Letterman out, Colbert in — what this means for comedy

CBS this afternoon announced plans Stephen Colbert will replace David Letterman on “The Late Show” once Letterman retires in 2015.

In the grand scheme of this decision, there could not be a better choice to replace the man who made oddball comedy cool. In the early 1980s, when David Letterman first began appearing on our television screens, the television landscape was just readjusting from its first great period.

Late-night comedy, which began in earnest by Jack Paar, and was perfected by Johnny Carson had become a place of stagnation. Enter Letterman who, in the spirit of Saturday Night Live, brought viewers a type of comedy that they never expected. It was brash, it was different, it could hold the intellect of a Harvard professor as easily as a 10-year-old boy. It was just pure comedy, at it’s finest.

Though Letterman never got the seat hosting “The Tonight Show” that he coveted as a young man, he crafted a decades-long legacy for himself as the comedian’s comedian. His influence on today’s comedy is vast — from the films of Judd Apatow to the humor of other late-night hosts like Conan O’Brien, Jon Stewart and Jimmy Kimmel. What you see across your television today are a series of hosts doing their take on what Letterman made cool.

Enter Stephen Colbert, a man just as hungry for a comedy background as anyone else, who never got his time to shine outside of the over-the-top character he created. On “The Colbert Report” and his earlier time on “The Daily Show,” Colbert toed the line of topical observation and pure insanity with his years long send-up of the stereotypical conservative talk-show host.

Before his time with Comedy Central, Colbert was Steve Carrell’s understudy at the famed Second City theater. He parlayed that experience to time writing and performing on the short-lived “Dana Carvey Show” where he teamed up with writing icons like Louis CK and Charlie Kaufman. Colbert, who will turn 50 next year, has made a career out of making the joke you weren’t expecting, saying the thing that wasn’t supposed to be funny, but was — just like Letterman.

With Jimmy Fallon’s recent take-over of “The Tonight Show” naming him television’s creative darling, it will be interesting to see how Colbert takes over for one of the most respected comedic minds the world has ever seen. While his core audience has come to love the character he has created on “The Colbert Report,” the question remains concerning whether he will be able to parlay that success and reputation into just being himself.

In a recent interview with Vulture, friend and colleague Jon Stewart endorsed Colbert as a then-possible replacement for Letterman, noting that people may not know the real Colbert, but they sure will like him.

“He’s wonderful in ‘Colbert Report,’ but he’s got gears he hasn’t even shown people yet. He would be remarkable,” he said.

With Fallon at NBC, Kimmel entrenched at ABC, Conan at TBS and Jon Stewart at “The Daily Show,” comedy fans could be entering a perfect storm of cultural resonance come 2015.


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