Stephen Colbert’s Replacement Matters Way More Than His Promotion

So, it happened: another white guy, albeit a talented one, will be joining the ranks of late-night TV hosts. Stephen Colbert’s been the frontrunner ever since David Letterman announced his retirement next year, exact date TBD; according to Mashable, he’s been in talks with CBS since before Letterman’s exit was set in stone, and his Comedy Central contract just so happens to expire at the end of 2014. Personally, I’m thrilled for Colbert even as I’m disappointed CBS didn’t go with someone who looks exactly like everyone else we see every night on every other major network. But I also don’t think I’m alone in being a regular viewer of The Colbert Report who has no intentions of tuning in to The Late Show, new host or no.

A few weeks ago, Slate’s Amanda Hess hit the nail on the head with the trollishly headlined “Go Ahead, Give David Letterman’s Gig to Another White Guy.” Provided one reads a few lines past the initial #slatepitch, Hess’ thesis is more progressive than it sounds. “As a ‘lady blogger,’ I understand the impulse to call for more diversity in late-night talk,” Hess says. “But as a fan of comedy, I don’t care who fills David Letterman’s chair, because I don’t watch that stuff.” Neither do I, and neither does anyone I know who watches TV as something to take seriously and analyze.

If you’re reading this, you probably fall into that camp too. And think about it: when was the last time people were talking about a bit from Stewart and Colbert? (Besides, of course, that bit from Colbert.) Jon Stewart’s rant about Chicago-style pizza? Kristen Schaal dressed up in a giant vagina costume? Colbert causing Bill O’Reilly to blow a gasket? Now think about the last time people, or at least social media, were talking about something Letterman-related. I count two: the brilliant three-episode arc from last season of Louie, which had nothing to do with Letterman himself, and the recent crop of excellent musical guests. Great as Le1f and Future Islands are, though, that has more to do with The Late Show‘s talent booker than its host.

Late night is a format naturally given to inertia. There’s the mind-boggling output of five hours’ worth of material each week, plus the pressure of appealing to a massive audience, though one that’s not nearly as massive as it used to be. That pressure adds up to substantially less creative freedom than a comedian might find at Adult Swim, IFC, or Comedy Central. Hess’ gold standard for an unconventional talk show is The Eric Andre Show, which lets the comedian show off his chops in the way ABC’s Don’t Trust the B— never quite did. Mine is Comedy Bang! Bang!, but the same argument applies: networks mean bigger audiences, bigger paychecks… and fewer laughs, or at least far less interesting ones.

Nothing symbolizes that tradeoff quite like the end of The Colbert Report, and with it the character Colbert’s spent nearly a decade crafting into a pitch-perfect parody of the right-wing pundit. Over at Vulture, Jesse David Fox has a eulogy for the “fully-formed hypocrite,” a man who “heightened the absurdity of those he was parodying while also grounding them in psychological truth.” Not that the CBS version of Colbert won’t be charming, but the Comedy Central Colbert was a host the likes of which we’d never seen before. Something tells me Colbert’s Late Show won’t be coining a word of the year in its first months on air.

Late night is not and never will be the cutting edge of TV comedy; Stephen Colbert won’t change that, and neither will fellow newbies Seth Meyers and Jimmy Fallon. (Though Fallon’s been doing the best job of the bunch since he landed on Tonight Stevie Nicks! Billy Eichner!) Which means the most important new job in TV isn’t a gig on The Late Show. It’s the gaping hole Colbert’s leaving behind at Comedy Central.

Splitsider’s already compiled a helpful guide to the network’s options for replacing its number two. Included among them are several ways to do what late night so obviously isn’t: give a platform that’s both large-scale and relevant to someone who’s not a white guy. Contenders include Kristen Schaal, Samantha Bee, and Jessica Williams of The Daily Show, all of whom would be taking the same route Colbert did when he decamped from Jon Stewart to strike out on his own. There’s a ton of other names that also fit the bill, including Tig Notaro, W. Kamau Bell, and Kumail Nanjiani.

Comedy Central could also give the job to yet another white dude. It has options ranging from the awesome (Chris Gethard: “I haven’t felt that ‘The girl I have a crush on just broke up with her boyfriend’ feeling since high school”) to the solid (moving Internet-savvy game show @midnight up a half-hour) to the abysmal (please, God, anyone but Daniel Tosh). There’s reason for hope, though, considering that Comedy Central is currently home to programs like Inside Amy Schumer, which Slate’s Willa Paskin recently dubbed “the most sneakily feminist show on TV,”  and Key & Peele, the kind of sketch series that doesn’t shy away from bits about slaves on the auction block.

In replacing Colbert, Comedy Central has the power to give a rising comedian the chance to hit the sweet spot where popularity and creativity aren’t mutually exclusive. The last time it gave out this kind of opportunity, we got the decade’s most distinctive political satirist. Whoever it promotes next will make far more of a statement than CBS just did.