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Colbert as Colbert? It Might Not Be So Bad

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Stephen Colbert... as himself?

It might not be the worst thing in the world -- no matter what many of us thought at first.

The initial reports confirming that the preternaturally talented Comedy Central host would be taking over David Letterman's show -- something I strongly suspected might happen but that surprised many -- also included a disheartening assurance from a top CBS exec that Colbert would do The Late Show as himself, not as his bloviating, Bill O'Reilly-esque character.

"Terrible news," I thought initially. But is it?

Two weeks later it seems that it might not be, for several reasons.

"We've never really seen Colbert out of character, have we?" many fellow fans said. "What will he be like?"

Actually, we have. We saw the real Colbert -- different, bolder eyewear and all -- visiting Letterman's show this week, where he delivered a funny Christmas Top 10 list he wrote on spec for Letterman years ago. (It included such beverages for Santa as "Silent Nighttrain" and "Room at the Gin.")

He was also visited by Oprah two years ago at his Charlotte, S.C., family home, where he was his Southern self. We got to meet his wife and kids for the first time.

But if you want the best demonstration of how the super-bright Colbert can more than hold his own at length without his right-wing persona, check out a YouTube video of a visit he made not long ago to Google's New York headquarters, where he was interviewed by Google chairman Eric Schmidt in a freewheeling, hour-long conversation:

When I discussed all this recently on Norman Goldman's national radio show, Goldman also wondered what Colbert would do as himself for an hour each night.

I told Goldman that if it was keeping the stale desk-and-couch format alive -- if it meant the likes of Sandra Bullock, Penelope Cruz, Will Ferrell or Julia Roberts, etc., etc. showing up to plug their latest dismal movies -- then we longtime Colbert fans would be so angry that we'd melt down CBS' phone lines, Twitter feed, and email. You don't turn solid gold into lead and not hear about it quickly these days, especially since there's so little TV gold around.

OK, the desk and couch can and will probably stay, but longtime fans like me won't tolerate a steep drop-off in quality from the peerless Colbert Report, which I think of as The Daily Show with a lot fewer dick jokes.

Colbert has a brilliant writing staff, and I hoping not only that it goes intact with him to CBS but that its material also will be used -- and not just in a monologue. One also hopes Colbert will climb back into character on a regular basis. (I'm not sure even Viacom's lawyers at Comedy Central could prevent that.)

The Colbert Report is the only show that this longtime newspaper TV critic will miss. I can't remember even one substandard show: Colbert ranges from "just" good to superb every night.

OK, so why would Colbert drop his popular character? Two good reasons:

First, The Late Show, whatever its possible reincarnation may be, is going to remain an interview show. It wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to see Colbert doing lengthier interviews with his often-offbeat, usually-interesting guests.

Also, progressive talk-show host Ron Reagan, Jr., after one of his appearances as Colbert's guest, said something on his show the next day that seems pertinent here. "It was weird being interviewed by a character," Reagan explained. "I've never done that, and there's really no way to prepare for it."

One can imagine how guests not as quick on their feet as Reagan would handle that situation.

Finally, a more practical reason that Colbert doing the show as himself makes sense (for him, anyway) comes from a comedian friend. "Can you imagine doing the same character for over five years?" the comic asked me. "That can't be easy. Colbert could use a break."