Long ago, I used to aspire to be the pinnacle of many things — pro sports, politics, entertainment, journalism, the literary world, to name a few. That desire's never gone away, but I realized something.
To reach the top, you have to make lots of compromises. Some are worth it; some aren't. Very few people get to positions of power by truly being themselves. Or they do, but then have to suppress a lot of their personality once they reach that top rung. I think I would find that hard to do. Not that I'm likely to ever test that principle the way Stephen Colbert is at the moment.
One of the stated pros of Colbert taking over David Letterman's Late Show is that he'd be reaching the top. That's hard to argue. But — as I contended in yesterday's letter — Colbert shouldn't be at the top. Or, to put it more accurately, the top doesn't deserve him.
Colbert, in his current incarnation at least, is a gadfly. His following is organic, earned from putting on a late-night-cable masterpiece. Sure, he benefited from being a Daily Show legacy, but that's still ultimately a niche market. Building what he has, where he has, is a testament to the appeal of Colbert more than anything else. Nobody ever had to watch Comedy Central at 11:30 p.m., but Colbert made it a can't-miss. And I never say that about TV.
This is also true of Letterman, because his being snubbed to replace Johnny Carson meant his defection to CBS, where he built up the Late Show as his personal playpen. Atop the Tonight Show, Letterman might have had to be a different guy.
Both Colbert's and Letterman's shows, though, are now institutions. They are established time slots with guaranteed eyes. Network late-night shows in particular are machines that can make or break their hosts. Even Americans who don't or have never watched know when these shows air. If someone isn't already a star when they settle into that desk, they will be. Millions will watch every night. Some are devoted viewers; others will pine for the good old days when it was "better." In any case, those shows have considerable laurels, and hosts must live up to them. There's much less room for a host to be themselves.
In taking the baton from Letterman, Colbert would face a divided audience: Letterman fans who'll insist Colbert will never be a good as his predecessor, and Colbert fans who'll bemoan the mainstreaming of their favorite subversive host. They'll both be right.
Colbert has nothing to gain from uprooting his empire just to be at "the top." He's already at a much better top for his talents. I wish more people aspired to be at "their top" than "the top" — because "the top" can be a milquetoast place for many.
Granted, money talks. But even then...
One of Colbert's most hilarious shticks is how eager a shill he is, with his Doritos jackets and random Bud Light Lime imbibing, and on and on. He's such a plug that he even makes up products to push, such as his ever-expanding Prescott Pharmaceuticals line. How likely is that gag to translate to network? In any case, that joke would be far less funny if it turned out Colbert really was that way.
Colbert needs to stay where he is, for all the reasons above, and because there are so many comedians perfect for the Late Show desk, most of whom aren't currently on iconic shows they built virtually from scratch. It'll be interesting to see how this all pans out ... as long as it goes exactly as I want it to.
Compromise. It's what gets you to the top.