Stephen Colbert's Smart Human Trick

The Comedy Central host is a great choice to replace David Letterman. But his biggest challenge will be playing a new character: himself.

One of the signature segments of “The Colbert Report” is “The Word,” in which Stephen Colbert takes an issue of the day and comically deconstructs it to its bare essence, usually in four syllables or less. With the news that Colbert will replace David Letterman on CBS’s “Late Show” next year, the Comedy Central host should be mulling one key word: Reinvention.

Colbert, who has brilliantly portrayed a blowhard conservative commentator for nearly a decade, is a great choice to succeed Letterman, who announced his retirement last week after 32 years of helping reinvent late night TV comedy.

But Colbert’s biggest challenge will be to create a new character: himself.

Colbert first came to prominence in 1998 on “The Daily Show,” playing an obnoxious newsman, probably best known for the “Even Stephven” bit in which he squared off in escalating bitter debates against Steve Carell, then one of the fake news show’s correspondents. Carell, of course, went on to greater fame in “The Office” and movies like “The 40-Year-old Virgin,” showing strong versatility.

There’s little doubt that the equally talented Colbert is capable of stretching and filling the Letterman role, leaving behind the friendly shadow cast by Jon Stewart and "The Daily Show." Still, it might take Colbert a while to find his comic voice outside of his iconic Bill O'Reilly-takeoff persona – and for fans to get used to him as himself.

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

What is clear is that he’ll arrive at CBS armed with one of the sharpest, quickest wits in show business. 

At 49, Colbert is among a generation of performers equally influenced by Letterman and Johnny Carson. Like Letterman – and one of his new major network competitors, Letterman acolyte Jimmy Kimmel of ABC – Colbert knows the value of a well-aimed barb. Like Carson, Colbert is comfortable with a wide range of guests, including authors, politicians and academics.

Like recently minted “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon, Colbert has a strong singing voice and is adept at mixing music with comedy (perhaps a good reason to keep Letterman sidekick Paul Shaffer and his “World’s Most Dangerous Band” around). Colbert and NBC’s Fallon, who memorably teamed on an epic version of the pop treacle “Friday” in 2011 and waged a fake feud to get flavors of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream named after themselves, now find themselves in a potential Letterman-and-Leno-like TV cold war.

Colbert, who reportedly is bringing his writers with him to “Late Show,” is poised to distinguish his edition of "Late Show" by consistently delivering a strong, topical monologue with more political edge than his rivals. Maybe he’ll even carry “The Word” with him a half-mile over from his Comedy Central studio to the Ed Sullivan Theater, where he’ll reign through at least 2020, barring an unwise move from New York.

In the meantime, the word is out on Colbert as he vies to prove that his defining role will be playing himself.

Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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