Now I know how movie mogul Jack Warner felt. Or at least I think I do. When told that Ronald Reagan intended to run for governor of California, Warner famously said, “No, no, no. Jimmy Stewart for Governor. Ronald Reagan for Best Friend.”
Stephen Colbert taking over for David Letterman? Nope. Not by me. I wouldn’t have liked Jon Stewart doing it, either, even if Colbert were to come along as Best Friend. They’re too valuable to us all where they are.
My candidate was Ellen DeGeneres. More about that later.
I am, at best, skeptical about Colbert taking over Letterman’s late-night chair and, at worst, downright doubtful.
What you have to understand is that you have to ignore entirely Colbert’s terrific late-night presence on Comedy Central. What he does nightly on “The Colbert Report” is ultra-clever sociopolitical buffoonery. He does it in the comic persona of a know-it-all megalomaniac cable news bloviator a la Bill O’Reilly.
When the word of CBS’ choice was announced Thursday, Colbert was quick to announce that no, of course, he wouldn’t be doing the CBS show in character. Whether he leaves that “Stephen Colbert” over at Comedy Central or hauls him over to CBS for occasional cluelessly pompous guest appearances (who better to interview O’Reilly? Or Dr. Phil?), we’ll no doubt know down the line.
But, as it stands now, that entirely untried TV personality – Stephen Colbert without the air quotes –is going to take over for an irreplaceable TV figure. That’s why I was against it. That’s also why I was amazed that there was so much initial reluctance to credit CBS with the extraordinary roll of the dice that it just made.
We have no idea who the real Stephen Colbert is. None at all. And when you’re coming into people’s living rooms and bedrooms for an hour a night, five nights a week, you jolly well need to be welcome there, rather than just smart, talented and infinitely excerptable on YouTube.
I wouldn’t dream of disputing Colbert’s comedy chops. He has those in abundance. It’s the texture of the real man no one’s ever seen on television. And that makes what CBS did one heck of a gamble.
Colbert’s old pal and employer Jon Stewart was all for it. He was immediately quoted by New York Magazine’s Vulture section saying that Colbert has “gears he hasn’t even shown people yet. He would be remarkable.”
“He’s done an amazing job with just that very narrow cast of character, but he’s got a lot more he can show,” Stewart said. “He’s got some skill sets that are really applicable, interviewing-wise, but also he’s a really, really good actor and also an excellent improvisational comedian. He’s also got great writing skills. He’s got a lot of the different capacities. Being able to expand upon [those] would be exciting.”
To those who might have preferred Stewart himself, the comedian said, quite perceptibly, “I don’t have that gear, I don’t think.”
I agree. I don’t think he’s got a “Letterman” gear, either. Nobody does. Given the limited evidence we’ve seen, Colbert certainly doesn’t. He may very well have it, but it remains to be seen.
When NBC sent Jay Leno packing and replaced him with Jimmy Fallon, they knew what his skills were – that he seems to be a sweetheart of a guy as well as a consummate crafter of three-minute bits, often musical ones, that people love on YouTube.
All we know of Colbert is what he does on his 30-minute nightly selfie with the Plasticine grin of a self-adoring TV blunderbuss who has never given a moment’s thought to anything less than wonderful about himself. You can’t point to Colbert’s demographic strength with 20-somethings at Comedy Central, because that demographic has to include its all-important political subdivision.
Going only for demographics without thinking it through is what NBC did with Conan O’Brien, and look how that turned out.
Colbert’s nightly self-aggrandizing, fictional self, of course, distinguishes him completely from the enormously complex man he’ll be replacing – a man who manifested more self-doubt and even self-contempt than anyone we’ve ever seen.
It’s no wonder Letterman inspires both enormous reverence and dislike among many. In every second of his CBS late night show, he has been nothing if not complex. With startling frequency, he has taken Johnny Carson’s Midwestern unease with ego to extremes of alienation that were the antithesis of reassuring. And that’s why after open-heart surgery and 9/11, his was as profound as any voice in all of American media.
Here he is now, at 67, a man who knows he’ll be lucky indeed if he lives long enough to see his 10-year old son Harry graduate from college – let alone make him a grandfather.
Even at Letterman’s most antipathetic – clumsily presenting himself in public as the kind of TV kingpin who thought nothing of having affairs with female underlings on his staff (remember that when he announced the blackmail over one such relationship, he used the plural to describe his actions) – there was still something almost endearing in watching a guy every night who was such a varsity level foul-up. We Americans like other people’s ability to mess up.
On Wednesday night, in talking to Lindsay Lohan, Letterman flat-out admitted, without any equivocation, “I’m an alcoholic.” Viewers have known for decades that he stopped drinking because a doctor told him to. What he’s never done before, to my knowledge, is use that exact self-defining terminology.
As the actors might put it, Letterman is a man with “layers.” To a couple of generations of viewers, you could watch every night, exploring them. Colbert could be a huge success in a way we haven’t seen before. Or he could be an even bigger bust at 11:30 p.m. than Conan O’Brien was over at NBC.
That’s why my candidate for the gig was Ellen DeGeneres. Never mind that it’s high time for a female late-night host. Joan Rivers was always too hard-edged to win America’s bedtime approval with any significant numbers. Chelsea Handler would have the same difficulties only she’d be doing Rivers’ show at half-speed.
DeGeneres is a smash hit on afternoon television. Her likability for many people is off the charts, as she proved abundantly on the last Oscarthon. She has proved, with the most personally demanding audience on TV, that she wears well on a daily basis. She is, as well, funny, smart and, most importantly, not eager to please in that shameless, clueless way that made Jay Leno so dispiriting over the long haul. Eager to please, she most certainly is. But when that’s what she’s doing, she has enough Lettermanesque self-consciousness to admit that’s exactly what she’s doing.
And, importantly, she has a kind of outsider authenticity as a lesbian in a famous relationship that could automatically give the show an edge it’s going to need to be competitive in its time slot.
Her adjustment to late-night would have been minimal, I think. She’s someone people could live with at bedtime night after night after night. She’s also someone celebrities love talking to.
Colbert – actually in the role of Stephen Colbert? We’ll have to see.. I’m skeptical. I’ll be delighted to be proved wrong. But remember you read it here first.