By James Poniewozik
January 13, 2015

Monday at the Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, CBS announced the premiere date of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert: Sept. 8. It did not announce the content or format of the show, because Colbert is still figuring that out.

Speaking to reporters, CBS president Nina Tassler said that the network is, essentially, waiting for Colbert to work all of that out. “I have nine months to make a show, just like a baby,” Colbert said in a release. “So first, I should find out how you make a baby.”

He’s said he’ll have guests and that he won’t host in character. He has not said whether or not he’ll have a monologue. Beyond that, it’s a blank. “Part of the opportunity of being in business with brilliant talent like Stephen Colbert,” Alan Sepinwall reported Tassler saying, “is really letting him do what he wants to do.”

So it sounds like Colbert has fairly free rein. He could tear up the whole blueprint if he wants. He could invent a new format much as he did with his nine-year performance piece on Comedy Central. He could bust up the desk for firewood, tear the whole thing down and rebuild from the ground up.

Maybe he shouldn’t.

Before you say it, I know: I’m a hypocrite. I have written, over and over, about how tired the monologue-desk-and-interviews late-night format is. About how the real late-night energy is in shows doing anything but that. About how the desk is, creatively, the world’s most expensive (albeit also well-paying) pair of cement shoes. I am, to an extent, playing devil’s advocate with myself here.

Colbert is creative and ambitious. I don’t doubt he’ll bring tons of ideas. But I also bet you agree to host an 11:35 late night talk show because you want to host an 11:35 late night talk show. Within that format, there’s still plenty of room to distinguish yourself.

Letterman gave the format possibly its biggest remake ever–but what he did, at NBC then CBS, was still a talk show. Conan O’Brien’s Tonight Show was still a talk show, a very traditional one in many ways, yet it was still a significant, and short-lived, departure for NBC simply because of his sensibility. Conversely, Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight is really more different from Jay Leno’s in format than Conan’s was–but it’s closer in terms of upbeat attitude.

And look: it’s only fair to expect someone to build a network late-night show for those people who will actually, regularly watch a late-night show. I’m not one of them. I love Colbert, and however great a show he creates, it will go into the same DVR queue of recordings that The Colbert Report did, to be watched now and then when I have spare time, if I don’t just catch the highlights in online video form. He would be forgiven for not creating a show specifically with me in mind.

Of course, I’d love it if he did! I believe Colbert may be the biggest talent in late night since the guy he’s replacing, and if he comes up with some scheme to rethink the post-evening-news hour, I will be eager to see what it is. If Colbert wants to blow up the desk, give the man as much dynamite as he needs. But I wouldn’t underestimate the difference Colbert could make just by being himself.

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