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The real Colbert is just what late-night TV needs

Stephen Colbert will be himself.
Stephen Colbert will be himself.
Published Apr. 13, 2014

CBS put a swift end to speculation and announced Thursday that Stephen Colbert will take over as host of the network's Late Show sometime next year when longtime host David Letterman retires. It's a five-year contract. It's also a welcome and possibly daring choice in the late-night genre, which could use the inventive, concertina-wire wit and mastery of tone that Colbert possesses.

Nation, I can tell you're mildly alarmed. Don't be.

In announcing the deal, Colbert and CBS felt the need to make it clear that "Stephen Colbert," the conservative firebrand cable-news pundit he has played to great effect on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" for nine years, is not coming along for the ride.

Instead, Colbert will host Late Show as himself. "I won't be doing the new show in character, so we'll all get to find out how much of him was me," he said in a statement.

All along, there has been the perception that viewers struggle to understand that Colbert plays a character. This doesn't have to be as confusing at it might seem. We should eagerly look forward to seeing Colbert ditch "Colbert."

It should be clear to anyone who has enjoyed The Colbert Report that there is a whole lot more to the man behind that show's essential shtick. Colbert's background is in theater and improv comedy. He's a married father and devout Catholic. He keeps his personal politics and beliefs low-key, probably to enhance the character he plays on TV, or maybe because, like Letterman, he can easily coast above the fray.

The layers of irony routinely practiced on The Colbert Report (in which the guest knows beforehand that he or she will be interviewed by a caricature of a media monster) have been excellent practice for what could be a higher level of chit-chat on Late Show.

This is the quality that the late-night field needs most. We need a seriously funny adult to talk to other interesting adults for an audience of adults, in this century as it is lived, with a gift for skepticism and as free as possible from Johnny Carson nostalgia. On NBC, The Tonight Show's Jimmy Fallon is sweet, but he only seems interested in his guests as recess playmates and participants in a sketch show. On ABC, Jimmy Kimmel's conversational style is perfunctory and witty, sometimes probing, occasionally sneering, but not always that interesting.

Late-night viewers have a year or so to get comfortable with the idea of Colbert replacing Letterman.

Not everything about The Colbert Report should be flushed away with its make-believe host; like all late-night shows, the new version of Late Show will need more than just guests and a live band.

The same critical mind (and writing staff, one hopes) that gave viewers such lasting concepts as "truthiness" and "factose intolerance" will now go to work coming up with the next version of whatever will replace the mother of all late-night bits: the Top Ten List.

— Washington Post