When Stephen Colbert takes over for David Letterman as host of the “Late Show” on CBS next year, he will bring with him a career built on Chicago-style comedy.
He will be the second major late-night talk show host, after fellow Northwestern University alum Seth Meyers (the new host of “Late Night With Seth Meyers” on NBC), who can point back to his formative years in Chicago as some of the most influential in shaping his comedic outlook.
Colbert was among the top contenders rumored for the job since last week, when Letterman announced that he would be wrapping up his tenure sometime in 2015. And though he was raised in South Carolina, Colbert shares a Midwestern sensibility with Letterman that makes him a fitting replacement.
In real life, when not in character, the 49-year-old Colbert is exceedingly polite and down to earth — qualities no doubt reinforced during his years here, first at Northwestern, where he graduated with the class of 1986, and later performing throughout the city in the early '90s.
As an undergraduate, he studied dramatic acting but also performed in a college improv competition organized by Charna Halpern's ImprovOlympic (now known as iO Theater) in a group called No Fun Mud Piranhas that included fellow Northwestern classmate and future Lookingglass Theater co-founder David Schwimmer. Colbert stood out immediately, Halpern recalled: “I thought Stephen was the funniest right away. He was intelligent, he was well-read — he knew a lot about everything. He knew his mythology, he knew his history, he knew his politics. And he was funny.”
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By design, his Emmy-winning “The Colbert Report” leveraged that intellectual curiosity and quick wit, allowing Colbert to create a form of extended performance art playing an under-informed, concern-trolling, blowhard talk show host in a way that has only underscored the absurdity that passes for contemporary political discourse. He famously coined the word “truthiness” (insisting something to be true regardless of facts or evidence). Washington took notice early on, and at a roast in 2008 President Barack Obama's then-chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel joked: “I'm scared of Stephen Colbert. I'm not alone. My colleagues in Congress, political operatives, the top minds in Washington, even some of the people in this room — we're all scared of Stephen Colbert.” To which Colbert responded: “Rahm Emanuel has given the finger to so many people in this town that he wore the tip off.”
In 2010 Colbert spoke before a congressional panel , in character, on the subject of migrant workers. And three years ago he made news when he formed his own super PAC called Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow with the specific intent of parodying the influence of super PAC money on elections.
CBS has not announced Colbert's start date or where the show will tape. “The Colbert Report” is based in New York, and it seems likely he would want to stay in the city.
When Colbert takes over for Letterman, however, he will shed his windbag-pundit persona and simply be himself. “I don't think it's going to be a dramatic shift, because he's had the ability to interview people even within the confines of the (‘Colbert Report') character,” said Andrew Alexander, Second City CEO and executive producer who knew Colbert as a young improviser. “I think there's a lot of Stephen Colbert emanating from that character. It's the wink-wink. But you get a sense of who he is. People get it.”
Said Letterman in a statement Thursday: “Stephen has always been a real friend to me. I'm very excited for him, and I'm flattered that CBS chose him. I also happen to know they wanted another guy with glasses.”
“Simply being a guest on David Letterman's show has been a highlight of my career,” Colbert said in his own statement. “I never dreamed that I would follow in his footsteps, though everyone in late night follows Dave's lead. I'm thrilled and grateful that CBS chose me. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go grind a gap in my front teeth.”
In 2011, Colbert returned to Evanston to give the commencement speech to the assembled new graduates. His distinctive brand of tangy self-deprecation was on display: “In 1986, our commencement speaker was George Shultz, secretary of state, fourth in line to the president. You get me — basic cable's second most popular fake newsman. At this rate the class of 2021 will be addressed by a zoo parrot in a mortar board that has been trained to say, ‘Congratulations.'”
After leaving school, Colbert improvised at the Annoyance Theater (a hub for performers, including “Glee” star Jane Lynch) before landing at Second City.
“I remember he was working as a waiter,” Halpern said, “and he called me and said he had waited on (Second City co-founder) Bernie Sahlins and asked for a job.”
According to Alexander, he made an impact even in that entry-level position: “He was working in the box office and became the highest-selling T-shirt salesman we had. I suspect he was very focused, and it sort of speaks to his mentality: ‘This is my job and I'm going to do it well.'”
Alexander described Colbert as the “quintessential Second City player.” “That axiom of working at the top of your intelligence was a mantra for Stephen,” he said.
At Second City he performed on the company's Northwest stage in Rolling Meadows (the location has since closed) alongside Amy Sedaris, Nia Vardalos (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) and Vardalos' future husband, Ian Gomez, (“Cougar Town”) before moving to the mainstage on Wells Street in 1993 and 1994, where his castmates included Steve Carell and Jackie Hoffman.
“He and Paul Dinello and Amy Sedaris wanted to bring another performer up to the mainstage,” Alexander recalled, “and I said, ‘It sounds to me like you guys should think about doing your own show.' And they took that advice, and that eventually became ‘Exit 57' on Comedy Central.”
That short-lived sketch show is what took Colbert to New York, where he would continue to collaborate with Sedaris and Dinello on “Strangers with Candy.” He later joined “The Daily Show” as a correspondent before spinning the character off in 2005 with “The Colbert Report.”
He can be silly and irreverent, but it is Colbert's courtliness and his profound sense of decency that come through as well, even amid his satirical kabuki — personality traits that he most closely shares with Letterman.
TV critic Ken Tucker once wrote of Letterman's “core of seriousness,” a quality that has made him uniquely equipped to handle interviews that ventured beyond the typical celebrity publicity stop. In choosing Colbert — who has shown an almost gleeful enthusiasm for tackling meaty topics with wit and insight — CBS is signaling that its primary late-night talk show will be just as muscular, interview-wise, as it has been under Letterman.
In a talk show landscape where the interviews are frequently the weakest part of the night, this comes as exceedingly good news. That said, Colbert's appointment maintains the status quo in a field where the hosts are almost all middle-age white men.
The announcement comes on the heels of the #CancelCobert debacle, launched by a Chicago-based Twitter activist responding to a poorly judged tweet sent out by someone at Comedy Central, not Colbert himself. Colbert remained above the fray (and even had Twitter's founder on his show to delete the offending account). Letterman himself has deftly handled similarly embarrassing moments and managed to move past them. Colbert's poise no doubt gave CBS the reassurance it needed.
“He is a true gentleman in the classic sense,” said Alexander. “Really polite, no drama.”
Like Meyers on NBC, Colbert has the key skills from sketch and improv training to sustain a Monday-through-Friday talk show schedule.
“At Second City you're doing eight shows a week, the same show, for about a year,” Alexander said. That teaches a performer considerable endurance and how to work past the flubs of a live performance. "It teaches you the discipline of having to do something day in and day out and focus on keeping it consistent every night.”