Let me first start by saying that I love Stephen Colbert. Love him, as the infamous 50 Cent once said, like a fat kid love cake. I have loved him since his days on Strangers With Candy, then as a fan-favorite correspondent on The Daily Show, and I grew to love him more throughout the years he anchored his groundbreaking The Colbert Report, and I love that his friendship with Jon Stewart has given us a lifetime of great moments, both scripted and off-the-cuff. We all have, and none with a more loyal ferocity than the younger generations, of which I consider myself a part.
And this is exactly why the decision of CBS to tap Colbert as the successor to David Letterman on The Late Show is such a blow to us all. On the surface, it's a savvy move on CBS' part. Since taking over timeslot competitor The Tonight Show from Jay Leno, new host Jimmy Fallon has been absolutely dominating the ratings, and with Letterman's recent announcement of his retirement in 2015, CBS executives knew they had to absolutely nail it with their replacement in order to regain and grow the waning attention of that all-important 18-35-year-old TV watching demographic.
We in that demographic love Stephen Colbert, so obviously, we'd follow him over to his new gig, and CBS would watch the ratings spike. Colbert's off-air persona is equally engaging: Thoughtful, warm, witty, and humble, he is closer to a beloved professor than the blowhard entertainer persona that has made him so famous, and he would easily win over audiences that aren't yet familiar with him. It's a logical assumption that seems a basic slam-dunk. On the surface, this is an obvious win for CBS, and the other half of our most beloved bromance (Sorry, Clooney-Pitt) agrees. Said Stewart on Wednesday to Vulture
He's wonderful in 'Colbert Report,' but he's got gears he hasn't even shown people yet. He would be remarkable.
Except...the reactions around the internet from my financially-coveted generation have been anything but enthusiastic. In fact, the general sense has been one almost of loss and betrayal. The Colbert Report is groundbreaking, and so vital to those of us being so desperately courted by those middle-aged executives, and important to our collective consciousness as a whole. And now it's over, the edgy mouthpiece of our generation leaving (and good for him for getting the chance at his life-long dream) for greener, easier pastures. No longer will he be maintaining the iron-clad facade of a difficult character, slyly skewering the political and corporate systems when no one else will, but instead, he'll be casually chatting with celebrities about their latest film and offering up watered-down intros for the nightly guest band. It's a little heartbreaking when you think of it like that.
Consider all the things he's accomplished during his 8-year-long stint at the helm of The Colbert Report:
"Truthiness," the word he (probably) coined and made popular, made it into Merriam-Webster and was judged their "Word of the Year" for 2006. His immense popularity prompted his invitation to be the keynote speaker at 2006's White House Correspondents' Association Dinner, which turned into one of the ballsiest stunts ever pulled off by a comedian and became the moment when social media, politics, and comedy collided in a game-changing way - and politics got flattened. Particularly President Bush, who sat no more than 5 feet away expecting a gentle roast and instead got a scathing take-down at the hands of the still in-character Colbert. Then White House Press Corps Association president, Mark Smith, is probably still cursing himself for eight years later for extending the invite.
That same year, Colbert was named one of Time's 100 influential people (and again in 2012). In 2010, he once again found himself front and center of political influence when he was asked to testify before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration - and he did it in character. Though he did break it a few times, offering up this honest response in defense of migrant workers:
I like talking about people who don't have any power, and this seems like one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work, but don't have any rights as a result. And yet we still invite them to come here and at the same time ask them to leave. And that's an interesting contradiction to me. And, you know, 'Whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers,' and these seem like the least of our brothers right now... Migrant workers suffer and have no rights.
Again that year, he and Stewart joined forces for the brilliant, mock Rally to Restore Fear and/or Sanity? The next year, in his most brilliant display of sticking it to the political system, Colbert filed a request to form a super PAC (you know, those groups that allow Presidential candidates and politicians running for office to receive unlimited sums of money from donors in a manner that is rife with questionable legality), but was told his attempt to run for "president of The United States of South Carolina," would be illegal if he was president of his own super PAC. So he once again exploited a loophole in the system and showed how much cronyism and backdoor deals play a part in the process when he simply handed over control of his super PAC to Stewart in order to run.
When he decided to dissolve his super PAC, his lawyer gave him step-by-step instructions on how to keep all the money and avoid having to report it to the IRS by bouncing it back and forth between dummy 501(c)(4) organizations, thereby pocketing it all himself (He instead donated it to various charities).
If all of the above was confusing, all you need to know is that Colbert was simply curious to see how far a ridiculous bid would go, and in doing so, used the experience to open the eyes to millions of his viewers about the rampant corruption and illegal maneuverings that comprise political financing. In doing so, he won the prestigious Peabody Award for his work.
Simply put, the thoughtful, soft-spoken comedian from South Carolina has had some of entertainment's most fearless moments over the past few years, and because of that, he changed the entire way we engage with political media. Yes, we will still have the equally-brilliant Jon Stewart holding down the fort over at Comedy Central, but Colbert playing a caricature allowed him to push the boundaries - and comfort level - of his guests in a way that Stewart could never do without the safeguard of being able to deflect criticism away from himself and to a fictional character he was portraying. Stewart is a remarkable force in his own right, but it's the strength of his friendship and creative collaboration with Colbert over the years has changed the entire landscape of what's possible: Separately, they are incredible at what they do, but somehow, it just won't have the punch it did when they could join forces.
The shame of it is that while no one man deserves this shot more, most of my generation is asking, "But why, why did it have to be him?" And because of this, CBS may find out that this roll of the dice doesn't turn out exactly the way they wanted it to. We'll be too busy looking for our next relatable hero.