By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.
One of the biggest entertainment stories of the last week was the announcement that Stephen Colbert will be taking over for David Letterman as the host of Late Night next year. This news has created some waves, and not just on the entertainment pages. Many fans of Colbert have expressed concern that he will no longer be playing the role of ‘Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report‘, and instead will be simply ‘the real Stephen Colbert’. The ‘Report’ watchers want Colbert to retain his egotistical, self-loving, arrogant conservative political commentator persona in his new role. It looks like they are going to be in for a disappointment.
For others though, that fake conservative persona is exactly why they feel Colbert should not be allowed to take over for Letterman. Colbert is obviously liberal, and most of his satire has been directed towards the more conservative talking-heads in today’s Washington and in the world of cable news. Hence, Colbert’s humor can make a good many influential figures squirm. Bill O’Reilly, who Colbert’s character is most obviously based upon, recently called Colbert a ‘deceiver’, and an ‘ideological fanatic’. Being on CBS will give Colbert a much larger sounding board, and this is frightening to many like ‘Papa Bear’. Thus, after the announcement that Colbert would be succeeding Letterman, Rush Limbaugh vituperatively claimed that Colbert’s hire meant that ‘CBS had declared war on the heartland of America.’ This may have been classic Limbaugh hyperbole; or, perhaps he actually believes all Colbert watchers live exclusively in New York and San Francisco. Either way, he loses here.
Personally, I love Colbert. If he is ‘The Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report‘, or the ‘real’ Stephen Colbert makes little difference to me; he is funny as hell either way. But, I do have one concern about his move to CBS, and that is this: What is going to happen to Colbert’s guest line-ups? Colbert’s choice of guests over the years on ‘The Report’ have been nothing short of revolutionary. Learning from his big-brother program ‘The Daily Show with Jon Stewart’, Colbert provides a fresh intellectual breath of air amongst the staid landscape of mindless TV talk shows. While most talk shows interview celebrities, or cutesy human-interest guests, Colbert (and Stewart) have continually provided their audiences with a wide-range of less famous, but more important guests. Sure, Will Ferrell will sit down with Stephen one night; but on the next night, Jane Goodall will stop by. Brad Pitt on Monday; Tuesday and Wednesday, Neil de Grasse Tyson and Steven Pinker.
I am concerned these eclectic, intellectual guest line ups will be lost with Colbert taking over for Letterman. Just take a look at who has been the headlining guest on The Late Show during the last three months:
- Michael Strahan
- Julia Roberts
- Drew Brees
- Dr. Phil
- Jack Hanna
- Tom Selleck
- Etc, etc.
Now, here is a short sample of Colbert’s guests during the same period:
- Scott Stossel (Journalist for The Atlantic/Author of My Age of Anxiety.)
- Michael Chabon (Author of Adventures of Cavalier and Clay/On to speak about Ernest Hemingway)
- Patricia Churchland (Neurologist/Philosopher)
- Drew Brees (Hey, a match!)
- Paul Krugman (Princeton Economist/NY Times contributor)
- Brian Greene (Physicist)
- Alexander Payne (Director of’ Nebraska)
- Simon Schama (Historian)
If he keeps such guests, Colbert’s move could be a radical change for American late-night. If he doesn’t, and becomes just another Leno or Letterman, viewers will have lost more than simply his fake conservative persona.