monologues funny and his sidekick, Geoff, probably the single finest animatronic skeleton in late-night history. But still. Stephen Colbert's contract at Comedy Central ends this year, Jon Stewart's next year.
There now appears to be growing industry consensus that Colbert may now be the heir apparent. Is it the CBS consensus? The Colbert one? By the way, the average age of "The Colbert Report" viewer is 43. My kicker:
Stephen Colbert could well be the next host of "Late Show."
And of course, this: We'll see.
Welcome to TV Zone, AKA Where-the-Lindsay-Lohan-Watch-Never-Stops: To that end, she'll be on "Late Show with David Letterman" next Wednesday, April 9. She's also on the following Monday's "Two Broke Girls," where she plays "Claire," or as CBS notes:
As Max and Caroline get to know her, it quickly becomes clear that Claire has trouble making decisions.
(Just to re-iterate, as to avoid confusion, Claire/Linds has "trouble making decisions," not "trouble-making decisions...")
As proof that major TV characters on CBS hits like "The Good Wife" never die (but instead come back to be interviewed by David Letterman on "Late Show")...this:
Josh Charles, AKA Will Gardner, on "Late Show."