Colbert: CBS gets it exactly right

Colbert (right) in a 2011 appearance on Late Show with David Letterman

Bill Carter has told me for at least two years that Stephen Colbert will replace David Letterman. On Thursday, CBS made it official.
As Carter, the author of The War for Late Night as well as The Late Shift, would point out, Colbert has made sure for years that his contract renewal date always lines up with Letterman’s–just in case an opportunity at CBS might arise.
Here’s Carter’s report on the transition–how it went down, whether Colbert will stick with his right wing pundit character (No), if Dave is on board (Yes), the whole enchilada.
It was never going to be Jon Stewart, said Carter, the long-time media reporter for The New York Times. Stewart is too into his kids and already has what he considered the best job in television, host of The Daily Show.
It was always going to be somebody in “Second Position.” Colbert is in second Position at Comedy Central behind Stewart. It is always the Second Position guy that moves up, the way Conan O’Brien (briefly) and Jimmy Fallon moved up to The Tonight Show.
It has never going to be Craig Ferguson, although Carter maintains Craigy has a “Prince of Wales” clause in his contract which triggers a payout from CBS should the network pass him over for Dave’s job. They have, and they will. Ferguson, at 51, is just two years older than Colbert, 49. He remains, however, an acquired taste best suited to the 12: 37 a.m. slot, at least as far as CBS research can determine, one assumes.
It was never going to be Conan O’Brien, who lost his brief Tonight job after he sunk below Letterman’s ratings at 11:30.
It was never going to be Howard Stern. Too old at 60 (although you`d never know it) and too rich from satellite radio, where he can say whatever he wants.
It was never going to be Jay Leno. Never.
Chelsea Handler? A woman at 11:30 would be a welcome change from the parade of middle aged men now in that timeslot. Handler, however, is another acquired taste, a little too tart for CBS. Other women mentioned–Tina Fey, Ellen DeGeneres–probably could not take the pay cut.
Anyone who has ever sat in Colbert’s New York studio and heard the thundering rapture from Colbert Nation will not be surprised at CBS’ choice. He’s a clear alternative to Fallon, a decade older and a lot more intimidating. Colbert`s show will be live and dangerous, which is what Letterman delivered in his prime.
Plus he`s damn funny. Colbert has been hilarious since way back as one of the two Steve’s (the other being Carell) on The Dana Carvey Show and later with his old Second City pal Amy Sedaris on the completely wrong cable comedy Strangers with Candy.
Plus he`s smart. Smart enough to say exactly the right thing Thursday: “Simply being a guest on David Letterman`s show has been a highlight of my career,” he says on the CBS release. “I never dreamed that I would follow in his footsteps, though everyone in late night follows Dave`s lead.”
In making the Colbert announcement now, CBS cleverly avoids having this game of who-will-succeed-Dave hanging over Letterman and Late Show like a year-long bad stink. It is done, and CEO Leslie Moonves–loyal to Dave to the end–provides his host will everything he needs to retire on his own terms and timetable. Nice.
For proof that Colbert will appeal to younger voters I need look no further than my 21-year-old son, Dan. This third year college student can’t get enough of Colbert and thinks my guy Dave is a codger. The baton has been passed.

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