Can Stephen Colbert Uphold David Letterman’s Legacy—and Tone?

Curator's Note

Only two days after David Letterman’s retirement on May 20, 2015, the host’s set was removed, and his master tapes were headed to storage. Shortly thereafter, the famous blue-and-yellow Late Show with David Letterman marquee was ripped off, leaving a weird, gaping hole above Broadway’s Ed Sullivan Theatre. For fans of Letterman (and surely the hundreds of employees who worked there), the demolition seemed hasty. But with Stephen Colbert’s impending arrival as the new late-night host, I suppose it was also unavoidable.

For their show, Colbert and company obviously won’t be salvaging much from the Ed Sullivan Theatre—even the audience chairs were destroyed (and then, ugh, allegedly put on eBay). But will the new host preserve any of Letterman’s tone: the subversive wit, cynical charm, absurdist play? Based on what Colbert has produced online thus far—to an extent, I think—yes, he will.

Two weeks after Letterman’s final show, Colbert released his first Late Show video along with a Twitter feed, Facebook page, YouTube channel, podcast, and an iOS application called Colbr. Over the summer, prospective Late Show viewers have watched Colbert shave his “Colbeard,” the clippings (disgustingly) falling atop a half-eaten hotdog, and they’ve seen him host a public access show in rural Michigan, in which he awkwardly interviews rapper Eminem. He’s also begun podcast episodes in a “man-sized cabinet,” dined with gorilla-hand sandwiches, and ridiculed physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson for his unemotional response about the planet Pluto.

Most of these antics aren’t too far removed from Letterman’s absurdist acts like the suits of velcro and magnets, his canned ham obsession, and delight in throwing stuff off roofs. The same goes for sketches like Stupid Human Tricks, How Many Spider-Mans Can You Fit in a Jamba Juice?, Know Your Cuts of Meat, Trump or Monkey?, and Will It Float?

Of course, Colbert cannot replace Letterman, and his demeanor differs from Dave’s (it’s kinder and less deriding). But based on what the new Late Show host has released thus far, it does seem as though some of Letterman’s tone will remain in the theatre—even if the audience chairs do not.


Shaun Treat's picture

The virtual Colbert Rapport...

I think you’re absolutely right, Kelli, that Colbert’s incredibly savvy use of virtual and social media to preview for fans the “tone” we may expect from his new format has been wonderfully engaging.

You’re really onto something in comparing his preview antics to “Letterman’s absurdist acts”… Long ignored in heralding Colbert as a “satirist” in the mold of Mark Twain or Will Rogers has been his bonafides within experimental theater and Performance Art while a student at Northwestern U in Chicago. As evidenced in his roles from Amy Sedaris’ “Strangers With Candy” or SNL’s “The Ambiguously Gay Duo,” Colbert has proven that his range as a subversive comedic force has yet to be fully acknowledged and appreciated.

David Letterman was himself a daring and unconventional host who changed late night television and challenged what most critics thought possible in an Age of the Big 3 Network television. Just maybe Colbert is a far more daring choice as successor than we’ve realized.

This Vanity Fair article from 2014 similarly ponders the “darkly absurdist” tendencies of Colbert.

Touré Defends Colbert: He ‘Performs Racism’ to Show How ‘Absurd’ It Is”

Colbert turns Senate Hearing into Performance Art”

Garret Castleberry's picture

The Irony of Reading the Profane as Sacred...

Kelli, excellent cache of secondary sources that rev up tertiary discussion while simultaneously functioning as a meta-demonstration on Colbert’s synergistic social media transition into this new/old position.

I note your particular observation toward the instal-destruction of a TV/Comedy icon’s physical performance space, a landmark mecca torn down as quickly as Letterman exited the airwaves. You insight here not only touches upon the sacred role place holds in American culture but also how cynically impoverished such a site becomes once detached from the hydra head of contemporary media conglomerations.

Colbert seems all too aware of the mythical and economical hydra, as he clamors to install all of the social media brand signifiers necessary to launch a program that *NEEDS* to be more than another run of the mill talk show. Yet just as life under the microscope has hyper-aged hair color for both Colbert and sage-producer/friend Stewart (Dat’ grey beard was worthy of another Hobbit cameo!), Colbert underwent an on-camera facelift that symbolizes rebirth and renewal. Though no one knows the time or place, one wonders not if but when we will see the resurrection of the “Colbeard”(!)


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