Stephen Colbert has big shoes to fill

8 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Colbert gets tips from Letterman.

The successor to David Letterman made the cover of Time and even got a spread in Glamour. “I think they do,” he says. “You can’t do the character, who was as self-centered as my guy was, if you weren’t covertly showing yourself the entire time.The actor, comedian and – since 2005 — faux bloviator of Comedy Central’s TheColbert Report — on Tuesday begins his dream job, replacing David Letterman as the host of CBS’s Late Show (11:35 p.m.There comes a point in almost any scheduled performance by Jon Batiste when he pops up from the piano and strides into the crowd, tootling his melodica, a toylike wind instrument, with bandmates in tow.Not only is Stephen Colbert killing it every time he promotes the debut of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (Tuesday, CBS, Global, 11:35 p.m.) with videos, tweets and hey-you assertions, he’s getting help.

For one thing, Colbert, formerly of Comedy Central, will doubtless attract a younger audience than Letterman, whose viewers’ median age was over 60, the oldest in late-night. ET/PT). “It gives me everything I want,” he says in an interview. “I like meeting the guests, I like the grind, I like a live audience, I love to hear the laughter. Jeb Bush, who will be on tonight’s first show, managed to turn his appearance into a news story by raffling tickets for the show to donors to his political campaign.

And in contrast to technophobe Dave, Colbert (and his staff, much of which he brought with him) has embraced promotion on social media, parceling out viral videos all summer as fast-turnaround “finger exercises.” Last week he sparred with Jeb Bush on Twitter and churned out a series of Snapchat videos. “I started college when he started the (NBC) show, so Dave…was a significant influence” that’s reflected in his humor. “His anti-authority quality served all of us well.” Still, he’s ready to make his own mark. I was able to say things that meant something to me behind the mask of this character for many years … and now I can do it without having to run it through him.” But how much of Colbert was in his character? “A ton,” he says, including that arched eyebrow. “The purposeful choices to not know things were mostly him. With Jon Stewart retired and Jimmy Fallon and Kimmel veering toward other topics, Colbert immediately claims the mantle of political humor: Colbert says he chose his premiere for the day after Labor Day, a traditional start to the campaign for presidential campaign, and says he’s “uniquely positioned” to tackle it thanks to his staff and the relationships with politicians forged over the past decade.

I was very proud of the show we had done, we’d had some success with it. (But) if I was going to do another live show in front of an audience, taking over for Dave was the only thing that had a laurel wreath on it.” He even spent time with Letterman at the Ed Sullivan Theater, where Dave showed him how to use a freight elevator to get from the show’s offices to the stage. “I was never a standup, I’m an improviser, and so for me the joy is, what’s going to happen between the two of us for the next six or eight minutes? Even Bill O’Reilly on Fox News inadvertently gave Colbert a ton of press when he warned Colbert about “alienating traditional Americans.” And then there’s the obvious, in terms of timing – the crazy hurly-burly of the U.S. presidential election is something Colbert is uniquely skilled in satirizing after years of satiric tomfoolery on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. ET/PT), having decided two years ago — well before David Letterman announced plans to pack it up after a storied 33-year late-night career — to end his run as his blowhard alter ego. Partly, he was tired of it: Mulling his future at Comedy Central, just as Jon Stewart was growing equally restless, “I went, if I’m ever going to change, if I’m going to find another gear, I can’t do it here. Jon didn’t like it.” Colbert plans an eclectic mix of “scientists, newsmakers, politicians, intellectuals, musicians that I love” and the usual assortment of movie and TV stars promoting projects.

But one very important question will linger for a while: When CBS announced its “Late Show” succession plan in April, Jimmy Fallon’s stint as host of “The Tonight Show” was not even 2 months old. George Clooney and Jeb Bush are booked for Tuesday’s extended opener; other guests due this week and next range from Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, U.N. secretary general Ban Ki-Moon and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to the CEOs of Uber and Tesla to Scarlett Johansson, Jake Gyllenhaal and Lupita Nyong’o. It’s easy to picture him acclimating fast to a late-night talk show, even if the stubborn constraints of the format seem at odds with his brand of free-range spontaneity. They chatted on the phone when Colbert’s hiring was first announced (Letterman has said he was not consulted on the choice), and later, as Dave prepared to sign off for the last time. Because everything is predicated upon his point of view.” And partly, he felt viewers’ appetite for it had waned, though his popularity remained steady. “He was aggressively ignorant, someone who commodified anger and fear.

The “love riot” — his favored term for a flash-mob-style street jam, which he facilitates through social media — is only the most literal manifestation of his drive to connect viscerally with an audience, winning over many startled listeners on the move, and at close range. This summer he and his band, Stay Human, played the Newport Folk Festival and the Newport Jazz Festival, on consecutive weekends at Fort Adams State Park in Rhode Island. There’s a live audience.” And: “I will tell topical jokes every night about things in the news, and if that’s a monologue then that’s a monologue, but I don’t think you’ll see it quite the same way.” And despite those test shows, he’s not sure exactly how things will roll: “I don’t know how to surf the wave until I’m on the board.”

A couple weeks before he went off the air, I said, ‘Can I come talk to you?’ We sat in his outer office and had a couple bottles of Poland Spring (water); we talked about our dogs and our kids, and then I started asking him things about the show, nuts and bolts. And you have to take little sips of it to keep doing the character.” “Obviously, we were very excited about it, and his name went to the top of the list immediately,” recalls CBS CEO Leslie Moonves. “I loved the show, I loved his humor, I loved his smarts, I loved his commentary. Batiste’s jubilant take on “If You’re Happy and You Know It” — ammunition for any killjoys inclined to distrust the earnest, infantilizing aspects of his style. I said, ‘Do you mind me asking these questions?’ He said, ‘I don’t mind at all, no one’s ever asked me these questions.’ “I knew I could ask him anything. People asked me, ‘Aren’t you worried because he was in character?’ It never entered my mind that this wouldn’t be the normal, logical transition, and that he couldn’t do it.” At 51, Colbert is also the oldest of the new generation of late-night hosts (though still 17 years younger than the man he replaced).

As Bill Carter, author of two bestselling books about the late-night wars, wrote last week in The Hollywood Reporter, Colbert “may qualify as the most thoughtful and intellectual figure ever to sit behind a late-night desk.” That’s the important thing. Batiste, sitting on a couch in Fort Adams with his principal bandmates, the alto saxophonist Eddie Barbash and the drummer Joe Saylor, continued: “What that means is, there’s an opportunity for innovation. And despite his Comedy Central character, he insists he’s not the liberal-in-disguise people might think and is open to having guests with more than one point of view. “I’d like conservatives to come on the show…(and) find out that the needs of that character over many years made me into an advocate that I am not. Not everyone will buy into it, and ratings matter, but the measurement of TV viewership has become much more sophisticated and, if Colbert is getting the desirable audience without winning a ratings war, he’s safe. Part of the reason for the media’s fascination with Colbert’s “Late Show” plan is that on “The Colbert Report,” he played a character, an insufferable right-wing pundit who held forth on the political news of the day with a comic mixture of arrogance and inaccuracy.

Coupled with the desirable demographics of its audience – young, well-educated and well-to-do – it made money for Comedy Central. “I would be surprised if CBS could be satisfied with a smaller but upmarket audience,” McCall said. “Networks need volume. A smaller audience, no matter how upscale, creates an image problem for the network.” Dixon predicts that “Colbert will shed his former persona with ease.” He “has already proven that … his wit remains intact, and his satirical instincts sharp.” Reports from audience members at recent live tests of “The Late Show” support that hypothesis. Last month, he was salivating over the prospect: “It would be an honor,” he said (and told a press conference that with no TV outlet, he’d been “dry-Trumping” all summer). “The greatest thing about Donald Trump is you can say anything to Donald Trump and he doesn’t care. He moved to New York to attend Juilliard, and was soon turning up on concert stages with the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, which is how I first encountered him, about a decade ago.

Batiste shares the Marsalis family trait of jazz evangelism: He’s an artistic director at large at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, for which he’ll play a fall benefit on Oct. 28 at the Alhambra Ballroom. However, in an indication of the late-night manoeuvres to come, in October, Kimmel is taking his show from L.A. to Brooklyn, during the first week that Colbert will be in repeats. Batiste clarified, “I’m not out to be an ambassador for an art form, because ultimately I feel like your playing does that.” His stated cause is “social music,” a phrase meant to encompass jazz and much else besides, and the title of his most recent album, released on Razor & Tie in 2013. Colbert said recently on “The Late Show Podcast,” “I went, ‘Damn, I think that’s a guy I could actually spend a few years onstage with.’ ” (It didn’t hurt that Mr.

Questlove, the drummer and self-declared music geek who leads the Roots, manages to balance frivolity and substance, a strategy even more ideally suited to Mr. Batiste in GQ in 2013, before the “Late Show” appointment: “Google him now, see his show, thank me later.” So any rivalry between the Roots and Stay Human will probably be friendly, echoing the dynamic between Mr. Shaffer said last week, judging by the available evidence. “So we don’t have that to worry about.” One sign of continuity between “Late Show” eras is that Mr. Shaffer said. “Jon is a great musician, and I hope I’m walking by the theater at 5:30, because I have a sneaking suspicion they’re going to be in the street a little bit.”

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