THE BIG IDEA: Happy Labor Day, and welcome to a special edition of The Daily 202.
— Nine months after his Comedy Central show went off the air, Stephen Colbert’s new “Late Show” debuts on CBS tomorrow at 11:35 p.m. Eastern. Jeb Bush will be Colbert’s first guest in the remodeled Ed Sullivan Theater, signaling that Colbert plans to be a major force in humor about the 2016 presidential race even as he ditches the conservative character that catapulted him to stardom.
Colbert hit the press circuit hard in recent weeks. The result is dozens of positive pieces previewing his highly-anticipated move from cable to network television, including Time and GQ cover stories. Much of the coverage grapples with his attempt to appeal to a more mainstream audience. Here are some telling nuggets:
- Colbert felt smothered by the need to act like “Stephen Colbert” during the final seasons of his old show: He got frustrated by constantly translating everything through his character’s faux ignorance. “My show was almost always an argument with someone who wasn’t there,” he told the New York Times. “I had to be karate-yes or karate-no. I couldn’t be karate-maybe on anything. … The story is either ‘transformative president’ or ‘subversive president,’ but that nails you in the same direction, emotionally. It’s always either attack or defense, but on one issue. Everything was channeled through the president.”
- But while he’s dropping the mask, he still plans to talk plenty about politics. “It’s combed into our DNA after the last 10 years,” he told TV critics. He got Mitt Romney to cut a promotional ad and lampooned Donald Trump in a viral video earlier this summer. “I’m not just a pundit – I’m a comedian,” he said in an interview with CBS “Sunday Morning.” “The goal is to have fun with my friends, and that means sometimes talking about things that you care about. We’re going to want to be talking about what’s going on in the world.” (Watch the 11-minute package here.)
- Colbert’s early guests suggest he will book lots of political types: Besides Jeb tomorrow, he has Joe Biden on Thursday, Justice Stephen Breyer next Monday, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon next Thursday and then Bernie Sanders next Friday. He’s also got Tesla’s CEO, Uber’s CEO and Kevin Spacey from “House of Cards” in the first two weeks.
- CBS execs want Colbert to do political humor. It’s one of the reasons the network picked him, according to CBS President Leslie Moonves. It will differentiate him from others in the 11:30 timeslot just as 2016 is heating up. “Frankly, that’s not what Fallon or Kimmel does, particularly,” Moonves told Dave Itzkoff. Much of Colbert’s staff came with him from Comedy Central, including, importantly, most of the writers. There’s only a few holdovers from Letterman’s team, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch notes.
- Colbert’s emphasis might even prod the other late-night hosts to cover more politics. Jimmy Fallon has booked Trump for Friday night.
- But there’s risk in being too political. Jon Stewart went off the airwaves last month, and his South African replacement isn’t that interested in U.S. politics or mocking Fox News, leaving a real vacuum. But the Los Angeles Times notes “there is danger in being too highbrow — the equivalent of ‘Charlie Rose’ with more laughs — especially given that Colbert’s rivals have had a long time to establish themselves creatively and to find an audience.” Speaking to the paper, Robert Morton, a former Letterman executive producer, compared Colbert to Jack Paar, the “Tonight Show” host who interviewed the likes of Albert Schweitzer, Robert F. Kennedy and Fidel Castro.