Stephen Colbert: The Road To The CBS Late Show Host-ship 2015 kicked off this week, with Actual Stephen Colbert visiting the show to kiss David Letterman’s ring and introduce himself to late-night America as a pleasant, humble kind of guy. At the exact same time, over on Comedy Central, Stephen Colbert-Nation, the puffed-up talk-show host headlining The Colbert Report, rhetorically threw down with conservative columnist George Will.
It was a neat equation of what Colbert will add to CBS and subtract from the political landscape. CBS will become home to the guy who will do the very best interview ever with Lindsay Lohan when she attempts her next career comeback (maybe when NBC revisits its Hillary Clinton biopic after the presidential election cycle?). But we’ve got an abundant supply of late-night Lohan interviewers. Meanwhile, our gross national product of viral, make-you-think TV political humorists appears to be about to plunge 50%, from Colbert plus Jon Stewart to Stewart alone (though Comedy Central alum John Oliver’s upcoming HBO weekly show may tip the scales a bit).
“There is no mountain left for me to climb — it’s become clear to me that I’ve won television,” Comedy Central Colbert joked-but-not-really last night in a surprise visit to The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart. “At this point, I’m just running up the score…Almost nine years ago I promised to change the world and, together, I did it.”
On Colbert Report Tuesday, wire-rimmed, brilliantine-haired Colbert demonstrated what we’re going to lose when he traded jabs with the syndicated columnist he has called “the most influential voice of the 19th century.” Opening the interview, he incorrectly told his younger audience that Will’s syndicated column is published in more than 50 newspapers worldwide, quickly correcting that to 500 newspapers and asking Will, “that rattled you for a second – did you think you’d been fired from 450 newspapers?
“No, I’m aware of the standards here,” replied Will who, in a recent interview with Daily Caller had said he only watches Colbert’s show when he himself is on it. That’s quite a pose for a guy who’s out peddling a book about a baseball field. Colbert appeared to think so too, and took the conversation on one of his trademark hairpin turns, saying of Wrigley Field, “I love things that are old – I’m a conservative, you’re a conservative, I don’t think anything should ever change.”
Will took the bait, insisting that made Colbert a liberal because liberals think whatever exists should continue, as he reluctantly wrenched his focus from selling his book (at $19.26 a copy for hardcover and $10.99 a pop on Kindle, times Colbert’s 1.5 million viewers on a slow night) to Social Security in the year 1935. Colbert pointed out that “conservatives want to ‘conserve’ things” adding “I hate to go all etymological on you — I know you’re a bit of a wordsmith,” like he meant it to sting. Yes, it was starting to smell like a bad day on This Week — the ABC Sunday Beltway show to which Will was much addicted until he moved over to Fox News Channel. Remembering his base, Will added he did not think the country should do away with Social Security altogether. “I think we should,” Colbert pounced, adding sweetly, “Am I more of a conservative that you are?”
“Yes,” Will said, throwing in the towel.
“OK… I was trying to lead you into a field where old people would shoot you in the head,” Colbert said, wrapping up the skirmish. The studio audience tittered nervously. While Colbert has declined to say what vision of a late-night show he has discussed with CBS, don’t expect it to be this particular brand of scorching satire in which Colbert revels at Comedy Central, and his fans adore. Broadcast TV hasn’t the stomach for it:
Meanwhile, in the same timeslot (both shows taped in advance of broadcast) CBS viewers learned more about why a guy who is given that kind of editorial latitude would walk away from a platform that has made him part of the national political conversation, to take over an old-school stars-plugging-movies talk-show on the oldest skewing broadcast network, where he will be judged based on the wildly outdated overnight Nielsen ratings formula.
After being escorted out on stage to the 1929 tune Walk Right In, Colbert spoke eloquently of his old-school reverence for the broadcast late-night legacy — a relationship that dates back nearly 30 years, when he landed an internship on Dave’s NBC late-night show — though he turned it down after discovering it did not pay. Nearly 17 years ago, Colbert tried to work his way back into Dave’s fold as a staff writer on his show. Sentimental Colbert even saved his Top-10 Cocktails for Santa list he used in his application – which he read in its entirety on last night’s show. It played like Colbert was back auditioning for Dave’s approval again, which Colbert seemed to become aware of at about No. 6 (Scrooge Driver: Grain alcohol and regret), prompting him to say to his host, “I don’t think you would have hired me at this point.” It was left to Dave to school Colbert in how a broadcaster saves this bit, wrapping it up with, “I like the fact you explained all of them — all of the jokes have been explained…We gave up on that back in ’97.”
In his appearance on Dave’s show, Actual Stephen Colbert (who has blow-dried hair and wears Clark Kent glasses) sounded surprisingly like all those tortured-guys-make-the-best comics from a bygone days of late night broadcast TV. Heck, he veered toward the Leno-esque. When Dave asked if he enjoys taking vacations, Colbert responded, “No I do not. I don’t know why YOU do comedy but it’s not because everything’s all right up here for me,” as he tapped his own head. “It’s not a normal thing to do with your life – it’s more dangerous than bungee jumping, deciding to do this for a living,” Colbert said. “But I don’t have the constitution for hardcore alcoholism, so I have to tell jokes all the time or I go a little insane.”