Search online and you'll find revealing footage of Stephen Colbert talking to U.S. Senator John Kerry before Kerry appears on The Colbert Report.
Colbert feels he needs to explain the show to Kerry. "I'm in character," he says. "And basically, I'm an idiot."
The news, announced Thursday, that Colbert is to replace David Letterman as host of CBS's late-night talk show raises multiple questions. First, can Colbert convert the right-wing loon he plays on The Colbert Report to a mainstream comedian/host who used to play the right-wing loon? Second, did it have to be another middle-aged white guy? Also: is this an idiotic move?
CBS was smart to announce Letterman's replacement quickly. The late-night wars, when they erupt as one host quits or retires, tend to drag out and spiral into gossip, paranoia and pointless rumour. In this instance, as soon Letterman delivered his I'm-leaving message, the inevitable speculation started.
Some pundits suggested CBS would take a radical step and put Chelsea Handler into Letterman's chair. Handler, the acerbic host of the E! cable show Chelsea Lately, looked like a good fit. A sharp woman, known for her idiosyncratic interviews with celebrities, she'd be a breath of fresh air. As late as Thursday morning, the New York Daily News was reporting that the 39-year-old Handler was in talks with CBS.
But, days earlier, Bill Carter of The New York Times, author of two best-selling books about the late-night wars, was hinting on Twitter that Stephen Colbert was the likely choice for CBS. It was confirmed early Thursday and, really, it's crazy, but it just might work. It's not idiotic.
American network TV doesn't usually do radical steps. Not in late-night TV. Jimmy Fallon was a safe choice to replace Jay Leno on The Tonight Show. Seth Meyers was a same choice to replace Fallon. The most radical step taken in recent years was putting Conan O'Brien on The Tonight Show. And that didn't end well.
This, the Colbert-to-replace-Letterman move, is as radical as it gets.
It's radical because, obviously, Colbert cannot do an hour-long show five nights a week in-character as some kind of idiot. He has to approach the job with some interest in authenticity.
What CBS is gambling on is this – a TV comedian who can stay in character, day after day, is a first-rate wit who has a lot of stamina. A lot. And that's what any late-night host needs – the ability to entertain, even when the day's events don't provide a sizzling monologue and the celebrity guests are boring. The job demands a quickness of wit and an insatiable appetite for creating fresh humour on a daily basis.
The evidence suggests Colbert has the ability. What nobody knows is how a late-night network audience will respond to him. Colbert has occupied a privileged perch in late-night TV. He's on cable, on a channel that is all comedy all the time. His character sprung from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and has the Stewart show as a lead-in. Mostly, therefore, he has a knowledgeable, tolerant audience who understand what he's doing when he's an idiot.
The more mainstream audience watching CBS at 11:35 p.m. is bound to be less tolerant than the Comedy Central audience. Less indulgent of an eight-minute, elaborate mockery of debate about some obscure piece of legislation. Bore them for two minutes and they've switched to Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel in search of an easy laugh. That fact makes Colbert a radical choice.
What Colbert has going for him, apart from the quick wit and stamina, is a reputation for being a nice, normal guy when he's not in character. He seems to be formidably well-read and genuinely brainy. Given freedom, he could make Letterman's old slot a place for enlightened, progressive humour. Immediately, even the idea of Colbert in Letterman's place makes Fallon on NBC seem terribly juvenile and unsophisticated. But time will tell if the mass audience feels the same. Given the success of the character Colbert has played, it's likely he'll invent an entire inventory of them to play on CBS.
As for the idea of Chelsea Handler or any other woman replacing Letterman, it was never going to happen. The late-night network talk-show format in U.S. TV is set in stone. To its detriment. It's always a man, a dad or older-brother type sending everyone off to bed with a chuckle. It's assumed that's what the audience craves. There are few things in the world more difficult to change than a U.S. network TV format.
If anyone wants something truly radical, they go to cable. Where Stephen Colbert has flourished, so far. Every idiot knows that.