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CBS Names Colbert to Succeed Letterman

CBS moved swiftly Thursday to replace the retiring David Letterman with Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert, who will take over the “Late Show” next year and do battle with Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel for late-night television supremacy.

Stephen Colbert (Courtesy of CBS)

Colbert, 49, has been hosting “The Colbert Report” at 11:30 p.m. ET since 2005, in character as a fictional conservative talk-show host. The character will retire with “The Colbert Report.”

“Simply being a guest on David Letterman’s show has been a highlight of my career,” Colbert said. “I never dreamed that I would follow in his footsteps, though everyone in late night follows Dave’s lead.”

Letterman, who turns 67 on Saturday, announced on his show last week that he would retire sometime in 2015, although he hasn’t set a date. CBS said Thursday that creative elements of Colbert’s new show, including where it will be based, will be announced later.

Mayors of New York and Los Angeles have already publicly urged the new “Late Show” host to choose their city. New York would appear to have the clear edge, since Colbert is already based in New York and CBS owns the Ed Sullivan Theater, where the “Late Show” has been taped since Letterman took over in 1993.

Letterman offered his endorsement Thursday. “Stephen has always been a real friend to me,” he said. “I’m very excited for him, and I’m flattered that CBS chose him. I also happen to know they wanted another guy with glasses.”

It’s a rapidly changing period for that time slot. Fallon took over for Jay Leno on NBC’s “Tonight” show in February, and has dominated the ratings since his arrival, with Letterman and Kimmel running neck-and-neck for second. Chelsea Handler has also said she is about to end her talk show on E! Entertainment Television.

CBS chose not to break the mold: CBS, ABC and NBC will all compete at 11:35 p.m. with shows hosted by white males. CBS, which has an older audience and generally seeks personalities with the widest appeal possible, is taking a chance with a personality whose show has a much more specific appeal. But, like Fallon and Kimmel, Colbert is popular with young men and active on the Internet and social media.

“Our discussions really centered on finding the most talented, the most creative (choice), the person who was going to conduct the most interesting interviews and be the most interesting person himself, and that’s what led us to Stephen,” said Nina Tassler, CBS entertainment chairman. She said CBS considered several candidates, but did not name them.

Colbert’s show won the Emmy for best variety series last year and has earned two Peabody Awards. It’s another big move for a Jon Stewart protege: Colbert worked on “The Daily Show” for eight years before getting his own program, and John Oliver is about to launch a weekly show for HBO later this month.

The decision opens up a hole on Comedy Central’s schedule. The network said in a statement Thursday that “we look forward to the next eight months of the ground-breaking `Colbert Report’ and wish Stephen the very best.”

Stewart told New York magazine on Wednesday night that Colbert would be terrific for Letterman’s job. Stewart said he likes what he does and Colbert has a better opportunity to broaden out his comedy than he would.

“He is a uniquely talented individual,” Stewart said. “He’s wonderful in `Colbert Report,’ but he’s got gears he hasn’t even shown people yet. He would be remarkable.”

Tassler declined comment on what Colbert’s ascension will mean for Craig Ferguson, who follows Letterman’s show in the 12:35 a.m. time slot and was considered a candidate for Letterman’s job.

Colbert would likely enter into some friendly competition with Fallon. Colbert appeared on Fallon’s first “Tonight” show, one of a line of personalities in a gag involving people who had to “pay up” on a bet about whether Fallon would ever get the “Tonight” gig.

Brad Adgate, an analyst for Horizon Media, described Colbert as “the best talk-show host available.” He said CBS wanted to move quickly to make its choice for Letterman’s replacement before next month’s meeting with advertisers in New York about the upcoming season’s schedule.

“When you’ve got fire in the belly, you move fast,” Tassler said.

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Here is the full text of the network’s press release:

The CBS Television Network today announced that Stephen Colbert, the host, writer and executive producer of the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning “The Colbert Report,” will succeed David Letterman as the host of THE LATE SHOW, effective when Mr. Letterman retires from the broadcast. The five-year agreement between CBS and Colbert was announced by Leslie Moonves, President and CEO, CBS Corporation, and Nina Tassler, Chairman of CBS Entertainment. 

     Letterman, the legendary, critically acclaimed host of the CBS late night series for 21 years, announced his retirement on his April 3 broadcast. Colbert’s premiere date as host of THE LATE SHOW will be announced after Mr. Lettermen determines a timetable for his final broadcasts in 2015. 

    Specific creative elements, as well as the producers and the location for the Colbert-hosted LATE SHOW, will be determined and announced at a later date.

     “Stephen Colbert is one of the most inventive and respected forces on television,” said Moonves. “David Letterman’s legacy and accomplishments are an incredible source of pride for all of us here, and today’s announcement speaks to our commitment of upholding what he established for CBS in late night.”

     “Stephen is a multi-talented and respected host, writer, producer, satirist and comedian who blazes a trail of thought-provoking conversation, humor and innovation with everything he touches,” said Tassler. ”He is a presence on every stage, with interests and notable accomplishments across a wide spectrum of entertainment, politics, publishing and music. We welcome Stephen to CBS with great pride and excitement, and look forward to introducing him to our network television viewers in late night.”

     “Simply being a guest on David Letterman’s show has been a highlight of my career,” said Colbert. “I never dreamed that I would follow in his footsteps, though everyone in late night follows Dave’s lead.”  

     Adding, “I’m thrilled and grateful that CBS chose me. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go grind a gap in my front teeth.”   

     Since its launch on Comedy Central in 2005, “The Colbert Report” has received widespread critical acclaim while earning two Peabody Awards and 27 Emmy nominations, including an Emmy win for Outstanding Variety Series (2013) and three Emmy wins for Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music or Comedy Program (2013, 2010, 2008). Prior to that, Colbert spent eight years as a correspondent on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” as an on-air personality and writer of news satire for the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning series.

     In addition, Colbert is an accomplished author, with two books, I AM AMERICA (and So Can You!) and AMERICA AGAIN: Re-Becoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t, appearing on the New York Times best-seller list. AMERICA AGAIN also won a Grammy Award for Spoken Word (2014).  

     In music, Colbert’s original holiday musical special on Comedy Central, “A Colbert Christmas,” won a Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album (2009) and Emmy nominations for Art Direction, Picture Editing and Original Music and Lyrics. In April 2011, Colbert starred as Harry in the New York Philharmonic presentation of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company.”

     After graduating from Northwestern University, Colbert was a member of Chicago’s acclaimed Second City improv troupe with Amy Sedaris and Paul Dinello. The trio later created and starred in the CableAce-nominated sketch comedy series, “Exit 57,” and created the cult-hit narrative series “Strangers with Candy,” both for Comedy Central.

     Colbert has appeared on series such as HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and NBC’s “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” He was also a cast member and writer on ABC’s “The Dana Carvey Show,” wrote for “Saturday Night Live” and voiced roles in DreamWorks’ animated films “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” and “Monsters vs. Aliens.”

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