Generation next … not yet: Stephen Colbert to take over from David Letterman
From one Baby Boomer to another — for the last time.
America’s favorite curmudgeonly late night talk show host, the venerable David Letterman, is giving way to America’s new favorite talk show master, Stephen Colbert. As perhaps two of the most recognizable comedic pop-culture leaders from opposite ends of the Baby Boomer spectrum, Colbert’s ascension to CBS’ primetime late night throne offers the Baby Boomer generation one last swing at the talk show plate.
This is it for major talk show opportunities for the Boomers.
At age 49, Colbert qualifies as a Baby Boomer just by the skin of his teeth (Colbert will turn the big five-oh on May 13, 2014). As a youngster among the Boomers, Colbert brings a distinctly fresher perspective and significantly younger audience to The Late Show. Indeed, Colbert’s audience may not even consider him to be a Boomer icon, but rather more a member of their generation, Gen X.
In terms of real competition, Colbert is a member of the new breed of Gen X major network late night talk show hosts, all recently installed or elevated to new, sexier time slots: Jimmy Fallon (age 39), Seth Meyers (age 40) and Jimmy Kimmel (age 46). The two other major icons among this demographic, Jon Stewart and Conan O’Brien are, like Colbert, Boomers. Stewart, in his emphatic endorsement of Colbert’s ascension to the Late Show slot, has not-so-subtly indicated his intention to stay in his well-established lane with The Daily Show. O’Brien, the erstwhile Tonight Show host, is firmly entrenched in his own show on TBS.
No one better and available
Colbert is it. Exactly when he will take over for Letterman is not yet determined. Letterman has indicated that he intends to step down “sometime in 2015” but has not indicated exactly when. It appears he will be given a lot of leeway to make a graceful exit on his terms. Either that, or there remains a great deal of behind-the-scenes negotiation going on to save face for all involved: Letterman, the network and the new regime.
What about Ellen?
There is one other Boomer talk show host icon also boxing in the heavyweight class: Ellen DeGeneres. DeGeneres would have been a more difficult choice to take over the Late Show spot: female, openly gay, older than the other contenders (she is 56) and well-established as a daytime show host. For some set of reasons, America and television networks alike seem to agree that daytime talk shows are different animals than late night talk shows. Rarely do talents suited for one type cross over successfully to another.
Perhaps the biggest strike against DeGeneres is CBS’ desperation to compete in the Generation X viewership. At 56, DeGeneres is almost Letterman-like in her appeal to a subset of Boomers and older Gen X-ers. In other words, not the future. Despite the innovative thinking that would have been required to hire an openly gay woman to take over a late night franchise, it may also be true that DeGeneres’ show, syndicated primarily across the NBC/Universal empire, may not have been contractually set up to allow her to step out for the competition. Or perhaps, like Stewart, she doesn’t want to.
As the best remaining standard-bearer for the all-important 18 — 49 demographic, Colbert is quite a “get” for CBS. For longtime fans of The Colbert Report and The Daily Show, Colbert’s move to the Late Show throne is not without a sense of loss: Colbert has stated that he will drop his forceful / naïve / aggressively stupid / conservative pundit character. His unique Colbert Report persona, which he dexterously weaved out of an original intention to mock conservative pundits like Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, offered a glimpse at a virtuoso performer that could simultaneously spew conservative outrage while affirming his own liberal compassionate views through his comedy. As his show went on, Colbert learned how to dial his persona up and down, depending on his guests and subject matter, without causing any confusion for his character’s beliefs and actions.
It’s the demos, stupid
Lauded as a master of monologue comedy and celebrity guest interviewing, Letterman is the acknowledged king of remaining old-guard talk show hosts. At age 66, Letterman more often than not came in second to The Tonight Show’s Jay Leno (recently departed), but still commands the focus of the Boomer/senior demographic — and will until he retires. It’s clear that winning the war for the declining older demographic will get you nowhere but farther behind in the ratings. Given the need to succeed with a younger demographic, it’s fair to wonder how close to 100 percent of the decision to depart came from Letterman himself.
To some, the selection of Colbert to take over for Letterman is both shocking and unsettling. Colbert’s career has been made by crafting a persona he acknowledges will not be carried over to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. What, exactly, is CBS getting, apart from a new way to speak to the 18 — 49 demographic?
As far as CBS is concerned, what else do they need to know? Let Colbert be Colbert — whatever that may be.
While tapping Colbert to be the new host of The Late Show is a coup for CBS, it does not come without risk to Colbert. The new show will feature an as-yet-unseen Stephen Colbert at the expense of “Stephen Colbert.” Colbert’s genius is in his character’s ability to deliver witheringly funny political commentary under the guise of externally directed (and self-directed) mockery. His “Stephen Colbert” character will no longer bluster inane or wrong-headed beliefs with a twinkle in his eye. The Colbert Nation waits to learn how he may continue his comedic genius after shedding the twinkle and the overt social-political content on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Taking the Late Show seat after David Letterman is a great risk to anyone. For Stephen Colbert, the last talk show icon of the Baby Boomer generation and icon of Gen X (and even Gen Y), he takes over the spot only after shedding the persona that got him there. It looks like our stars know as well as anyone that reinvention is the secret to remaining relevant. And, in the case of Letterman, retiring on your own terms.
An earlier version of this article appeared on WiseTribe.