New David Letterman role out of character for Stephen Colbert

Consummate satirist expected to come into his own when he assumes David Letterman's mantle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 April, 2014, 10:10pm
UPDATED : Friday, 11 April, 2014, 10:10pm

It will be a new kind of Stephen Colbert, sans persona, who succeeds CBS' Late Show host David Letterman next year, a move that will cap the generational shift in the late-night American TV landscape across networks eager to attract younger viewers and online followings.

Colbert, 49, who made his mark satirising political conservatives on his Comedy Central weeknight cable show The Colbert Report, said he would drop his on-screen character of a dim-witted, big-egoed conservative pundit.

"I won't be doing the new show in character, so we'll all get to find out how much of him was me. I'm looking forward to it," he said.

There is a measure of risk in abandoning a groundbreaking formula for the comedian, whose Emmy-winning show has attracted a strong audience among young viewers, a coveted group CBS is surely eyeing with its choice of Colbert.

"A lot of his audience has never seen him as himself," said TV analyst David Bianculli. "He'll bring a lot of that sensibility to it, but it will be a different tone."

For the comedian who plays the court jester to US politics and is known for inventing zeitgeist word plays like "truthiness", it will be a chance to distinguish himself as an expert interviewer as he has often done on The Colbert Report and first as a member of the cast of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

"I think it's smarter than turning it over to someone who has never done the job of interviewing, which he does really well," Bianculli said.

Jimmy Fallon, 39, who took over NBC's The Tonight Show from Jay Leno in February, and Seth Meyers, Fallon's 40-year-old replacement on the network's Late Night, each developed their comic touch as performers on sketch programme Saturday Night Live. Neither is a noted interviewer.

"Colbert's talent at playfully bantering with guests ... also reflects a contrast with Jimmy Fallon, who despite his knack for musical parodies and viral videos can at times be cloying or empty in the interview format," wrote Brian Lowry, the TV columnist for trade publication Variety.

CBS Entertainment chairwoman Nina Tassler said Colbert's representative approached the network about Letterman's spot. "When his name was brought to our attention, we jumped at it. He stood out above the rest," she said.

What is sure is that CBS is looking to expand on Colbert's Comedy Central audience and capitalising on his Twitter following of 6.2 million, which dwarfs the 286,000 at the Late Show.

Colbert's audience has a median age of 42 years, 16 years younger than Letterman's. Ad sales for The Colbert Report rose slightly last year, while advertising for Late Show declined.

Unlike his late-night rivals, Colbert has burnished his image by tackling political issues with the biting satire of his self-described "fool" persona.

Some have wondered if the South Carolina native's backhanded skewering of conservatives could stand in his way of establishing wide appeal outside of his niche cable personality. But in a signal of how he can connect, Colbert touched viewers last year when he dropped out of character in a moving tribute to his late mother.

"He is so nimble, and so smart and quick-witted," Tassler said. "All of those qualities and attributes are a hallmark of a great host."