Stephen Colbert’s first appearance on CBS’ “Late Show” since his crowning as David Letterman’s successor bumped up against Tuesday night’s airing of “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central. But as he competed against himself in the ratings, Colbert also offered competing versions of himself.
The “Late Show” guest shot gave viewers a telling, if brief, first glimpse of the Colbert we’ll see when he takes over for Letterman next year, dropping the conservative blowhard character that propelled him to late night TV comedy stardom nearly a decade ago.
Colbert, in a far cry from his familiar pompous persona, seemed almost giddy as took a selfie with Letterman. “This is actually very retro now,” Colbert quipped.
He bantered easily with Letterman, who announced this month that he’s stepping down next year after more than two decades on “Late Show” and more than three decades into his reign as the most influential late night comedy host since Johnny Carson. Colbert, who is among the generation of performers influenced by both men, took on a deferential tone as he paid homage to the “Late Show” host Tuesday.
Colbert recounted how he nearly became an intern on Letterman’s old “Late Night” program nearly 30 years ago – and he read a Top 10 “Cocktails for Santa” list he and longtime colleague Paul Dinello submitted as part of a “Late Show” tryout writing package in 1997 (No. 1: “Silent Night Train”).
“I’m going to do whatever you’ve done,” Colbert told Letterman.
Colbert, of course, will need to chart his own course when he takes over “Late Show” at some undetermined point next year. In some respects, though, he’ll be playing catch-up.
Letterman long ago established himself as the smart and sardonic upstart of late night comedy, slowly transforming over the years into TV’s elder statesman of irreverence. Colbert, who has rarely broken character during the last decade, will have to immediately morph from his faux commentator personality to a presumably genuine version of his sharp-witted self.
Colbert also faces a steep challenge in besting Jimmy Kimmel, an ABC late night mainstay for 11 years, and Jimmy Fallon, the 11:30 p.m. ratings champ since taking over NBC’s “Tonight Show” in February. But during his appearance on Letterman's show Tuesday night, Colbert indicated he’s ready to compete against Kimmel and Fallon – and fresh memories of his TV character.