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Stephen Colbert -- in character of course -- last night addressed the David Letterman succession, but apparently had not heard the news: That he -- Stephen Colbert -- was the guy who was going to replace him.
"Dave has been on the air my entire adult life . . . I learned more from watching Dave than going to my classes, especially the ones I did not go to because I had stayed up until 1:30 to watch him . . . I do not envy whoever they put in that chair . . ."
Stephen Colbert, host of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report," was named Thursday to replace David Letterman as host of CBS' "Late Show." Colbert will remain at Comedy Central for eight more months and take over "Late Show" sometime in 2015.
In a move that even CBS acknowledged came together with lightning speed, the network said it and Colbert had agreed to a five-year deal, and that negotiations had begun only after Letterman had announced his retirement last Thursday. Colbert also affirmed he would not play his "Colbert Report" character as host of "Late Show." "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.
And he added: "Simply being a guest on David Letterman's show has been a highlight of my career. I never dreamed that I would follow in his footsteps, though everyone in late night follows Dave's lead."
In his own statement, Letterman said, "Stephen has always been a real friend to me. I'm very excited for him, and I'm flattered that CBS chose him. I also happen to know they wanted another guy with glasses."
Colbert - who turns 50 next month, was expected -- I reported here at TV Zone over a month ago. But this quick an announcement was not. Clearly CBS wanted to get the speculation behind it and begin laying the groundwork for the transition as as soon as possible.
Of immediate concern for New Yorkers: CBS did not announce a venue, and the network long ago wanted Dave to go west. Will the same pressure be brought to bear on Colbert? Reasons for a westward move are many, but the studio space in California (at TV City) is vast...But a New York venue makes sense too. First of all, there is the Ed Sullivan Theater -- a baton hand-off from from one of the great hosts in TV history to his replacement would have immense appeal. Second, the city's energy has been a boon for "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" -- which has simply fed off it. Another factor in favor of NYC: If Colbert brings his staff, as he almost certainly will, a cross-country move for dozens and dozens of critical staff members is difficult. It is certainly not insurmountable: Conan O'Brien did it, after all.
Reasons for this quick announcement -- Letterman only announced that he was ending his 32 years in late night just a week ago -- are obvious. Colbert's deal with Comedy Central -- where he will remain the next eight months -- was nearly over, and both he and CBS had made their mutual interest known. Moreover, this ends speculation -- will Tina Fey replace Dave? Neil Patrick Harris? -- all of which tends to be distracting, especially when unfounded.
CBS's upfront announcement to advertisers also falls next month- - and this question would certainly have come.
But here's the key reason: These transitions take time -- time for the hosts to get used to the idea, time for viewers and fans. Colbert's transition is somewhat tricky: After all, he must morph out of, to a certain degree anyway, his current persona. He must assemble a staff -- although undoubtedly he will bring his crew from Comedy Central.
Then there are the other particulars: The aforementioned venue? Will there be a band? A sidekick? All those elements that seem set in stone -- except that they are not.
And how will Colbert change his persona....? That is hardly a major issue. It is not even an "issue" -- but a silly distraction that the press and other observers seemed to take seriously for a time. Check out this earlier post, if you have not done so already, which has a handful of clips that demonstrate Colbert's range and facility. The Oprah Winfrey clips are good as well, for they provide some essential background of this extremely bright TV personality.
Colbert's character -- created during his years at "The Daily Show" before he launched his own late night series in 2005 -- is a partial representation of Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, both of whom have sparred-on occasion, not in the friendliest of terms -- over the years. As recently as Tuesday's "The O'Reilly Factor," O'Reilly said that Colbert has "damaged the country," although Thursday he seemed to step away from the jab. In a statement released to Time.com, he joked: "I hope Colbert will consider me for the Ed McMahon spot." Other conservative pundits attacked the hire, notably radio commentator Rush Limbaugh, who called it an "assault on traditional American values.
Meanwhile, CBS suddenly has a 12:35 problem. Craig Ferguson will almost certainly leave "Late Late Show," which means CBS's work is far from over.
“Stephen is a multi-talented and respected host, writer, producer, satirist and comedian who blazes a trail of thought-provoking conversation, humor and innovation with everything he touches,” said CBS Entertainment chief Nina Tassler. ”He is a presence on every stage, with interests and notable accomplishments across a wide spectrum of entertainment, politics, publishing and music. We welcome Stephen to CBS with great pride and excitement, and look forward to introducing him to our network television viewers in late night.”"Stephen Colbert is one of the most inventive and respected forces on television," said CBS chief executive Leslie Moonves in a statement. "David Letterman's legacy and accomplishments are an incredible source of pride for all of us here, and today's announcement speaks to our commitment of upholding what he established for CBS in late night."A Comedy Central spokesman said Colbert had no plans to address his new job on the air Thursday night. Meanwhile, "Late Show" was not taped Thursday.
Lindsay Lohan appeared on "Late Show With David Letterman" Wednesday night -- their full encounter aired well past deadline -- but one little surprise was announced earlier in the day: Oprah Winfrey was on the show, too.
At least her voice was -- the former talk-show legend-turned cable mogul was on the receiving end of a phone call from Lohan and Letterman.
Letterman appeared not to be keen on the idea at first. After some prodding by Lohan and an audience chanting "Op-rah! Op-rah!" Letterman called Winfrey on the actress' cellphone, identifying himself in a disguised voice as "Lindsay Lohan's secretary."
"Who is this?" Winfrey asked, and Letterman, finally using his regular voice, admitted, "It's Dave, Oprah, it's Dave." "Oh my God," Winfrey laughed. "Very good, Dave! The David Letterman who's retiring?"
Letterman asked the chief executive of OWN how Lohan -- currently in the channel's low-rated "Lindsay" docuseries -- was doing months after production on the series wrapped, and nine months after the troubled actress left rehab.
"I think she's doing really OK," a somewhat muted Winfrey responded, adding "I think, you know, to have cameras following you around for every phase of your life, and you are trying to pull your life together, I think that's a really difficult thing, so, yeah, we're really pleased that she's making some progress."
Lohan started to tear up, and Letterman then quickly changed subjects: "Oprah, I've spent 30 years trying to pull my life together. Where the hell have you been?"
Winfrey then reminded him that they both share the same "meditation teacher." To which Letterman responded: He has switched to something "that's really fantastic: Scientology."
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.