NEW YORK – In choosing Stephen Colbert as its new late night star, CBS, in a way, is bringing an untested and whole new talent to the network: Colbert has made it clear he will drop the broadly satirical blowhard conservative character he has played for nine years, and instead perform as himself.
CBS made its choice, quickly and definitively: The star of Comedy Centrals’ “Colbert Report” will, indeed, succeed David Letterman as the host of its late night franchise which Letterman created when he came to he network in 1993.
The network made the announcement Thursday, exactly one week after Letterman said that he would be leaving the “Late Show With David Letterman” after one more year on the air.
Colbert became the immediate front-runner for the position both because of an increasing recognition of his talent – his show won two Emmy Awards last year – and because he clearly wanted the job. His representation had ensured that he would be available to CBS by syncing his recent contracts with Letterman’s.
His current deal with Comedy Central will expire at the end of this year, making the timing ideal for him to leave for CBS.
In a statement on Thursday, he said: “I won’t be doing the new show in character, so we’ll all get to find out how much of him was me. I’m looking forward to it.”
Colbert, 49, had been subtly shifting away from the character in recent years, especially in on-air interviews. People close to him said he had for some time believed he would soon have to move beyond the satirical Colbert character – though not from the name. He has used the French pronunciation of Colbert (Cole-BEAR, rather than COLE-burt) during his entire career in show business.
Other creative details of the new show are still undetermined, CBS executives said, including whether the show will remain in New York or relocate to Los Angeles. But several executives connected to the negotiations pointed out that Colbert had established a settled family life in Montclair, N.J., and had never looked to move to Hollywood. Also, CBS owns the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway, where Letterman has worked for the last 21 years. It is the natural home for the new Colbert show, the executives said.
Leslie Moonves, the chief executive of CBS, who was the primary mover in getting the deal done, said the negotiations moved at a breakneck pace beginning the day Letterman announced his plans. Moonves said a “barrage of calls” immediately came in from representatives of comics seeking the job.
But when Colbert’s agent, James Dixon, called to express Colbert’s interest, the talks quickly became serious.
The five-year deal was not difficult to conclude, Moonves said, because both sides were equally interested. But he said that Colbert had one special request: “He said, ‘I want to be sure Dave is on board.’” Moonves said he had already decided that “it was essential to me to get Dave’s blessing.”
So he called and spoke to the star personally to let him know that the network was leaning toward hiring Colbert. “Dave was very happy,” Moonves said. “He was very supportive and said it was a great choice.”
In a statement, Letterman said: “Stephen has always been a real friend to me. I’m very excited for him, and I’m flattered that CBS chose him. I also happen to know they wanted another guy with glasses.”
Colbert has made a name for pushing the edges of political satire, at times enraging voices on the right with his bumptious rendering of conservative positions. Famously, he disturbed the media universe at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in 2006 when he gave no quarter in mocking then-President George W. Bush.
Though he has never openly endorsed Democrats or liberal positions (hardly what his conservative character would do), he did turn up seated next to Michelle Obama at a state dinner at the White House this year (and his character even bragged about it on the air).
The news of Colbert’s appointment inflamed conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh, who said CBS had “declared war on the heartland of America.” But CBS executives made it clear they expected Colbert to broaden his appeal when he moved to late night on a network.
Colbert has demonstrated that he can do more than political satire. He won a Grammy Award for his musical Christmas special, “A Colbert Christmas,” in 2009, and starred as Harry in a 2011 production of “Company” by the New York Philharmonic. His Comedy Central show has won three Emmy Awards for best writing for a variety show and two Peabody Awards.
He is also a favorite of a wide range of other comedians, including the two men who will be his direct competitors.
Jimmy Fallon, the new host of NBC’s “Tonight” show, has described Colbert (who had a cameo on the premiere of Fallon’s show this year) as “a genius, the funniest man alive.” Jimmy Kimmel, who hosts ABC’s late night show, (and shares Dixon as an agent) posted on Twitter on Thursday: “a finer or funnier man I do not know.”
The selection of Colbert will most likely push several rows of dominoes into action in late night.
Comedy Central will need a host for its 11:31 p.m. show. Chris Hardwick, who is hosting a new late night show on the channel, “@Midnight,” will surely be among those mentioned as a possibility to move up a half-hour. But that cable channel has recently added a number of hit shows with new performers, some of whom – Daniel Tosh, the team of Key and Peele, and Amy Schumer – could contend for Colbert’s old post.
Schumer could quell some of the criticism of late night shows being too much a male preserve, just as Key and Peele might answer critics who charge it is too white.
CBS will face questions about its own host-in-waiting, Craig Ferguson, whose contract concludes at the end of this year.
If Ferguson decides to leave, the network will be seeking another host for its 12:35 a.m. show.
“No decision has been made about 12:35,” Moonves said. “We’re in discussions. Our pat answer is, Let us deal with one hour at a time.”
The main hour is dealt with for the long term, Moonves said. “This is like a 20-year decision. I’m confident I made the right one.”