Stephen Colbert replaces David Letterman. Please help us figure out what this means!


This just in.  We learned moments ago that Stephen Colbert will replace David Letterman on late night television.

We can identify the cultural significance of David Letterman .  He came to prominence on the back of a cultural trend, the Preppie revolution.   Letterman was the guy who liked to stand in a window in Rockefeller Center and proclaim through a bull-horn, “I’m not wearing any pants.”   This was preppie humor, a frat boy prank.

Below is my cheat-sheet treatment of the Preppie revolution as it appeared in Chief Culture Officer.

I would  love it if people would give offer a brief account of the cultural movement that brought Stephen Colbert to prominence and the shift in culture  his rise represents for us.  Don’t feel obliged to give a detailed account.  We can make this collaborative.  Just take a different piece of the puzzle and I will try to piece together when all “results” are in.

Here’s the passage from my Chief Culture Officer:

The preppie convergence began to form visibly and publicly around 1980, but we if we were astoundingly well informed and gifted, we could have seen it coming ten years before.  Doug Kenney founded in National Lampoon in 1970 with staff from the Harvard Lampoon.  And we could have tracked the success of this convergence as this publication began to scale up.  National Lampoon published parodies of Newsweek and Life, the 1964 High School Yearbook Parody (1974), and a well received issue entitled Buy this magazine, or we’ll shoot this dog.  By the end of the 1970s, Lampoon circulation had reached nearly a million copies per month.  And by this time even the dimmest trend hunter had it on their radar.

Sales is one thing.  We should also be alert to the migration of talent.  In the case of the preppie convergence, we needed to be paying attention when the world started raiding the Lampoon for talent.  Kenney left to write movies.  Michael O’Donoghue left in 1975 to become head writer for Saturday Night Live.  P.J. O’Rourke left to write for Rolling Stone.  The National Lampoon spoke with the voice of the ruthless private school boy.  Apparently this was now in demand.

We should have noticed when the preppie convergence began to colonize the movies.  We should have been paying attention when the preppie thing migrated to the movies.  Kenney created Animal House in 1978 and Caddyshack in 1980.  The first featured Tim Matheson, the second Bill Murray.  The prep also appeared in Bachelor Party (1984), played by Tom Hanks.  Perhaps most famously, the prep turned up in the 1982 NBC series Family ties in the character of Alex P. Keaton, played by Michael J. Fox.  He also appeared in the 1982 late night comedy show in the person of David Letterman who gave voice to prep form by standing in a window of Rockefeller center and announcing with a bull horn, “I’m not wearing any pants.”  (Preps loved to be vulgar and clever at the same time.  It’s a frat thing.)

Everyday language began to vibrate with new phrases: “go for it,” “get a life,” “get a grip,” “snap out of it.”  It was easy to see how these spoke for the new convergence.  People were impatient with the old pieties.  That was 60s idealism, and people were done with that.

Convergences must shake the webs of the publishing world.  (Or they cannot be convergences.) One of the best sellers of the period was Lisa Birnbach’s The Preppy Handbook in 1980. This was 200 pages of detailed instruction: what to wear, where to go to school, what sports to play, what sports to watch, what slang to speak, how to be rude to a salesperson, and how to mix a Bloody Mary.  If the National Lampoon had supplied the new character of the decade, here were instructions of a much more detailed kind.

The consensus was visible in public life.  Suddenly Harvard Yard, never especially presentable in its architecture, appointments, or personnel, filled with glossy teens in down vests, Norwegian sweaters, and Top-Siders, all newly minted by L.L. Bean.  Some of them were the children of Old Money following ancestral footsteps into the Ivy League.  But most were kids from Boston University who believed that the Yard was a better lifestyle accessory.

The convergence began to recruit ferociously.  A young woman remembers.

As a teenager [my mom] was pulling The Preppy Handbook out from under my [sleeping] cheek.  These were the mid-80’s, and I just lapped up all that puppy/yuppie/J. Crew catalogue/Land’s End stuff.  I didn’t want to live in Wisconsin; rather, I wished my parents played tennis and would send me away to Phillips Exeter.  In fact, I waged a two-year send-Ann-to-Exeter campaign (“or, hey Choate would be O.K. C’mon, at least consider the University School of Milwaukee!”).  I wished we summered on Martha’s Vineyard and wore penny loafers without socks.  I wanted to ski in Vermont during Christmas vacation like my copy of The Preppy Handbook recommended.  […] I wanted to live far away from Wisconsin and my family and come home only at Christmas.  As pathetic as it sounds, deep in my soul I wished I owned a navy-blue blazer with my school’s crest embroidered on the lapel and wore grosgrain ribbons in my hair.  I daydreamed about the day when I would go to East to college, and I believed I would.⁠1

The preppie convergence would sell a lot of cars for Chrysler (Jeeps) and, eventually, a lot of SUVs for everyone.  It would sell clothing for L.L Bean, Land’s End, J. Crew, Ralph Lauren, and eventually Tommy Hilfiger and the Gap.  It would sell a ton of furniture for Ethan Allen and eventually Sears.  Downstream, it sold a lot of watches for Rolex and a lot of cars for BMW.  Eventually, it would serve as the foundation for Martha Stewart and her brand of status.  It would shape and still shapes what boomers wear on the weekends.⁠2

The tide turned again.  Repudiation was coming.  We might have seen, as I did, graffiti on a Tom Cruise movie poster that read, “die Yuppie scum.”  Another was Gordon Gecko in Wall Street (1987), a film Roger Ebert hailed as a “radical critique of the capitalist trading mentality.”  The prep hero was now tarnished.  (Life soon imitated art, with the fall of Michael Milken, the junk bond trader indicted in 1989 for violations of federal securities and racketeering laws.)  The third was the movie, Heathers (1989) in which teens excluded by snobbery take a terrible revenge against the preps.  The fourth was the publication of American Psycho in 1991.  This was, among other things, a vilification of the prep.  At this point, the big board should be flashing with warning signals.  Something new had made it up out of the college campuses of the world, past all the little gates, and on to the big screen.  Pity us if this is our first warning.

I was doing research with teens in 1990 and, almost to a person, they were saying, “well, I guess you could say I’m a Prep, but I don’t really think I am.”  Or, more forcefully, “The last thing I want to be called is a Prep.”  This was coming from kids who were still wearing buttoned down shirts and Top Siders.  Teens were moving on, some to the emerging subculture of rap, some to a brief revival of the hippy regime, still others were taking an “alternative” turn.  We do not have access to this data, but we can assume that sales figures for Ralph Lauren, Rolex, BMW, and the other “flag ship” brands of the decade fell sharply.  Presumably, furniture and textile stores suddenly found it difficult to move their “duck” and “sailboat” motifs.  What convergences give, they take away.


1 Stroh, Ann. n.d. The Preppy Handbook and other myths.  This document may be found at

2 For the connection between the prep or yuppie movement and BMW, see Greyser, Stephen and Wendy Schille. 1991.  BMW: The Ultimate Driving Machine Seeks to De-Yuppify Itself.  Harvard Case Study, 9-593-046, December 27, 1993.  Steven Greyser is an Emeritus Professor at the Harvard Business School.  Wendy Schille was a research associate at HBS at the writing of this case.

8 thoughts on “Stephen Colbert replaces David Letterman. Please help us figure out what this means!

  1. allen bukoff

    I worry that Colbert represents the rise of comedic duplicitous truth in our entertainment and news media. Colbert reminds me of Archie Bunker–“we” all knew that Meathead was right and that Archie was obviously wrong and that everybody could see that he was wrong. Until we found out that there were racist rednecks and arch conservatives out there who really thought that Archie was right and was being portrayed as being right (not being made fun of!). Colbert…at least as he’s developed his character on the Cobert report…runs the risk of being successful because various dramatically differing political viewpoints can think they are being represented and the other side is being taken down. Media continues to avoid taking sides while successfully engaging politics as entertainment. Everyone gets to have their cake and eat it too. Done with mirrors. Fiddling while Rome burns.

    1. Grant Post author

      Allen, nice point, irony is sometimes invisible. And you’re right. Colbert has exactly the duality that the Bunker character did. And has the ability to talk to do very different groups. And the way he has chosen to play this gives no hint he’s kidding (if you are for some purposes tone deaf). Thanks. Grant

  2. Jo

    I like that project, Grant. I cannot guarantee that there is any sense in what will follow, but here are my thoughts:

    You mentioned how the Preppie convergence was fuelled by comedy magazines and shows, finally reaching the movies, and diffused through the wider culture in form of a transfer of meaning, as you have described years ago. One can certainly make the same claim here and trace down the route through which the cultural trend associated with Stephen Colbert came to prominence, or converged. One could point out how he was a member of the Daily Show cast, or how he lampoons Fox news. While this is all helpful, I would like to suggest one point that seems at least to me quite helpful to understand the success of Colbert: digital media.

    On the first glance, it is quite obvious that Colbert is a digital media, and social media, titan. He is the guy who signs up former president Bill Clinton to twitter, who has now 1.75 million followers but follows only 10 other accounts: the one of his wife, the one of his daughter, 7 accounts associated with his various initiatives, and @StephenAtHome. One of the best examples of the “Colbert Bump”, but also an example of how well Colbert understands the new media landscape. So well that he basically shook off the recent “scandal” that was stirred up by the old media over a tweet that came from his show’s (now deleted) twitter account.

    Colbert understands how new media works, but my analogy goes deeper. His whole humour is closely related to our everyday life world that is subtly shaped by advances in digital technological.

    First of all, Colbert himself identifies the O’Reilly Factor as his source of inspiration, and he blatantly copies from it. In fact, and I mean this as a compliment, Colbert blatantly copies from everywhere around the old media and established political system. He creates a super pac, records a christmas chorals CD, hosts book clubs, and so on. Like a student blatantly copying from wikipedia and other sources when writing an essay, Colbert blatantly copies culture to present it as his own.

    His show is also a celebration of his self and his ideology – which are basically fused into one infallible unit. Again, I see digital technology fuelling this cultural paradigm. Facebook, twitter, selfies (check out Colbert’s photos on his twitter stream), instagram, and even linkedin has enabled everybody to become the center of one’s personal universe, and the digital bubbles that are presented to us by google, facebook and other “news” sources shelter us from facts and opinions that do not match our pre-conceived ideology. Colbert highlights this by re-interpreting his audience’s genuine reactions as support for the opposite opinion: If the audience applause because Colorado legalized pot, Colbert observes that “he is shocked and angry, too”, or something similar.

    It might be interesting to contrast Stephen Colbert to Bill Maher: Bill Maher has a “Flip a District” campaign, whereas Stephen Colbert has a “Better Know a District” segment. Bill Maher tries to persuade and convince people through debate, whereas Stephen Colbert already assumes that everybody agrees with him. Bill Maher is bent on changing the system that has gone mad, while Stephen Colbert’s motives are more opaque, hidden behind the celebration of his own self and ideology, an ironic copy of the real thing that has gone mad.

    So yeah, for me Colbert’s success for me has to do with how his show and persona mirrors important cultural trends that are all fuelled by advances in digital technology: copy-and-paste, ideological-information-bubbles, selfie-universe, and so on.


    1. Grant Post author

      Jo, this is fabulous, thanks. Yes, he’s very meta, feeding off old media and ideological materials. And because he plays it so straight, he just needs to copy to make the joke happen. It’s a very efficient model of comedy. To be sure there is lots of invention but lots more mirror work, as you say. Thanks, Grant

  3. Len Maniace


    Great to be able to talk with you, again. Interesting essay. I say a good move by CBS.

    I’d share a few thoughts. If we are going to think of the Harvard Lampoon and SNL (which had a lot of distinctly non-preppie folks) as preppie humor, it was preppie humor on acid.

    And while people were tired of ‘60s idealism (which was replaced with a ’70s idealism; every decade has its own) it was a humor that appealed to an audience that was left leaning.

    As for Letterman, though his humor was largely apolitical, his political jabs were usually aimed at the GOP. Republican George Pataki was a butt of his humor even before being elected NY governor: Letterman saying one of his favorite dishes was “Chicken Pataki,” and later introducing “Wacky Pataki,” the not-so-reputable electronics store.

    Clearly, Stephen Colbert is overly more to the left than Letterman, but with his Catholicism, he’s harder to pin down culturally (I think). The child of David Letterman and Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement? In any case, he’s probably mixing wine with that acid.

    All the best.

    1. Grant Post author

      Len, nicely observed. As Allen was saying, Colbert gets to have it both ways. Those on the right, some of them, assume he’s on the right. Those of the left … Maybe he is multivocal. Maybe he is both those positions. The contemporary world is often about people assuming a new mobility, a new versatility. Maybe he’s one of those. In which case he could claim an even broader parentage. Thanks! Grant

  4. Eric Nehrlich

    One aspect I found interesting about this (as mentioned by Andy Greenwald over at Grantland) is that we actually don’t know who Stephen Colbert is. We know “Stephen Colbert” from the Colbert Report, but that is a character.

    So there is something here about the benefit of playing a character to build one’s own reputation, because it allows one two shots at gaining an audience – an audience for one’s character and an audience for oneself (like Allen’s point above). It’s a careful balance, though, because if one isn’t careful, the media-fueled character can take over the person (e.g. the Kardashians or Lindsay Lohan).

    I wonder if this is the moment when we can declare that authenticity is dead. No longer is it necessary to develop one’s own reputation and do good things as oneself – being a character will bring more success. What implications does that have?

    To some extent, we have always played characters with each other – we have roles that we play (adoring child, encouraging parent, meek office worker, supportive best friend), and those roles shift depending on which social group we are with. But adding media (TV, blogs, etc) to the mix means those characters can take on lives of their own and overshadow the original. This world rewards those that can quicksilver flash between characters (e.g. Jimmy Fallon) and not those who are stolidly themselves.

    1. Grant Post author

      Eric, beautiful, it finally comes down to whether you subscribe to single-self models of individualism with their commitments to consistency and sincerity as markers of the authentic. Or whether the audience have moved on to models of the self that take for granted the possibility of a multiplicity and a (more or less) fluid movement between selves. The weird thing here is possibility that some of us (in the second camp) take for granted that celebrities will be multiple but for some reason we still expect our politicians to be singular. Colbert is (among other things) a weird hybrid of the celebrity and the politician so maybe we’re going to be conflicted about him for some time. Thanks for a great comment, Grant
      p.s., and great point about some of the competitors, jimmy fallon, being all about that quicksilver transition. Now that I think about this, it wonder whether we aren’t looking at a transition in late night between the old model host, those stolid guys (great adjective, was anyone ever more stolid than Jay), and the ones who are more mobile (like Fallon). And that might make Colbert a nice transitional figure, playing both creatures. This assumes he can find and hold (and survive) the contradiction. Or maybe he’ll just piss everyone off. Thanks again.

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