Merrill Markoe, a cornerstone of David Letterman’s late night work, believes Stephen Colbert will make his own mark as he slides into the Late Show seat on CBS, and thinks it will be a lasting one. “I don’t think he needs any advice from me,” she says via email, when asked what words of wisdom she might have for Colbert, who debuts Sept. 8. “I think he knows what he is doing and has proven it over and over and over.”
A new host faces the challenge of honoring the show’s legacy while making it his or her own. Markoe, who was cocreator and original head writer of NBC’s Late Night With David Letterman and conceived of franchise bits such as Stupid Pet Tricks and Viewer Mail, among many others, says that’s less of an issue for Colbert, as so much of Letterman’s shtick is present around the late night dial. “The original attitude of the show ended up weaseling its way into every late night talk show that is on now,” says Markoe. “I would rather watch Colbert work with and expand his own heritage.”
Colbert faces considerable pressure as he makes the jump from Comedy Central to CBS. But a rival programming veteran who requested anonymity says, unlike a primetime rookie, a late-night show is given time to develop and find its voice, even if the early ratings don’t indicate a splash. “Late night is a marathon, not a sprint,” says the programmer. “You don’t learn much from the ratings out of the gate, and I don’t think CBS will make a big deal about how he does.”
Still, late night is lucrative, and there’s plenty riding on how Colbert shapes and delivers the new Late Show. “His success really means a lot for the network—its overall image and the economics as well,” says Kelly Kahl, senior executive VP, CBS Primetime. “If he does well, the financial upside is tremendous to us as a company. It lifts our brand.”
Colbert will bring plenty of viewers along from The Colbert Report, where he averaged 1.7 million viewers a night in his final season. The rival programmer suspects viewers dedicated to Jimmy Kimmel Live and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon are not likely to switch brands, beyond some initial curiosity-driven sampling.
Late-night insiders say Colbert offers the comedy chops of Kimmel and versatility of Fallon, and perhaps a bit more brainy gravitas than his rivals. Along with the usual Hollywood stars, tech CEOs and political figures will guest the first week. “It’s a more adult point of view,” says the veteran programmer.
Markoe has seen late-night entrants come and go over the years. She believes Colbert has staying power. “I think he’s brilliant in every way and I can’t imagine this not working out fantastically well,” she says.
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Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.