Stephen Colbert Should Replace David Letterman on CBS (Opinion)

Stephen Colbert Inauguration - H 2013

There’s nothing wrong with wild speculation. It fuels columnists across the land. We bathe in it. And yet, I can totally see what I’m about to say coming true:

Meet David Letterman’s successor: Stephen Colbert.

Hell, nobody’s talking about CBS these days. I spend a quarter of my time reminding people who want to dismiss the network -- because they don’t watch it -- that it’s such a well-oiled machine of domination you half expect it to be owned by BMW. It’s not floundering like the other networks. It’s working, seemingly, in another dimension entirely.

But if you’re looking to spot an apparent weakness, look no further than CBS’s late-night situation. As much as I respect Craig Ferguson, he’s not the answer. I’m not sure you could put him at 11:35 p.m. alongside the next king of late night, Jimmy Kimmel, and, maybe by then, Jimmy Fallon. That’s not advancement. That’s not cutting-edge decision-making. It’s going to be a younger man’s game by then.

And while Colbert might not scream “youth movement” the way that Fallon does, he’s an absolute platinum-level talent who would pull an extremely devoted audience.

ANALYSIS: Jon Stewart vs. Jay Leno: Who Will Be Missed Most?

Letterman’s contract with CBS runs through 2014. Colbert’s contract with Comedy Central runs through 2014. (And if NBC is going to say goodbye to Jay Leno, without paying a reportedly severe kill fee, then his slot will be free in September of 2014 as well. It’s beginning to make a lot of sense. And it’s beginning to get juicy. Oh, I like this convergence of trains…)

Yes, it’s true that Ferguson’s contract runs through 2014 as well. But I’m not so sure he’s been given any promise to take over for Letterman, even though Letterman’s Worldwide Pants is a producer of his Late Late Show. It’s not like staying right where he is would be a bad thing, either. There are worse jobs in America.

As for Colbert, how does this make any sense? Well, for starters, he’s milked The Colbert Report conceit brilliantly beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. What more is there for him, especially if you toss in what amounts to another couple of years of stretching that gig out? All creative people tire of routine at some point, and Colbert is incredibly creative; look at how he constantly tries to branch out. Plus, he’s smart and multifaceted.

Why wouldn’t he want to be a late-night host? Yes, the job -- as Conan O’Brien found out -- is a lot less than what dreams were made of in the Johnny Carson era. But at some point he’s going to want to drop the faux Colbert Report persona and be himself and see where that can take him creatively, even in the confined box of a late-night host.

I could see him in that role with ease, bringing a manic energy to it and fresh ideas to it just like Letterman did in the days of yore.

Before Colbert really hit it big -- as in, big enough for his own ice cream, etc. -- I had the pleasure of interviewing him live onstage at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco. It’s a beautiful, intimate venue, and by the time the show arrived, he was exponentially more famous than when he was booked. He could have sold out the theater four times over, at minimum. But if you listen to that podcast, what you’ll hear is a guy not in character, open to a number of free-flowing, personal topics, and there’s clear evidence that he would be – in case it wasn’t obvious enough – a brilliant late-night talk show host with immense, surprising range.

In fact, Colbert could be the one host on the market who could combine the modernity of Letterman’s glory days with the genre-defining humor and panache of Carson while also tapping back into the seminal days of Dick Cavett/Jack Paar/Steve Allen.

In short, he might be the greatest pick for a late-night talk show host since Carson. Now that might be enough for CBS to pony up the money needed and, more important, make the aggressive sales pitch necessary to convince Colbert that this would be a good idea.

But let me go beyond that, as a TV critic and lover of quality talk shows: This isn’t a good idea -- it’s a great idea. Right now, there is no one in the late-night arena better than Kimmel. As I’ve said previously, he’s the future, and the future is here. Fallon is fun. He’s not going to change or challenge that tag on Kimmel. Because he’s a different animal, and Kimmel simply has more and better tools.

But Colbert -- and it bears repeating that he’d be himself, not his right-wing caricature -- would add a fascinating new dimension to the competition. What I like about this dream scenario most is that he and Kimmel are so different that there’d be no overlap. They would both be essential personalities to DVR every night.

Some of the benefits that Colbert can bank on are the incredible lead-ins from CBS programming every night. At some point, a late-night host finds his audience, and that audience more or less is consistent, with minor fluctuations. Letterman, my personal hero in the modern late-night wars, is past the point of adding new college kids or curious onlookers. You watch him because you love him and always have.

New blood, on the other hand, has the best chance we’ve seen in ages to capitalize on CBS’ primetime domination. A new host, with hype, with curiosity, who already has a loyal fan base and has the tools to cater to the existing CBS audience and also bring newbies into the fold? That’s gold.

So, sure, it’s wild speculation at this point. And real change is still in the distance. But there might not be a better match between host and network anywhere on the horizon.


Twitter:  @BastardMachine