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5 ‘Late Show With Stephen Colbert’ Burning Questions

TheWrap looks at what to expect heading into Tuesday’s premiere, including whether NBC rival Jimmy Fallon will make a cameo appearance

Stephen Colbert will make his debut on CBS’ “Late Show” Tuesday — only the second person to serve as permanent host of the franchise created by David Letterman in 1992.

There are some details known about Colbert’s show. His first guests will be George Clooney and GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush. His first musical guest will be Kendrick Lamar. His band will be led by Jon Batiste.

But there are also many unknowns. TheWrap looks at the biggest questions left unanswered heading into Tuesday night’s premiere.

1. How long will he reign?
The day after Conan O’Brien premiered as host of “The Tonight Show” in 2009, NBC issued a press release proclaiming him “the new King of Late Night.” Seven months later, O’Brien was unemployed.

CBS won’t make that mistake after Colbert debuts Tuesday night. Expect him to draw huge ratings on his premiere night, though not so huge as Jimmy Fallon did for his “Tonight Show” debut in 2014, which benefited from an Olympics lead-in.

For his first few episodes, Colbert will likely siphon off audience from Fallon and ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and draw curious viewers who don’t normally tune in to the broadcast late-night series.

But after two weeks, the numbers should settle into something that will resemble the new late-night ratings normal — a competitive three-way race between Fallon, Kimmel and Colbert, with Colbert providing a legitimate challenge to Fallon’s hold on the top spot.

2. Will he deliver change we can believe in?
The traditional late-night talk show format is so established that when Seth Meyers broke from tradition last month to begin his show sitting behind his desk, it was considered significant. Whether Colbert smashes up the conventional structure or just adjusts it around the edges remains to be seen. But there’s reason to hope he’ll be a force for change.

Asked at the Television Critics Association summer press tour in August whether he would do “monologue, desk piece, guest, guest, musical guest, goodbye,” Colbert answered only, “Well, that sounds boring. I’m going to go with ‘no’ on boring.”

3. How political will he get?
Colbert brings unprecedented street cred as a political satirist to the show, having spent nearly a decade playing a faux political pundit four nights a week — a contrast to Fallon’s sketch-comedy approach and Kimmel’s background as a stand-up and radio host. Politics are expected to be a big part of the new “Late Show.”

“God knows there are going to be a lot of opportunities for comedy going into the election year,” Nina Tassler, CBS Entertainment chairman, recently told TheWrap. “Stephen’s show will be entertaining. There will be great interviews. There will be taped segments. And you can count on him for a humorous analysis of what’s happening on the political landscape.”

Already Colbert has five political guests booked in his first two weeks — Bush, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Vice President Joe Biden, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

4. Will any surprise guests show up?
Fallon broke the bank on surprise guests in his “Tonight Show” debut with a taped segment that featured Robert De Niro, Tina Fey, Joe Namath, Rudy Giuliani, Mariah Carey, Tracy Morgan, Joan Rivers, Kim Kardashian, Seth Rogen, Lindsay Lohan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Mike Tyson, Lady Gaga, and, of course, Stephen Colbert.

Fallon and Colbert have been occasional cross-pollinators. Colbert appeared on Fallon’s “Late Night” in 2011 for an elaborate performance of Rebecca Black’s “Friday” in which the two hosts were joined by “American Idol” Season 5 winner Taylor Hicks.

If Fallon wanted to return the favors, Colbert’s new digs at the Ed Sullivan Theater are walking distance from Fallon’s at Rockefeller Center. Appearances by Colbert’s old boss Jon Stewart or previous “Late Show” host Letterman would yield moments guaranteed to go viral.

5. What will the impact on Corden be?
CBS has been strategic about its relaunch of “The Late Late Show” at 12:30 a.m. with new host James Corden. That strategy has been built around three key dates when viewers unfamiliar with British variety star Corden could be expected to sample the show. The first was the show’s premiere March 3. The second was Letterman’s final show May 20. The third is Colbert’s premiere Tuesday.

Corden will undoubtedly get a bump from following Corden’s big debut. He will also get a later start, as CBS announced this week that Colbert’s first episode will run until 12:44 a.m. ET — cutting into Corden’s timeslot. That move could lessen the positive impact for “The Late Late Show,” at least on the first night.