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Tip of the hat (and wag of the finger) for Colbert as Letterman's replacement

David Letterman will pass the Late Show helm next year to Stephen Colbert, who already hosts a late-night Comedy Central show.
David Letterman will pass the Late Show helm next year to Stephen Colbert, who already hosts a late-night Comedy Central show.
Published Apr. 10, 2014

Well that was fast. Just days after David Letterman shocked fans and even family with his decision to retire from the Late Show in 2015, CBS has announced that Comedy Central satire king Stephen Colbert, 49, will take over his desk.

Colbert has helmed an award-winning fake news show on Comedy Central since 2005. He is known for his right-wing mockery, once famously quipping in a performance for President George W. Bush that "reality has a well-known liberal bias." And he introduced us to the word "truthiness" to explain why pundits have a gut feeling they are right despite all evidence.

Is he a good replacement for Letterman? We steal one of The Colbert Report's signature bits "Tip of the Hat, Wag of the Finger" to mull the pick.

Tip of the Hat: He's the safe pick that's also edgy.

There have been calls for a funny woman or comedian of color like Chelsea Handler, Wanda Sykes, Amy Schumer, Aisha Tyler or W. Kamau Bell to diversify the network lineup. (There are more white men named Jimmy than women or people of color hosting network late-night shows these days.) Colbert may be another white guy, but he's an edgy one. He succeeds in the tricky work of satire with a brain that runs at seemingly superhuman speed.

Wag of the Finger: He announced he won't do the new show in character. If getting Colbert on CBS means the death of his political pundit persona, a poorly informed idiot with a bloated ego, this is a huge loss to the entertainment world — and Colbert the character would be the first to say that.

Tip of the hat: Jon Stewart is a big fan. The Daily Show host dismissed talk of himself as replacement, but he told Vulture in an interview this week that Colbert would be the best choice. "He's got gears he hasn't even shown people yet," Stewart said. "He would be remarkable." He should know since Colbert got his start on Stewart's show.

Wag of the finger: Stewart and Colbert's fake news shows were designed to complement each other on Comedy Central. How can we break up this set?

Tip of the hat: He's a great interviewer. Watch the Colbert Report and note all the layers to his performance. He stays in character as a blow-hard talk show host, yet he listens closely enough to his guest to pick up on something and, using his excellent improvisational skills, spins it into gold. It's the equivalent of a high-wire act juggling chainsaws. He's so good at it that the Los Angeles Times reported in 2006 that many House members were advised not to pay "the price for looking stupid" and were urged to skip Colbert's show.

Wag of the finger: Exposing starlets for being shallow isn't nearly as satisfying as the time a Georgia congressman who wants the Ten Commandments displayed in the houses of Congress was asked by Colbert to name them. (He only knew three).

Tip of the hat: Colbert has defied expectations before. Critics were skeptical of The Colbert Report when it debuted in 2005, wondering how can you stretch a satire of Bill O'Reilly into a whole show. Then he introduced "truthiness" into the lexicon in his very first episode. The brilliant word for something that "feels right" without regard to logic, evidence or facts was named Word of the Year for 2005 by the American Dialect Society and for 2006 by Merriam-Webster.

Wag of the finger: We don't know what kind of interviewer he is "as himself." What if we don't like the "real" Colbert nearly as much as the fake one?

Tip of the hat: This can be a whole new factor in the late-night landscape. "What Colbert has done with The Colbert Report is, arguably, the greatest innovation in late night since Letterman launched NBC's Late Night in 1982," says Time. If Colbert can use that innovation and creativity to invent another groundbreaking show, he'll be formidable competition for the two Jimmys (Fallon and Kimmel) on network TV. All draw a young audience, though The Daily Show and The Colbert Report already top all their late night competitors in the quarter among adults between the ages of 18 and 49 years — the segment most coveted by advertisers.

Wag of the finger: Though Colbert will draw 20- and 30-somethings, he is known for political satire, which could be polarizing. "CBS has just declared war on the heartland of America," radio host Rush Limbaugh said Thursday. "No longer is comedy going to be a covert assault on traditional American values, conservatives, now it's just wide out in the open."