(Scott Gries / Scott Gries/Picturegroup…)
Of all the great comedians Second City and Chicago's improv culture have produced, Stephen Colbert stands as one of the greatest: a true living giant. Belushi, Murray, Fey -- they're all geniuses in their own particular ways, but let's understand that the blowhard character of "Stephen Colbert," as portrayed by Stephen Colbert during the past nine years, is one of the greatest pieces of performance art ever executed.
Therefore, I fear the conventional wisdom is terribly wrong: Stephen Colbert replacing David Letterman on the Late Show is a disaster, and I'm not sure why his fans are celebrating.
Don't get me wrong, I think Colbert will find ways to pump fresh oxygen into the collapsed lung that is the late-night talk show format. He's just too clever to fail outright. However, by moving away from the character that skewered conservatism, corporate media, consumerism, wealth, oligarchy, fame and money's stranglehold on the political process like he was lancing a boil every single night, we're losing an indelibly important bomb-throwing voice.
Let's take the example of Conan O'Brien, who was shown the door at "The Tonight Show" when his ratings dipped. Conventional wisdom said that Middle America wasn't into his brand of irreverence -- he didn't appeal to the sensibilities of the average late-night viewer. So it was back to the bloodless babble of Jay Leno. I hate to break it to you, but Colbert's irreverence, let alone his fierce critique of the American corporate state, won't exactly light the average Napervillian grandma's DVR on fire.
One of two things will happen to Colbert: He will be tamed or he will be let go. The first is more likely. Fascinating interviews with scientists, poets, academics and journalists covering the niche-est of niche issues will be replaced typically inane babble with Kiera Knightley and Aaron Eckhart. Rather than exposing the low pay, miserable conditions and political powerlessness of the migrant workers who pick our produce, Colbert will have to diversify and dilute, putting together pieces innocuous to the delicate sensibilities of people who voted Romney/Ryan (ha, that was a thing). Rather than eviscerating Fox News and spreading Steve Doocy's entrails all over the TV (not to mention Brown-Haired Guy Who's Not Steve Doocy), he'll feel pressure to secure at least a portion of that Fox News viewership.
Or do you think CBS is going to let him do a seven-month journalistic-comedic examination of SuperPACs? My guess is probably not.
If he does remain the bomb-thrower, schedule too many guests who've never been in People magazine and generally raise the hackles of the status quo (perhaps by giving an F-you speech to a president sitting five feet away?), it's unlikely he'll maintain a competitive viewership. How many months or years of lagging behind vanilla safe-bets like Kimmel and Fallon in the ratings before CBS gets antsy and decides to "shake things up"?
Or I'm totally wrong and Colbert will find a way to pull a monster truck's worth of subversive brilliance through the eye of the needle that is network late night. Here's hoping he's not done with Steve Doocy yet.
Stephen Markley is a RedEye special contributor.