Like the 2016 U.S. presidential race, it’s still way too early to say anything certain or definitive about The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. Television shows live in a constant state of adaptation and evolution, and that goes double for late-night talk shows. A year from now, The Late Show could look completely different from what Colbert and team presented in their first five episodes. Perhaps he’ll start opening the show from behind the desk. Maybe he’ll decide that David Letterman was right to have his desk on the other side of the Ed Sullivan Theater’s stage. Maybe the show will be visited by a tiny green space alien named Ozmodiar that only bandleader Jon Batiste can see. The possibilities are endless—within the finite and relatively rigid bounds of a decades-old format, of course. Some adjustments are already happening on the fly: In what I assume is a move to avoid confusion between Late Show director Jim Hoskinson and The Late Show’s broadcast competitors, Colbert ceased shouting out to “Jimmy” somewhere in the middle of premiere week. When a graphic is required or Pro Bowler Joe Theismann is fucking with camera 2, these requests are now fielded by “Jim.” So I guess you can say the show is maturing, even at this early stage.
But also like the 2016 U.S. presidential election, talking about The Late Show With Stephen Colbert is too much fun to abstain from. At the end of what would’ve constituted Colbert’s first week at the helm (if The Late Show didn’t start back up following a three-day weekend), there is comment to be made about how the first five shows went. The highlights were bright (Joe Biden, Kendrick Lamar, Oreos, that thing where Colbert asks Stay Human a question and all of its members talk on top of each other) and the lowlights (bits that overstayed their welcome, choppy interview edits) were scarce. Each episode gave some reason to be excited about the next night’s show, even as logic dictates that that excitement will eventually wane, as the show inevitably settles into a groove and the well runs dry of objects that can be Photoshopped into luxury Trump properties.
And with the exception of the vice president upstaging Colbert on Thursday, the host was the No. 1 reason to watch these first five episodes. And in this late-night era, that’s notable. Jimmy Fallon and James Corden draw the most eyes and the loudest buzz because of what other people do on their shows; Jimmy Kimmel has made some of his deepest talk-show impacts by staying out of the frame until the very last second. Launching off of his own program to take over for the most influential talk-show host of a generation, Stephen Colbert is in a prime spot to push his personality as the main draw of his Late Show. In these first five episodes, he demonstrated again and again that the bulletproof confidence of his Colbert Show persona wasn’t a put-on. As sincerity becomes his default mode, the most sincere part of Stephen Colbert is his belief in himself as a performer. Either that, or his fear about deflecting a serve from U.S. Open champion Novak Djokovic.
Reading Vulture’s take on the Late Show With Stephen Colbert premiere, I nodded along in agreement with its assessment of the episode’s genuflect-before-Sabra sketch: “The weirdness of the pause was amplified by Colbert’s unnerving intensity.” There’s another great pause later in the episode, as the “All You Can Trump Buffet” surges into its final beat: With a plastic waste bin perched on his lap, Colbert flails his limbs and flares his nostrils in the direction of a superimposed Donald Trump. “It doesn’t mean we have to keep talking about you. Someone on television should have a modicum of dignity and it could be me!” he says, relocating and re-channeling the intensity from earlier in the show. And after releasing the tension for a fraction of a second, the host plunges his whole right arm into the bin, retrieving the metaphorical Oreos in a fluid, cathartic motion that sends one of the cookies flying out of its packaging. It’s a remarkable display of physical comedy. And on the network where Lucy Ricardo stuffed herself with chocolate, Mary Richards cackled through a clown’s funeral, and David Letterman chucked stuff off the roof, a modicum of dignity has never done anyone any good.
It’s a commitment to performance and a faith in material that leavened even some of the first week’s lesser material. The Bishopville Lizard Man piece from Friday’s episode fired at several large fish in an extremely small barrel—paranormal investigations, local news reports, this photograph—but it’s helped along by some vintage Colbert Report faux-credulousness. Also helping: The versatility of the new Late Show set, where the lights drop and the background turns an eerie shade of orange, the better to make Colbert appear like he’s telling of his “encounter” with the Lizard Man while holding a flashlight beneath his chin.
In these moments, he’s exemplifying the sort of “attack the stage” mentality that improv comedy guru Del Close famously imparted to acolytes like John Belushi and Chris Farley. Colbert studied under Close, and the training he received in his Chicago days usually comes up when he talks to the press. His pre-Late Show profiles and Q&As (and even the Late Show Podcast) were no exception: He extolled the virtues of extemporaneous performance and bombing onstage to GQ, and told The Washington Post that he looked forward to the improvisational elements of interviewing his guests.
“All I really want from a guest is somebody who has something to say so I can play with them,” he told the Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg. That type of play led to mixed results in Colbert’s first five Late Shows, as he allowed the conversation to dictate its own direction, “Yes, And”-ing Vice President Joe Biden toward revealing emotional truths, but stalling out with less giving guests. For this philosophy on interviewing to work, it needs a willing interviewee: Jeb Bush was too talking-point oriented to go along with Colbert; Uber CEO Travis Kalanick had too much faith in the answer “You push a button on the app.” (With Kalanick, the improv game Colbert wound up playing was “New Choice.”) For all the pre-premiere praise The Late Show received for booking guests like Kalanick, Elon Musk, or Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, it was the movie stars, the comedian, and the celebrity author who appeared most comfortable talking to Colbert on his terms. It remains to be seen what’ll happen when a guest takes the “You don’t know what’s going to happen” baton and races ahead of Colbert with it—but we shouldn’t have to wait too long for that, because Donald Trump’s coming to the Ed Sullivan on September 22.
In the meantime, the other best part of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert is watching the show taking shape around those interview segments. Colbert’s chemistry with Jon Batiste and his bandmates is still a work in progress, but the aforementioned “taking all at once” bit suggests that the host and the musicians are simpatico. The Big Furry Hat is an amusing variation on Conan’s “In The Year 2000” (with a Carnac The Magnificent flair for headwear), but the best part of that routine is its utilization of the balcony above the band. After nine years of The Colbert Report, the desk is still the home base for Colbert, but it’s good to see him and the members of Stay Human exploring the nooks and crannies of the Late Show set. That sense of discovery will serve them well for the next five shows—and beyond.
- After joining the Mavis Staples All-Star Friends Jamboree in the premiere and whistling through “Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard” on Friday, I hope Colbert keeps the number of musical performances he participates in to a minimum. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly medley and The Dead Weather’s psychedelic video effects demonstrate a willingness to take chances with The Late Show’s musical performances, but this is one part of the show that could actually do with less of the star.
- Jon Batiste And Stay Human’s airy, strutting Late Show theme, “Humanism,” has been stuck in my head all week. Not only is “Humanism” an impressive departure from the typical, horn-heavy talk-show fanfare, but it’s also a great match for the daytime setting of the opening credits.