Stephen Colbert to take over 'Late Show.' But who is Stephen Colbert, really?

CBS announced that Stephen Colbert will take over the 'Late Show' when David Letterman leaves next year. But he'll abandon the faux-conservative 'Colbert Report' persona that has defined him.

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/File
Stephen Colbert at the 64th Primetime Emmy Awards Governors Ball in Los Angeles, Sept. 23, 2012. CBS announced Thursday, April 10, 2014, Colbert, the host of 'The Colbert Report,' will succeed David Letterman as the host of 'The Late Show.'

When CBS announced Stephen Colbert as David Letterman’s successor on the “Late Show,” speculation immediately surfaced over what that meant. 

Would the Comedy Central satirist play the faux-conservative persona made popular on "The Colbert Report"? Mr. Colbert quickly answered the question with a  release through his publicist, stating, “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....”

But the question now is: Will his core fans – passionate members of the Colbert nation, a cohort that skews younger than the 50-year-old Colbert and one that CBS dearly wants to woo – be as eager to find out as well?

“CBS is taking an incredible risk,” says Paul Levinson, a professor at Fordham University in New York and author of “New New Media.” “The only reason Colbert is successful and people love him is because they love the satirical character he plays on Comedy Central.” 

Beyond that, Colbert has had a career as an actor, but “we don’t really know him in that role, and we certainly don’t know him as a real talk show host,” says Professor Levinson.

For their part, the top brass at CBS think they know who they have signed up, launching him with a five-year contract.

“Stephen Colbert is one of the most inventive and respected forces on television,” said Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of CBS Corp., in a release.

"Stephen is a multi-talented and respected host, writer, producer, satirist and comedian who blazes a trail of thought-provoking conversation, humor and innovation with everything he touches,” added Nina Tassler, chairman of CBS entertainment.

Nonetheless, Colbert has carefully guarded his fictional image in public, even going in front of Congress in 2010 to testify on behalf of farm workers – remaining steadfastly in character. Other public events, such as the 2010 Washington “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” have extended and amplified his mock character, rather than providing glimpses of the real person behind the mask.

Adding to the confusion is the way Colbert has interwoven true personal details into his fictional character. Both are one of 11 children from a South Carolina Catholic family, for instance.

But the incoming late-night host will have to find a way to put that mock persona behind him, says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. 

“Colbert himself is his own toughest act to follow,” he says. “He will have to compete with his own fictional character, one that he created and honed over years and which will be very vivid in viewer’s minds.”

The question is: Can he be as sharply funny as himself as he was in that persona, says Professor Thompson. “This is a huge gamble for CBS because it is impossible to know how the real Colbert will come off to viewers. Even his loyal fans don't really know the real Colbert,” he adds.

Colbert has other challenges as well, points out Jeff McCall, who teaches communication at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. His current audience won't necessarily follow him to the mainstream, he says, because part of his appeal on Comedy Central was that he could be more countercultural. 

“His current viewers could well look for the next edgy comedian who is not on a major network,” he adds via e-mail.

And then, there is the size of that core audience, which is decidedly niche compared with network audiences. “Sure, it's a large audience for late night cable, but his million-plus numbers won't suffice at CBS,” says Professor McCall.  

The logistics of late-night TV could also play a role, says McCall. Colbert has great support from “The Daily Show,” which airs before his show. When he moves to the networks, he will be faced with building audiences coming out of scattershot local news programs – a challenge he has not faced.

“Colbert's lead-in at Comedy Central generates audience flow,” he says, but his lead-in at CBS will be local news, “and local news viewers in places like Omaha won't necessarily flow into an untested late night comic with a history of comedic attitude.”

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