Better 'Late' Than Never: Real Colbert Ready for Spotlight

Image: File photo of Comedian Stephen Colbert gestures during the "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" on the National Mall in Washington
Comedian Stephen Colbert gestures during the "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in 2010. JIM BOURG / Reuters

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Everybody knows Stephen Colbert, but not many people know the Colbert that will be taking over the “Late Show” next year. As popular as he is, Colbert has spent little time on camera as himself, adding an air of mystery to next year’s talk-show twist that will probably only work in his favor.

After nine years of Colbert playing a conservative pundit on his show for Comedy Central, some critics perceive his selection as David Letterman’s successor as risky, because no one knows what to expect from him when he jumps into the broadcast fray next year. But that's also what makes the selection exciting and

appealing for CBS.

Stephen Colbert talks David Letterman on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" on April 10, 2014.Comedy Central

The 49-year-old Emmy winner joked about the notion himself Thursday after CBS declared he was the man for the job just a week after Letterman announced his retirement.

“I won’t be doing the new show in character, so we’ll all get to find out how much of him was me,” Colbert said in a statement. “I’m looking forward to it.”

What Colbert, without a doubt, is a proven comedian who can improvise as well as do stand-up and sketch comedy. He has all of the qualities that make up a terrific talk-show host: he can act and dance, and he is one of the best interviewers in the medium.

“The guy’s got a lot of tools in his box, and his fake pundit isn’t the only thing he can do with them,” wrote Times magazine critic James Poniewozik. “Nor is politics, as anyone knows who’s watched him geek out on-air over Tolkien, or roller-dance with Bryan Cranston to ‘Get Lucky.’”

It didn’t take long after CBS made its choice public on Thursday for Colbert’s politics to be called into question. His character on “The Colbert Robert” is a “blustery right-wing pundit,” but the man behind the satirical role is far from it, a fact that conservative radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh immediately likened to CBS declaring “war on the heartland of America.”

“No longer is comedy going to be a covert assault on traditional American values, conservative values — now it’s just wide out in the open,” Limbaugh said. “What this hire means is a redefinition of what is funny and a redefinition of what is comedy and they’re blowing up the 11:30 format under the guise of ‘the world’s changing.’”

“It’s the media planting a flag, here,” Limbaugh concluded. “It’s a declaration.”

Essentially, Limbaugh’s fear is that Colbert will use the “Late Show” as a pulpit for skewering conservatives instead of as a venue to entertain. But he’s forgetting two key points: Letterman, too, is liberal, and while the “Late Show” covers current events, it is not a political show in nature.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly about Colbert’s appointment, CBS entertainment chairman Nina Tassler said she didn’t consider Colbert’s liberal bent or that the man who quipped “reality has a well-known liberal bias” may not have much of a following among conservatives. For one thing, the median age of Colbert’s viewers is 42 — 16 years younger than Letterman’s.

“We didn’t have concerns,” she said. “We were most excited about his talent to be creative and innovative, and now he’s going to work on his idea of what his show will look like.”

By their nature, late night shows have always been political to an extent, the former director of CBS Late Night programming said during an interview Thursday on HuffPost Live.

“It’s the end of the day,” Dorian Hannaway said. “It’s whatever people are talking about that day. You can’t don’t do a late night show if it’s an election year and not talk about the campaigns. I think late night is always covertly political, even with Carson. I’m glad Colbert’s not doing it in character. It will be interesting to see.”

Those who do know Colbert and have worked with him think it’s a non-issue.

“What are his politics gonna be? It doesn’t really matter because this guy has an edge with a love,” said Sirius XM Satellite Radio host Pete Dominick during an interview on HuffPost Live. Dominick worked as the warm-up comic on “The Colbert Report for six years. “He is such a consummate professional in that he tries to squeeze the comedy and the entertainment out of every moment of life, especially on air. This guy is far and away the best, period.”

As Dominick wrote in The Daily Beast, “some of Colbert’s best work has actually taken place on other stages and networks” — meaning there are plenty of clues as to who he is and what he can do for those in doubt.

Take the 2006 White House Correspondent’s Dinner.

Or his Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.

Or his out-of-character and touching tribute to his mother.

Or, yes, the time he roller-danced with Cranston.

On his show Thursday night, Colbert paid tribute to Letterman: “This man has influenced every host who came after him, and even a few who came before him — he is that good."

Then, in character, he added: "I gotta tell you, I do not envy whoever they try to put in that chair. Those are some huge shoes to fill. And some really big pants.”

Which Colbert will we get next year? Stay tuned, Colbert Nation.