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Goodbye, 'Stephen Colbert'?

By Dean Obeidallah
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Stephen <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/10/showbiz/stephen-colbert-david-letterman/index.html' target='_blank'>Colbert will take over "The Late Show" upon the retirement of David Letterman </a>in 2015. Colbert's rise includes a number of notable moments. Stephen Colbert will take over "The Late Show" upon the retirement of David Letterman in 2015. Colbert's rise includes a number of notable moments.
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Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • On December 18, we'll have to say goodbye to the political character, "Stephen Colbert"
  • Dean Obeidallah: For all of us Colbert fans, it feels like losing an old friend
  • When Colbert takes over David Letterman's show, will he be as funny as his fictional persona?

Editor's note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is a columnist for The Daily Beast and editor of the politics blog "The Dean's Report." He's also the co-director of the documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" Follow him on Twitter: @TheDeansreport The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Come December 18, we'll have to say goodbye to our favorite blowhard political character, "Stephen Colbert." That's the day the real Colbert will retire "Colbert" the character as he signs off from his Comedy Central show, "The Colbert Report," in preparation to take over for David Letterman in 2015.

For all of us Colbert fans, it feels like losing an old friend who we've grown to know, laugh with (and at) over the past nine years.

You see, when Colbert takes over Letterman's show next year, he will no longer be "Colbert," but rather the real Colbert. But here's the thing: What happens if we don't find the real Colbert as entertaining and engaging as the fictional "Colbert"? After all, "Colbert" is a bigger-than-life character and the reason his humor works so well is because it's delivered in a comedic voice.

Dean Obeidallah
Dean Obeidallah

Here are just a few examples:

"Why would we go to war on women? They don't have any oil."

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"Contraception leads to more babies being born out of wedlock, the exact same way that fire extinguishers cause fires."

"If we don't cut expensive things like Head Start, child nutrition programs, and teachers, what sort of future are we leaving for our children?"

"Join me in standing up against any actual knowledge about guns. Let the CDC know they can take away our ignorance when the pry it from our cold, dead minds."

These jokes aren't nearly as funny -- if funny at all -- if not told via "Colbert," complete with his pompousness, arching eyebrow and screaming eagle. Therein lies Colbert's challenge.

Now, before my fellow Colbert fans turn on me, I'm not suggesting Colbert isn't capable of being funny outside of "Colbert." He's truly an immensely talented performer who trained at the famed Second City in Chicago and has been making us laugh for years.

But why drop "Colbert" when it's that very character that got Colbert the "Letterman" gig in the first place? Please don't tell me it's in response to the views of people like Rush Limbaugh -- an unintentional "Colbert" -- who remarked when Colbert was announced as Letterman's replacement: "CBS has just declared war on the heartland of America. No longer is comedy going to be a covert assault on traditional American values, conservatism. Now it's just wide out in the open."

Why would anyone care what Limbaugh says? (Seriously, why?!) But I bet that Limbaugh's views resonated with some CBS executives who actually were concerned that "Colbert" could alienate some more conservative viewers. (As if conservatives can't laugh at themselves ...)

And that's a real concern for CBS since Letterman's show in 2013 reportedly garnered $179 million in ad revenue for the network. No one at CBS wants that figure to go down.

But those same TV executives should keep in mind that in the sweeps ratings period in May, "The Colbert Report" was almost tied with the number of viewers "Letterman" attracted in the coveted 18-49 age demographic. And Colbert's reach will be even greater when he moves to network TV and is no longer just on Comedy Central, which reaches only 85% of the country.

To be candid, I have another concern about Colbert dumping "Colbert." I was watching some clips of Colbert being himself. He comes across as thoughtful, well-spoken and analytical. Those are admirable qualities in the real world, but not so much for a TV personality who will have to carry a weekly late night comedy show. We aren't talking "Charlie Rose," we are talking a late-night comedy show where the competition for viewers is fierce.

For example, I watched an interview of Colbert by the late Tim Russert on "Meet the Press" in 2007. Colbert was low energy and pleasant. But I kept waiting for "Colbert" to emerge.

And in 2013 Colbert appeared on Slate's "Political Gabfest," where his knowledge of the Nixon administration was impressive. But he was low key, wonky, and, frankly (dare I say?) almost boring. (And I love politics.)

I'm not in any way suggesting that Colbert needs to be a nonstop joke machine.

What I'm saying is that "Colbert" the character has set the bar high for Colbert the person. The success of "Colbert" is as much about the jokes that come out of his mouth as it's about his character's point of view, energy, mannerism, etc.

And we Colbert fans, along with the far less friendly TV critics, will no doubt compare "Colbert" to Colbert when he takes the reins at his CBS show. Expect to see reviews that say along the lines of, "we miss 'Colbert'" or worse, "Colbert is not as funny as 'Colbert.'"

But there's one bright spot for "Colbert" fans that Colbert told Russert. He mentioned being taught years ago at Second City to "wear a character as light as a cap," so that you can easily move in and out of it. That means "Colbert" will likely never be too far away from Colbert. Hopefully, that will mean that we'll see glimmers of our old friend from time to time.

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