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The crownless king-to-be of late night television

Christian Harding
Assoc. Opinion Editor

David Letterman announcing his forthcoming retirement was, to be sure, an extremely newsworthy event. What it wasn’t, not exactly anyway, was surprising. 

“I’m probably too old for this” had become the main undercurrent of his shtick years ago, and once his eternal rival Jay Leno was finally driven from the air (or at least the 11:30 pm time slot) everyone who cared knew it was only a matter of time before Letterman followed. 

He was the original late-night TV rebel, his anarchic oddball approach to TV comedy in the ’80s laying the groundwork for everything from The Daily Show to Adult Swim. But the time had come.

The news in this case would be who would inherit the chair.

And sure enough, heading into this past weekend, we learned who would succeed Letterman at CBS:

Stephen Colbert, late of The Colbert Report.

To insiders, this wasn’t much of a shock: Colbert’s current contract with Comedy Central ends next year, Viacom owns both CC and CBS, he’s a longtime friend of Letterman’s and was said to have been Dave’s favored replacement for years now. 

But to audiences and TV punditry it looks legitimately bold, at least as bold as network TV can look in an era where the “alphabet ‘nets” (CBS, ABC, NBC) are seen largely as purveyors of safer-skewing comfort-food programming while cable serves up Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad.

What makes Colbert seem like an outside-the-box choice despite checking all of the traditional boxes for such a job (hardworking/dues-paying comic with writing, stage and character-acting background) is twofold: Firstly, he’s overwhelmingly known for playing a character, not for “straight” hosting. 

colbertHe’s made a name for himself for almost a decade now embodying a same-named alternate persona on The Colbert Report, an affectionately brutal parody of cable news demagogues like Bill O’Reilly. And while Report has carefully-cultivated a loyal audience that “gets it” – predominantly urbane Gen-X-ers and Millennials familiar with ironic “drinking game” appreciation of Fox News and attendant conservative media – it’s seen as an open question whether the older, more traditional-minded audience that still makes up the bulk of network late-night’s viewership (Colbert and Fallon are both “preemptive-strike” hires, anticipating an aging Generation X inheriting Baby-Boomer viewing habits) can accept that the real Stephen Colbert who’ll be taking Letterman’s chair is not actually the ignorant jerk they’ve seen in clips on their children’s Facebook feeds.

The other shoe, as ever, is political. Colbert is seen (not unfairly) as a partisan, and late-night hosts are ostensibly expected to at least affect a more moderate poise. To hear some tell it, that was the secret to Jay Leno being a consistent ratings winner even as almost every other late-night figure was more relevant in terms of their sketches and zingers slipping into the popular lexicon: He was willing/eager to swat at all comers in an era where TV comedy (overwhelmingly produced in nominally leftward-leaning U.S. coastal cities) was often seen as throttling the American right-wing just a bit harder than the other side. 

Of course, for that to “work” one has to assume that there was more to Jay’s moderation than simple lowest-risk calculation (i.e. “How ’bout those clowns in Congress, huh folks??” being a reliable layup regardless of context); but a meme is a meme.

What CBS knows is that while The Colbert Report’s ratings aren’t spectacular, his visibility among the most desired audience is. Zingers from Colbert and John Stewart are distributed far and wide on social media, and make the news rounds everywhere from MSNBC (to be approved of) and Fox News (to be outraged at).

In the new landscape of late-night, that’s potentially much greater currency than simply having, as Leno did, a bigger number of viewers but in demographics that advertisers don’t consider worth chasing. And while culture and politics play a part, they’re insignificant next to simple economics: “The Heartland of America” – more of a demographic-niche than a geographic “region” – is an increasingly marginal presence versus demographics tied to cities, coasts and the broader “globalized” culture they have more in common with.

But the world does change. Time marches on. There’s a seismic, transformative shift happening in the United States that will likely leave the nation looking, particularly in terms of popular culture and demography, like a profoundly different place than it is now. And gawky, bespectacled, unassuming Stephen Colbert will soon be even more at the forefront of it than he already is.