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Gromotka: Late night's new edge

BY ADAM GROMOTKA | APRIL 14, 2014 5:00 AM

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The news was first leaked on Twitter by R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills before the official statement was made on the show April 10. David Letterman’s retirement announcement probably came as less than a shock to most late-night television viewers both serious and casual. That was made clear fairly quickly by an influx of concern not over his departure but concern focusing around who would be chosen to step up and take his place. There were talks of Neil Patrick Harris and Ellen DeGeneres.

Hell, I barely — if ever — take the time to watch talk shows, but even I managed to care. 

Stephen Colbert — Comedy Central’s bear-fearer and satirical news host specialist — taking over sometime in 2015 will mark an interesting swing in the focus of late-night talk shows. Considering a growing change in viewership, he was the choice of a network in dire need of a host who will help to bridge the gap between viewers young and old as the dynamics of late-night TV change.

What remains to be seen is whether young viewers will respond to CBS’s move.

Coming shortly after the announcement was news that Colbert plans on hosting the show in a fashion that continues the patterns and traditions of the genre. He won’t be appearing as the loud, cocky, right-wing blowhard character once inspired by Bill O’Reilly that made him so popular on “The Colbert Report.” Many are concerned about the demise of Colbert’s alter ego — that it might mean the loss of the great political satirist of our time — but I say, thank goodness for it.

With Jimmy Fallon taking the Tonight Show in a viral-video, silly, Internet-focused direction, late-night TV has managed so far to cater to young, “hip” viewers only by offering cute twists on old comedic tropes.

Colbert, on the other hand, has a harder edge. Despite the humor surrounding his entire career, he’s tackled serious issues and heavy politics throughout the course of his work. He’s given a serious speech, masked in satire and out of character, at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, mocking then-President Bush to his face. He’s talked and critiqued politics for almost 10 years — since I was young enough to think staying up past 10 p.m. was cool and “late.” He’s been a credible news source for millions of viewers, covering hundreds of topics they otherwise may not have considered important.

That’s not to say he isn’t an entertainer first — he did start in comedy. Unlike Letterman and Carson before him, both of whom began in actual broadcasting, Colbert started his career in improvisation, dipping into acting before landing a gig on “The Daily Show” and eventually branching out to the show that bears his name.

But back to the implications of Colbert’s taking over. With (the real) him, he’s bringing a dedicated viewership — mostly from the young, male demographic — but has promised to uphold the sanctity, if you’d want to call it that, of late-night comedic talk shows. If he can harness the biting satire that got him this far, we may witness the rise of another serious comedic great like Johnny Carson or Letterman and not merely another nightly hour of the giggly but ultimately unimportant stuff peddled by the likes of Jimmy Fallon or Jay Leno.


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