It seems most of us are excited over the prospect that Stephen Colbert will replace David Letterman when the longtime Late Show host retires next year. Twitter is abuzz with exclamations of support and Colbert’s name was the first one to come up when pundits were speculating about a replacement.
Just be warned. Naming Colbert carries some risk.
I actually believe Colbert will succeed because he’s a smart guy and an experienced entertainer, and I think he has the potential to make late night like nothing we’ve seen before. But I don’t think it’s an automatic, slam-dunk success many are saying it is.
On his Comedy Central show, Colbert played a character and most of us don’t know what the real Colbert is like. Will he seem authentic to viewers? What is his personality really like? Will we even be able to see past his Comedy Central character? Those are open questions whose answers will determine the success of Colbert’s Late Show.
For the record, Colbert told the New York Times today that he will not being doing the Late Show in the Colbert Report character, which is absolutely the right thing to do. But that means there are still uncertainties involved.
Remember The Chevy Chase Show? It was probably the biggest disaster in late night television. We knew Chase as a movie star in which he portrayed characters with great comedic timing and we generally assumed that reflected his own personality. It turned out he was very uncomfortable in this role and it made his show cringe-worthy. (You have to see it to believe it.)
The show only lasted five weeks.
The late night television landscape is undergoing changes, and I’d like the shows to think harder about how to change the model. Right now, they are all still basically a monologue, some comedy bit, then guests. (I did like the Jimmy Kimmel show in which Matt Damon tied him up to a chair and hosted the show himself.)
Jimmy Fallon, who replaced Jay Leno last month, has stayed to the structure, but it’s driven by his personality, honed on his own late late night show. He’s a terrific musical mimic and most bits are designed to go viral on the Internet. (Kevin Bacon’s Footloose number, for example.)
The promise of Colbert, to me, is that he might actually shake things up the way Letterman did all those years ago. Letterman introduced a kind of mockery of the format, with stupid pet tricks, visits outside the studio and turning staff members into characters. (Remember Chris Elliott living under the studio seats?)
The naming of Colbert to replace Letterman is enough of a wild card to promise that kind of transformation. But it also carries the potential to fail.