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Choice of Colbert to succeed Letterman makes perfect sense

By Alan Pergament

After further review, CBS' announcement this afternoon that Stephen Colbert will replace David Letterman on "The Late Show" makes perfect sense.

It certainly makes more sense than Colbert's fictional conservative talk show host on "The Colbert Report" often makes.

When Letterman announced a week ago that he planned to retire in about a year, my instant pick to replace him was Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" -- if he wanted the job.

I would like to know if Stewart wanted it or was ever offered it, but I doubt we'll find out any time soon.

CBS is going with Colbert, whose Comedy Central talk show "The Colbert Report" is a spinoff of "The Daily Show" and revolves around a fictional conservative talk show host who started on Stewart's show.

There are several reasons why naming Colbert as Letterman's successor makes sense.

* I don't think age is one of them. He turns 50 next month, so he is only slightly younger than Stewart, who turns 52 in November. He will be competing with NBC's 39-year-old Jimmy Fallon or ABC's 46-year-old Jimmy Kimmel.

* Colbert's hiring is less of a risk than if CBS had gone with Neil Patrick Harris, who has considerable variety skills but was unknown as an interviewer.

* Colbert wanted the job so badly that the Bill Carter, an excellent New York Times reporter, said Colbert even had his Comedy Central contracts timed to run out when Letterman's contracts with CBS ended. You got the sense from Carter's reports that Colbert would have ended changed his name to Jimmy just to get the job.

* He is comfortable doing sketches, something that Fallon and Kimmel have gotten praise for and that attract younger viewers when they land on YouTube and social networks. Colbert's Christmas special on Comedy Central a while ago illustrated his sketch skills. 

* And although his fictional conservative talk show actually pokes fun at conservatives, Colbert isn't as in-your-face liberal as Stewart frequently can be. I doubt CBS would want to deal again with more loud claims about how biased it is.

While Stewart directly debates Fox's Bill O'Reilly and other conservatives in different ways than the way he just skewers them on his show, Colbert generally makes fun of them through his character and that might seem less offensive to sensitive conservatives. They key words are "might seem."

It is hard to say how Colbert's move to "The Late Show " will play in Western New York.

Neither "The Daily Show" or "The Colbert Report" does very well playing opposite the 11 p.m. news and the 11:35 p.m. late night network shows here. I'm told that, on a good night, Stewart's show gets a 1 rating and Colbert's show slightly less than that.

However, Comedy Central plays them three other times the next day, and the shows are also available On Demand, so it's difficult to tell how well they do here overall.

I initially assumed that Colbert planned to continue to play a fake conservative host when he takes over "The Late Show." However, Carter has reported that Colbert plans to be himself.

It is hard to know how that will play. However, the fake conservative host is an acquired taste and it might have taken some time for new viewers to acquire it.

Buffalo viewers got a hint about what the "real" Colbert would be like six years ago when he spoke at the University at Buffalo.

Carter's report lead me to refer to a 2008 interview that I did with Colbert before he came to UB. Here's what I wrote back then:

Of course, the big question is which Stephen Colbert will be here -- the calm one on the telephone or the loud, animated, playful conservative character he plays on basic cable?

"[I'll be] pretty much like I'm talking to you right now," he said. "The weird thing about my character, even on the show, is sometimes I say what I mean. It doesn't matter to me that the audience doesn't know when that is.

"When I do a show live, it is far less of the character... It is an odd mix. People who invite me to speak ... my name is Stephen Colbert and the character's name is Stephen Colbert and sometimes I'm not really sure who they've invited. So I do a little bit of both."

My initial thought is Colbert is clever enough to make it work no matter who he is. 


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About Talkin' TV

Alan Pergament

Alan Pergament

Alan Pergament has continued to blog about television topics since retiring in 2010 as The News' television writer after 28 years on the beat. From local on-air personalities to ratings to the latest on network and cable programming, he keeps you informed.

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