Since CBS selected Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central to succeed David Letterman, there has been a lot of negative chatter about the move. I keep reading and hearing how Colbert is too political, too strident, too shtick-y, too immature, and altogether too glib to deserve to sit in the big chair at 11:35 p.m.
Funny, turn the clock back two decades and the critics might have said many of the same things about Letterman himself. He put CBS on the late-night map after a decade of success holding down NBC's 12:30 a.m. slot, directly behind Johnny Carson. But Letterman figured out how to re-invent himself without sacrificing any of his natural charisma or humor. Letterman is a smart fellow.
Clearly, Colbert also will understand what it takes for him to present a new face and style to the world. What worked so well on a niche cable channel like Comedy Central might or might not play in Peoria on CBS at 11:35 p.m. He is a professional entertainer.
CBS made the right call with Colbert, pure and simple. He is a well established presence on TV. He is very popular. He skews young, too, and this is the X factor in TV.
CBS is counting on Colbert to bring in viewers who might have not taken a liking to Letterman, who is older, folksier, and more Midwestern in his sensibilities than Colbert.
Letterman over the years somehow managed to elevate his status to that of statesman. After a major news-story tragedy, such as the Boston Marathon bombing last year or the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Letterman was somewhat of a comfort to the nation. He ceased telling jokes and holding Stupid Pet Tricks stunts at such times.
Instead, he communicated his enormous empathy for the victims and the entire nation.
Colbert will surprise a lot of people, much in the way that Letterman did. Colbert will find a new gear and raise his game. He must also show that he can compete with rivals Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel, who have mastered social media and are beloved by the Facebook and Twitter crowd.
Sure, CBS could have diversified its ranks by choosing a woman or a minority member for the job.That would have been fine and wholly appropriate, too. But CBS chief Leslie Moonves decided to pick just another (old) white guy. In this case, Moonves made the right choice. As no less of an authority on what's funny as Jerry Seinfeld has observed: "Comedy is not a census. What's funny is funny. What works, works."
Colbert works. Nice going, CBS.
Jon Friedman writes the Media Matrix blog for Indiewire.com. He is also the author of "Forget About Today: Bob Dylan's Genius for (Re)Invention, Shunning the Naysayers, and Creating a Personal Revolution." Read more reports from Jon Friedman — Click Here Now.
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