I still believe Colbert has the talent and hip maturity of a 1970s-era Johnny Carson. Released from the shackles of his “character,” he can create another character (no talk show host is really being themselves) who won’t feel as compelled to mug or steal the spotlight from his guests.
Colbert himself probably realized there was only so long he could be Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert. I never thought he was that successful as a parody of right-wing punditry. He never really committed to playing the “heel,” to use pro-wrestling terminology, so never truly reflected the bullying nastiness of Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly. And he couldn’t or wouldn’t turn off enough of his brain to effectively illustrate the earnest cluelessness of Sean Hannity or Joe Scarborough.
I saw a taping of The Colbert Report in July of 2011, and Colbert’s off-camera interactions with the audience were what convinced me he’d make a great host of a “straight” talk show. That same audience loved him so much it was clear he didn’t own the part he claimed to play. Hip New York liberals (along with most of the left-wing political guests) were too in on the joke. I think back to Andy Kaufman’s wrestling career. It wasn’t enough for him to simply play a celebrity wrestler. Kaufman took it to a level where people who knew intellectually that he was merely playing the villain in what they also knew was a fake sport were still provoked emotionally to boo and jeer him. And in that moment, Kaufman had the audience completely. He saw that true unguarded emotional response as evidence of a convincing performance.
Too often I saw my liberal friends at Colbert tapings gleefully high-fiving someone they should detest as much as they reviled Limbaugh. Perhaps Colbert wanted to be loved too much, which will make him a great replacement for Letterman.