When news leaked that Stephen Colbert would replace the retiring David Letterman as host of CBS's "The Late Show," I was not thrilled.
Not because, as some folks complained, here was yet another white guy behind a late-night desk. And not, as many on the right lamented, because CBS may give a larger audience to his routine goring of their sacred media cows.
I am disappointed because we stand to lose the voice of an important social critic.
Though Stephen Colbert will take over "The Late Show" sometime in 2015, it's a virtual lock that "Stephen Colbert" will not. The faux-conservative schtick that allows Colbert to lampoon bloviators like Hannity, O'Reilly, and Limbaugh surely will not fly on a network.
Recall how Bill Maher was eviscerated when he took "Politically Incorrect" from Comedy Central to ABC. Questioning the courage of U.S. missile strikes on distant targets after 9/11 earned him a menacing reprimand from the White House: "Americans […] need to watch what they say, watch what they do," said Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer. The Freepers quickly moved to boycott the show and its sponsors. Not long after after, Maher's show was canceled.
Not even late-night network TV is safe for sharp-elbowed political commentary. That's why so much of what counts for political humor on the chat shows is of the milquetoast "George W. is not that bright"/"Bill Clinton is a horn-dog" variety. The networks don't want to risk alienating half of their audience on any given night.
Nor are we likely to see Colbert turn his razor sharp wit on the media as he did at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner. His turn as host was notable not only for questioning the competence of President Bush, rarely challenged by the Beltway media, but for the shots he leveled at the media themselves for their fecklessness on the most narcissistic night on their narcissistic calendars:
Will the Tiffany network tolerate its new big star calling out its news division for dereliction of duty? Not likely. Remember that a major factor in Letterman's coming to CBS was his long-standing and unhidden hostility to NBC executives and their programming decisions. As Bill Carter reported in his excellent book about NBC's machinations for a post-Johnny Carson world, The Late Shift, Jay Leno was anointed as Carson's successor in no small part because he was a loyal pitchman for the network.
This of course does not mean I expect or want Colbert to fail. He is a very funny and quick-witted interviewer. Even when in character, his off-the-cuff repartee with guests, from Hollywood celebrities to political insiders, is both entertaining and informative. There's no reason to believe he cannot maintain that deftness while shedding the character.
But I will definitely miss the satirical attacks he and Comedy Central counterpart Jon Stewart launch at U.S. politics and the media.
While so many self-described journalists are satisfied with rewriting politicians' press releases and treating important policy debates as a zero-sum power game, Stewart and Colbert have done what real journalists ought to do: question the assertions, challenge the assumptions, and when they try to B.S. you, call them on it.
Stewart will stay at the helm of "The Daily Show" as long as he wants. He seems to cherish the role, though his sabbatical to direct a feature film last summer shows he may have other things on his mind.
But Stewart's derisive shots at hypocritical politics and shallow news media will lose an important complement in Colbert's arch parody of the conservative blowhards. All of us who rely on their teamwork will lose a valuable weapon in the fight against political and media malpractice.
And that's The Wørd.