TIME's James Poniewozik writes that CBS should give David Letterman's successor, a late-night innovator himself, the freedom to remain authentically inventive and satirical, even if it doesn't please everyone
RIP “Stephen Colbert,” 2005-2014. Less than a week after David Letterman announced his retirement on air, CBS today announced his replacement: Stephen Colbert, the man, not the character. Colbert will take over The Late Show some time in 2015, meaning that by the end of this year Colbert will be retiring the character he’s played on his show and off for nine years (longer if you count his time as correspondent for The Daily Show).
Colbert, the most adaptable performer and quickest mind in late night, has no doubt earned the promotion. I only hope, as I’ve written a couple of times over the past week, that it’s not a creative demotion.
What Colbert has done with The Colbert Report is, arguably, the greatest innovation in late night since Letterman launched NBC’s Late Night in 1982. The Report was a talk show, it was a satire, it was a real-time improv performance in character, week in and week out. But more than that, it was a creative work that didn’t end when the credits rolled; it was bigger than its time slot, bigger even than TV. He extended his parody to runs for office, to the White House Correspondents Dinner, to the American campaign finance system. He created a participatory performance, enlisting his Colbert Nation to vote in polls and to back charitable initiatives.
A decade, though, is a long time to expect an actor to stay in any role—much less until he retires. Colbert is an artist, and artists want to grow and be challenged. The guy’s got a lot of tools in his box, and his fake pundit isn’t the only thing he can do with them. Nor is politics, as anyone knows who’s watched him geek out on-air over Tolkien, or roller-dance with Bryan Cranston to “Get Lucky.”
Just please God, don’t let that thing be a middle-of-the-road, Hollywood-centric, let’s-roll-a-clip, something-for-everyone 11:35 p.m. talk show. Colbert is smart, quick, personable and likeable, but that likeability comes from—weird as this is to say about someone who’s hosted a show in character for nine years—authenticity. Colbert is specifically not for everyone; he’s geekily intelligent, blisteringly funny and has a distinct, often political, point of view. Take that away and you take away everything.
The onus, in other words, is now on CBS to let Colbert be Colbert—even if he’s not “Colbert.” As with Letterman, they’ve hired the major late-night talent of his time. But CBS hired Letterman expressly to do what he did at NBC; Colbert, we don’t yet know. The CBS announcement contains the usual talk you expect from such a press release. CBS says he’s “inventive” and “respected”; Colbert is thrilled (and “now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go grind a gap in my front teeth”). But as for the show he’ll do? “Specific creative elements, as well as producers and the location… will be determined and announced at a later date.”
How not-for-everyone is CBS willing to be, when Jimmy Fallon is leading at NBC with a (brilliant and authentic to him) version of enthusiastic niceness? My doubts have been wrong before! I was skeptical, for instance, about Fallon as host of Late Night and loved him in the gig.
In any case, I may have argued against Stephen Colbert taking Late Show, but I’m also excited despite myself to see what he does with it. I’m 100% sure he’s up to the job. I only hope the job is up to him.