Who Owns Stephen Colbert?

There’s been a pretty interesting controversy emerging from Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show” on CBS.  Colbert recently reprised “The Word” segment from the Colbert Report on Comedy Central – Colbert’s employer before CBS. 

On Comedy Central, Colbert portrayed a bombastic, conservative leaning commentator, named “Stephen Colbert.”  The Word featured the character riffing on words, with a box over his shoulder with text amplifying the points.  The most famous “Word” was “truthiness” – which the Colbert character defined as   “the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true.” 

On the Late Show, Colbert does not portray a character – he is his own man so to speak.  And he’s generally steered clear of the Comedy Central character – until last week  when the character made a triumphant return to discuss “Trumpiness.”   Trumpiness describes the state of followers who don’t believe a candidate’s wildest promises – and don’t care. 

In any event, Viacom – the parent of Comedy Central – apparently sent a letter to CBS demanding that Colbert stop being Colbert.  It’s an interesting dilemma isn’t it?  On the one hand, the concept is pretty clear – a character belongs to whoever creates it.  So, Jon Hamm couldn’t recreate his Don Draper role in another series without AMC’s permission.  That seems pretty black and white.

What makes the Colbert situation more gray is that the character is Stephen Colbert.  So where does Colbert the person end and Colbert the character begin?  Here’s an excellent discussion of the issue.  It may come down to attitude. The bit isn’t too different from what Seth Myers does with “A Closer Look” or what Trevor Noah does on “The Daily Show.”  So Comedy Central really can’t own the format.  It really comes down to the characteristics of the Colbert character – the bombastic cluelessness is the essence.  But that may be a pretty amorphous standard.

Colbert’s solution for now is to introduce the character’s “identical twin cousin” who did a segment called “The Werd.”  I guess now we’ll see if Comedy Central has a sense of humor!