In the series finale of “The Colbert Report,” the host accidentally vanquishes the devil, earning him immortality and a joyous rendition of “We’ll Meet Again,” performed by everyone from economist Paul Krugman to Cookie Monster.
The moment made for great television, but in retrospect, Colbert may hope that fans regard it less as a celebration than a funeral.
That’s because the biggest competition he faces in Tuesday’s launch of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” isn’t Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel. It’s Colbert himself, or more precisely, the chest-pumping, fire-breathing, unflappable character with star-spangled underwear as whom he masqueraded for nearly a decade.
Conventional wisdom strongly suggests that while a pretend pundit can thrive on a niche channel like Comedy Central, he’d quickly wear out his welcome on a mainstream network like CBS, where most viewers want to go to bed with a confidant, not a cartoon.
Early reports indicate that Colbert is keenly aware of his need for an extreme makeover. According to a recent Time magazine cover story, he’s toying with a recurring segment entitled “Who Am Me?” that will help viewers adjust to his new, more personal persona.
Skeptics should note that Colbert’s largely unknown but solid background bodes well for a successful transformation. Here are four reasons why he should do well:
1. He knows the neighborhood
David Letterman, the previous tenant at the Ed Sullivan Theater, often nodded to his venue’s storied history, but gave only passing regards to Broadway. Expect Colbert to take advantage of musical Manhattan, starting next week with a number from the Tony Award-winning show “An American in Paris.” Heck, he may even step into the chorus line.
Colbert already put his singing-and-dancing chops to use as a closeted history teacher in Comedy Central’s “Strangers with Candy,” which often ended episodes with over-the-top musical numbers. He offered more kicks than Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” video in a “Report” version of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” warbled carols with Elvis Costello in a Grammy-winning Christmas special and held his own with Neil Patrick Harris and Patti LuPone in a PBS production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company.”
Colbert may even use musical segments to do more than boost artists’ sales. Friday’s show promises an appearance from Troubled Waters, a Paul Simon tribute band that doesn’t seem to exist. An actual appearance from the songwriting legend himself would say a lot about Colbert’s pull, since Simon is a longtime friend of Fallon’s executive producer, Lorne Michaels.
2. He’s smarter than a 5th grader
Colbert’s guest list in September reads like it was lifted from the desk of Charlie Rose. Politicians like Jeb Bush, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have become regulars on the late-night circuit, but Colbert has booked Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk — people not exactly known for making TV appearances past the dinner hour.
Unless Colbert is only inviting intelligentsia to see how they perform in beer pong, expect “The Late Show” to offer more highbrow fare. That befits the host’s off-air interests, which range from teaching Sunday school to naming a module of the International Space Station. (NASA passed on his suggestion of “Colbert,” but it did brand the astronauts’ treadmill in his honor.)
3. He also reads Entertainment Weekly
Not that “The Late Show” will be a total wonkfest. George Clooney, Amy Schumer and Toby Keith will be on hand the first week to remind viewers that pop culture still matters. Colbert’s passion for “The Hobbit” runs so deep that he made a cloaked cameo in “The Desolation of Smaug,” and he gets comic-book cred for being inked into an issue of “The Amazing Spider-Man.”
Like Fallon and Conan O’Brien, he can put “Saturday Night Live” on his résumé, having partnered with Steve Carell as voice talent in the recurring animated sketch “The Ambiguously Gay Duo.”
If that wasn’t enough, Colbert spent part of his wayward youth fronting a Rolling Stones cover band, a decidedly hipper pastime than Kimmel’s stint as a bass clarinetist in his high school marching band.
4. Mr. Colbert has gone to Washington
All late-night hosts poke fun at politics, but how many can say they’ve been entrenched in it? In order to prove a point about the loopholes in PAC donations, Colbert announced his candidacy for president in 2007, getting some traction in both South Carolina and Pennsylvania.
He temporarily dropped his self-serving facade in 2010 to testify before Congress about lack of rights for migrant workers in upstate New York and stood beside his mentor Jon Stewart that same year for a semi-serious political rally at the Lincoln Memorial.
Does this mean we need to take Colbert seriously as a political contender? Of course not. But when it comes to being a viable player in the late-night race, all signs point to him being a candidate to watch.