Late-night television's game of thrones reached a dramatic climax Thursday when CBS tabbed Stephen Colbert to take over for David Letterman next year -- a move that could be almost as risky as it is obvious.

Colbert's hiring finalizes a thorough makeover of a late-night landscape that, for years, was known for its stability. When Colbert assumes Letterman's "Late Show" chair sometime in 2015, the sacred 11:30 p.m. time slot will feature a trio of men who weren't there just three years earlier.

On one hand, the choice of Colbert, 49, is a no-brainer. From the moment Letterman announced that he will retire from the "Late Show" in 2015, Colbert's name has been atop the shortlist of replacement candidates. As the host of "The Colbert Report" on Comedy Central, he comes with a passionate fan base that is sure to expand once he ditches his faux right-wing pundit caricature. He's witty, clever and lightning-quick on his feet. He also has proved to be a savvy, thoughtful interviewer.

But it's no lock that he will succeed. Although Colbert is distinctly different from Letterman, a true original who redefined late-night television, he, like his predecessor, is from the comedy school of snark and cynicism. Right now, that doesn't appear to be the winning side.


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For all his brilliance and inventiveness, Letterman regularly was trounced in the ratings by NBC's less-edgy Jay Leno, who relentlessly hugged the middle of the road. Now, Letterman is being pummeled by Jimmy Fallon, his polar opposite. Fallon, who has a self-deprecating, aw-shucks personality, comes across as sweet and upbeat -- genuinely happy to be part of the party.

By choosing Colbert, CBS just might have assured itself of remaining on the short end of the ratings battle.

That said, one thing Colbert is sure to immediately bring is a much-needed surge of energy and excitement to the CBS late-night scene. Letterman, 66, clearly was coasting in recent years and, at times, even seemed downright bored. Moreover, Colbert will bring the network in line with late-night television's current youth movement. Fallon is 39, and ABC's Jimmy Kimmel is 46.

But will he be able to shake the conservative blowhard persona he inhabited for nearly a decade on Comedy Central? Even though Colbert was performing a satirical role, many viewers undoubtedly closely associate him with that role, which he occasionally portrayed even away from his show, including a playful run for the White House.

Will that be a turnoff for too much of the audience? Conservative media giant Rush Limbaugh certainly thinks so. Shortly after Colbert's hiring was announced, Limbaugh assailed the move on his nationally syndicated radio show.

"CBS has just declared war on the heartland of America," he said. "No longer is comedy going to be a covert assault on traditional American values, conservatives, now it's just wide out in the open. What this hire means is a redefinition of what is funny and a redefinition of what is comedy."

On Thursday, Colbert appeared eager to show that he's so much more than the strident guy he played on his talk show.

"I won't be doing the new show in character, so we'll all get to find out how much of him was me," he told ABC. "I'm looking forward to it."

Jon Stewart, whose "Daily Show" provided Colbert with his first significant TV stage, is convinced his friend is the right man for the job.

"He's a uniquely talented individual," Stewart told Vulture.com in an interview published before the official announcement. "He's wonderful in 'Colbert Report,' but he's got gears he hasn't even shown people yet. He would be remarkable."

James Poniewozik, the television critic for Time magazine, also had raves for Colbert, calling him "the quickest mind in late night," but he expressed concern that Colbert might be forced to sand down some of his edges for broadcast network television.

"Colbert is specifically not for everyone; he's geekily intelligent, blisteringly funny and has a distinct, often political, point of view," he wrote. "Take that away, and you take away everything."

With Colbert's selection, CBS bypassed a chance to dramatically shake up late-night television by choosing a woman -- Chelsea Handler and Ellen DeGeneres had been mentioned as possibilities -- or an African-American. Then again, network president and CEO Les Moonves tried shaking up the evening news a few years ago by embracing Katie Couric and a more magazine-like approach, and it blew up in his face.

"Colbert," Moonves said Thursday, "is one of the most inventive and respected forces on television. 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."

The new gig is a huge upgrade for Colbert, who first came into prominence as a hilarious contributor on "The Daily Show." He proved to be so popular in his five years with the show that he was rewarded in 2005 with his own spinoff program following Stewart's.

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

"I'm thrilled and grateful that CBS chose me," Colbert added, before taking a playful dig at Letterman's familiar grin: "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go grind a gap in my front teeth."

Contact Chuck Barney at Facebook.com/BayAreaNewsGroup.ChuckBarney, or Twitter.com/chuckbarney.