For several years, Stephen Colbert occupied a unique and arguably necessary spot in our popular culture. While his fellow Comedy Central late night host Jon Stewart mixed his comedy with earnest, solemn rebukes of perceived shortcomings and failures of our political system, Colbert's critiques came from satire as he played his over-the-top, blowhard newsman character to the hilt. His persona was immediately recognizable to anyone who has seen cable news over the past fifteen years, and the audience was in on the joke; no one truly believed that the real Stephen Colbert bore any resemblance to the "Stephen Colbert" who turned up on our televisions.
Sadly for fans, Colbert retired his alter ego when he left the "Colbert Report" to take over for a retiring David Letterman as host of CBS' "Late Show" in late 2015. But Colbert's recent revival of his old character has put him at odds with his former employer.
After bringing back "Stephen Colbert" for a segment on the July 18 edition of the program, attorneys for Comedy Central's parent company, Viacom, reached out to CBS regarding the character's appearance, according to Colbert. In the segment, Colbert used a clip of the "Colbert Report" theme song as well as the familiar graphics and composition of his long-running "The Word" segments from his former program. This seems to have rankled the IP watchdogs of Viacom (although it brought the house down with his Late Show audience, as you can see from this clip.)
In response to the complaint, Colbert stated that he wouldn't use the character again. But in a bit of cheekiness that longtime fans have come to expect, Colbert proceeded to introduce a new character that was "Stephen Colbert's" identical twin cousin, named (you guessed it) Stephen Colbert. He also introduced a "new" segment to his show entitled "WERD", which bears more than a passing resemblance to "The Word".
As Variety points out, this isn't the first instance of a late night host using old bits on their new program. When Colbert's predecessor David Letterman ventured to CBS from NBC, he brought along characters and features that were tweaked ever so slightly to try and skirt IP laws (including his famous "Top Ten" list.) However, Colbert could find himself in hot water if his contract with Viacom expressly gave rights to his character and the features of his old show to the company.
The matter is further muddled when you get into the particulars of this particular arrangement. The character is obviously an affectation, but it shares both the name and likeness of the real Stephen Colbert, so differentiating between the two is somewhat less obvious. And while Viacom and CBS are separate entities, both are controlled by media magnate Sumner Redstone, who could presumably quash and such infighting if he so chose.
Colbert's new old additions to his "Late Show" aren't expected to be regular features, but their future appearances and the reaction to them might demonstrate whether Viacom wishes to further pursue the matter or leave it be, considering that they are unable to make use of the character themselves. In an election cycle stranger than any in recent memory, both sides might come to realize that "Stephen Colbert" is the man we need to laugh our way through it.