In all the pre-show press, process-examining podcasts, and local-access current affairs shows Stephen Colbert did in the lead-up to his Late Show debut, this was the refrain: The host couldn’t wait to get back in front of an audience. In The Late Show Podcast’s “Abba-Dabba-Doo” episode, Colbert finds a fitting analogy for his relationship to the people watching at home and in the studio:
I feel like sometimes as we’re prepping to do this new show, we’re people who have played a particular instrument. Our instrument is comedy—and, really, an audience, because laughter is the sound the instrument makes. […] But until you’re with an audience, you’re not playing your instrument, and so I don’t know necessarily how to make the great leap to a new show until I’m sitting there with the people that matter the most to me, and that’s the person I’m trying to connect with in the fifth row.
Tonight, Stephen Colbert picked his instrument back up, and with it he made a joyful sound. A joyful, weird, distinctly Stephen Colbert-like sound.
On opening night, the sound isn’t all that different from The Colbert Report, with a stray “Nation…” and several “Jimmy”s to gratify the faithful. After retiring the “Stephen Colbert” persona, the real Stephen Colbert retains his alter ego’s energy, cadence, and ability to pull a power play on a celebrity guest. His interview with George Clooney was reminiscent of all the Colbert Report Q&As that proceeded it, Colbert taking the high-status position in the conversation, a perch from which he can paint a picture of Amal Clooney debriefing her husband on the various intellectuals and dignitaries (“not show people,” in Colbert-as-Amal’s words) they’re about to meet. And the studio space still stands as a shrine to Colbert, whose face is now digitally projected into a stained glass pattern on the ceiling of The Ed Sullivan Theater. “I used to play a narcissistic conservative pundit,” he joked with presidential hopeful Jeb Bush in the episode’s second interview segment. “Now I’m just a narcissist.”
The first Late Show With Stephen Colbert—or, in his preferred nomenclature, The Late Show Starring With Stephen Colbert—didn’t suggest a major shakeup of the late-night talk show, but it did demonstrate how tradition could be molded into Colbert’s image. The sequencing the host sarcastically remarked “sounds boring” at the Television Critics Association press tour was followed closely: Monologue, two desk pieces, guest, guest, musical performance. At the desk, the vestiges of The Colbert Report blended most seamlessly with The Late Show. Riffing on Donald Trump’s public renouncement of Oreo, Colbert wolfed down two packages of the sandwich cookies, a binge mirrored by a tightly edited package of all the Trump nonsense he didn’t get to comment on over the summer. Edits were snappy and unsparing in the premiere episode, to the benefit of Clooney’s segment and the detriment of Bush’s, the questions and answers of which could’ve done with more breathing room. But a climactic cover of “Everyday People” featuring Batiste, Mavis Staples, Buddy Guy, Ben Folds, Derek Trucks, and Brittany Howard (and others whose names were rattled off too quickly to note), was still to come, so the Bush conversation got the on-screen referral for bonus online content.
It’s too bad, because that interview was the linchpin of the premiere. It’s where Colbert could brush aside the cookie crumbs and the “I don’t know you” paperweight and go toe-to-toe with the type of guest he’s clearly made a priority. In their conversation, Colbert used his remarkable control and poise not for comedy, but rather to honestly engage the former governor on issues of bipartisanship and education. The only sign of confusion between these differing sides of his personality and his show was the faint laughter inspired by a non-kidding aside—“or what passes for governing now”—during one of his questions. If Colbert is to appear a true alternative to his competitors at NBC and ABC—neither of whom is likely to ask Jeb Bush where his brother’s presidency went wrong (apparently it was the fiscal policy near the end of the second term)—his Late Show will be defined by moments like these. With luck, the transition between the Stephen Colbert we saw with Clooney and the Stephen Colbert we saw with Bush will be less abrupt than the segues dictated by CBS CEO Leslie Moonves and the “Late Show”/“Mentalist ” lever he was seen manning during the monologue.
As far as the two Jimmys go, Colbert’s first night at the Ed Sullivan was the latest olive branch in the play-nice era of late-night TV. Jimmy Fallon helped show off the flashy video screens that flank the new Late Show set, sending well wishes from 30 Rock and setting up a callback for the end of the episode, in which Fallon and Colbert say goodnight from the talk-show locker room. In Colbert’s locker was a photo of Jon Stewart (who kicked off the night’s proceedings by taking off his own mask—that of a baseball umpire); Fallon’s held a cutout of the Late Show host’s recent Time cover. In this era of goodwill between broadcasts rivals (or family members with differing political views, like Colbert and the brother he introduced to Bush), The Late Show’s new approach is summed up in the premiere’s closing number: “We got to live together.”
And Stephen Colbert and his team have to get up tomorrow and live together all over again, and then do it 200 other times in the next 365 days. Fortunately, their debut was marked by confidence, effervescence, and what’s likely late night’s first extended gag involving an ancient cursed amulet and a plug for grocery-store hummus. Impressive notes from a musician who’d kept his instrument in its case for the past nine months.
- You’ll notice there’s no grade at the top of this review; The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, like every talk show at this stage in its life, is still a work in progress, and there’s no sense in assigning a letter-based assessment to a project that’s still coming together. It’s all just first impressions here; for more conclusive opinions, check back for a look at the first week of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert next Monday.
- David Letterman (and Biff Henderson!) received a nice tribute at the top of the show, but I think the premiere’s surest sign of its Late Show legacy was this Letterman-esque bit of showbiz jargon: “Warn the affiliates, we might be going long tonight.”
- Sadly, those looking to renew their passports at colbertlateshow.gov will find only a “This webpage is not available” error.
- I think we’d all be wise to adopt Colbert’s pronunciation of “Jeb!”