NEW YORK — Stephen Colbert is about to turn a corner in his career: onto Broadway at 54th Street.
Having split from cheeky Comedy Central a few blocks away, he will now hold court at old-guard CBS. With his debut Tuesday night, he inherits the theater, time slot and series title (though with an added The) owned for 22 years by David Letterman.
Little wonder that Colbert's disciples — his erstwhile Colbert Nation — wait anxiously to see what The Late Show With Stephen Colbert will be like: How beholden will it be to late-night talk-show conventions stretching back six decades? Will it abandon Colbert's signature political edge? Can it build on the uniqueness of The Colbert Report, a sui generis concoction Colbert tailored to his skills and passions?
If the early guest lineups offer any clue, he'll offer a rich blend of talk: Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush and Vice President Joe Biden will appear the first week, along with entrepreneurs Elon Musk (SpaceX and Tesla Motors) and Travis Kalanick (Uber), plus a showbiz mix including George Clooney, Amy Schumer and Toby Keith.
His online spoof of Donald Trump that was posted in June suggests he's poised to lampoon the 2016 presidential race.
Does he have any marching orders for when he steps onstage at 10:35 p.m. Tuesday?
"No one has asked me to do anything," he responds to a reporter's intimation that CBS aims to plug him into a pre-existing late-night hole. "They have said, 'Do what you do, but give us more.' "
More is certainly on tap. Colbert will air for an hour five nights a week, more than double the Monday-through-Thursday half-hour output he maintained for nine years before exiting Comedy Central last December (and retiring his on-air character, a.k.a. The Character).
Colbert, 51, comes to The Late Show after establishing himself in the guise of a messianic blowhard who spoofed Bill O'Reilly and his Fox News Channel show The O'Reilly Factor, with maybe a touch of Rush Limbaugh thrown in.
On The Colbert Report,he played the host as a jerk, but endearingly "someone who wasn't aware that he was a jerk; a well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot. I wasn't sure that I could get all four of those rotations on the ball. But it worked out."
His was a game of three-dimensional chess, especially with the interviews, which became his favorite part of the show, but they were also exhausting.
"Talking with a guest, I had to run everything through the CPU up here" — he points to the computer in his noggin — "to grind out a version of myself, instantly, while keeping my intention as a satirist evident inside the Trojan horse of my character's role as a pundit who trades on divisiveness."
With his native observations and inquiries shining through the prism of his on-screen persona, Colbert emerged as a stealth truth-teller. His doltish pronouncements, when decoded for their satirical intent, shrewdly analyzed politics, public affairs and the media.
"So far I've pre-taped at least half-a-dozen interviews as myself," he says. All the while, The Character "sat on my shoulder, saying, 'Let me do it! I can make everything a joke!' And I would go, 'No, no, I want to see what it's like to do it without you.'"
The question remains: Will he be as funny when stripped of his dimwitted proxy? That's what his fans fret about.
They may have forgotten that Colbert is a gifted improv artist — Second City is on his résumé — so The Character, his know-nothing mouthpiece, was just one of countless roles in his repertoire, including the role of himself.
Frazier Moore, The Associated Press
The Late Show With Stephen Colbert
Weeknights at 10:35 p.m., CBS (Channel 11). Premiere runs until 11:44 p.m.; normally 1 hr.
Tuesday: George Clooney and Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush
Wednesday: Scarlett Johansson, SpaceX and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk and Kendrick Lamar, who also performs
Thursday: Vice President Joe Biden and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, with musical guest Toby Keith
Friday: Amy Schumer, author Stephen King and Troubled Waters, which also performs