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!