What are the challenges Stephen Colbert will face on the road to late night?

Rounding up the helps and hindrances Colbert will encounter as he takes over David Letterman’s slot

Stephen Colbert

Stephen Colbert

Born at the Second City and raised on Strangers with Candy alongside pal Amy Sedaris, Colbert's testicles really descended on The Daily Show. To say Colbert has become a man while following Jon Stewart isn't right; more than just a sharp performer and writer now, Colbert has made himself into a star. Sensibly, CBS has chosen him to fill the slot left by the retiring David Letterman—but to make the jump into the hearts and minds of those gawking at late-night basic cable takes a certain amount of finesse. Here are a few things Colbert might bump up against, and a few other things that may work in his favor.


Colbert the persona vs. Colbert the person

Since The Colbert Report—and many public appearances of Stephen Colbert—have been predicated on the notion that Colbert is a bloviating, conservative demiurge twice the size of Bill O'Reilly, it will be hard for people to extract the megalomaniac from the man. Though he's certainly a generous presence when he does step out from behind the metaphorical curtain, Colbert the man has been hunkered down as Colbert the character since 2005. It's going to take time and some convincing for people to accept him as him. Also, presumably, the conservative CBS viewers will already have a reason not to like him. Then again, just as a certain type of reader believes Onion headlines, some people probably still believe the Colbert character is in earnest.

Satire vs. mainstream humor

In your mind, try to set Colbert's sharp critiques alongside Jimmy Fallon's cute games and pandering interviews; it isn't easy. To this point, Colbert has been focused on using the words and deeds of politicians and other public figures against them, helping viewers to see how gross these things were in context. Though Letterman is certainly cutting in his interviews, his loopiness and absurdity have been his guiding lights. Late-night hosting isn't a political job, no, but cable has offered Colbert ideological freedom. When Colbert does go after a target on CBS, the network may have to remind him about pleasing people.

He's a white man

With such a packed schedule of late-night programs—Fallon, Conan, Kimmel, Stewart, Ferguson, and now Seth Meyers, Pete Holmes and Chris Hardwick—many late-night viewers have let it be known they would prefer to watch someone a little less Caucasian and male. (Yes, Arsenio is a fine counterpoint, but his show is syndicated and it feels trapped in 1992.) It's fine that Chelsea Handler didn't get the job, but Colbert may get push-back for remaining a white dude.


The youth vote

As CBS no doubt knows, Colbert does great with the younger, smarter demographic that the network dinosaurs are always chasing. Sure, some people will drift away if the pointed, political nature of the Report goes away, but it seems clear that fans are invested in more than just Colbert's persona or worldview.

People already talk about him

Colbert wows. He's thought about running for president, he moved the entire Report to Iraq, he gave a legendary speech at a George W. Bush White House Correspondents' Dinner, he's testified before Congress, and he made people think about the whole Super PAC situation by toying with his own. Colbert's a provocateur on a large scale, but, more importantly: He knows how to make a scene. Also, if #cancelcolbert didn't faze him, he'll be fine when future controversy comes his way.

He's a white man

Eh, what can you say about vanilla? It may be a less intriguing flavor, but you know it, it's fine, it goes down easy enough.

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Editor: Marley Lynch (@marleyasinbob)


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