How Will the Real Stephen Colbert Play on The Late Show?

An open letter to David Letterman's replacement: I'm having abandonment issues.

Photo | AP, Jason DeCrow

Photo | AP, Jason DeCrow

Dear Stephen (May I call you Stephen?),

Yesterday’s sudden announcement that you’re leaving The Colbert Report to replace David Letterman on The Late Show left me reeling. In fact, I threw up a little.

Like millions of others — some of them imaginary — I am a loyal member of Colbert Nation. I pledge my allegiance to you, and only you, at 11:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday, on Comedy Central. You are my hero.

My problem is twofold, Stephen (May I call you Stephen?). As a Colbert Report fan, I’m having abandonment issues. As a Penn professor, I’m worried what your departure will mean for my course, “Stewart-Colbert: Cool News.”

But enough about me. You, sir, have earned all your triumphs, including The Late Show. It’s not as cool as sitting next to Michelle Obama at a State Dinner at the White House, but The Late Show has its moments. With you, it will have more of them.

Face it, friend. You’re moving up in weight class. At CBS, you’ll be a bigger star on a bigger network with a bigger studio and a bigger paycheck. Mazel tov.

What you won’t be, however, is “Stephen Colbert,” right-wing idiot pundit on Comedy Central, the Little Network That Could. You won’t be Jon Stewart’s wingman, part of the sharpest satiric 1-2 punch on television. And that’s what worries me.

Through no fault of your own, you and Stewart have become media messiahs to a whole generation. At the same time, you’ve gained cred among the political elite. That an insurrectionary “newsman” such as yourself has cultivated such power — long live the Colbert ‘bump!’ — is mad crazy.

Quite simply, sir, you are the 21st century incarnation of Jonathan Swift. Heck, you’re better than Swift. He never won a Peabody. Stewart joins you in that comparison, but the truth is that you have eclipsed your beloved mentor. You’re the one on fire now.

Will you burn as bright at a mainstream network? Maybe, maybe not. Scuttlebutt is that “Stephen Colbert” will go into Witness Protection when you take over The Late Show some time next year. Make sure to wave to Dave as he rides off into retirement.

So I guess you’ll play it straight on CBS, or as straight as you can. I hope it won’t be too much of a stretch. Since you launched Colbert Report in 2005, you’ve only done a few media gigs out of character – 60 Minutes, Meet the Press, even Letterman. How that will play on a nightly basis is the X factor.

In case you’re wondering, I, of course, will follow you to The Late Show. I can’t promise how long I’ll stay, though. I’ve been addicted to Comedy Central from 11 to midnight for nine years now. I may have to start a support group.

Finally, about my Penn course. Perhaps you could stop by in the fall and explain your decision to my classes. You walk on water, as far as they’re concerned. Case in point: I first heard the news from a group of students who ran to my office to deliver it in person. One of them said she felt like crying. She called her mother.

Somehow, Stephen (May I call you Stephen?), we will all get through this transition. During the tough times, I’ll take solace in your words of wisdom: “I am America, and so can you!” Yes, I can. Yes, I can.

Gail Shister