Settle down, Nation. Stephen Colbert is finally back.
The comedian made his debut as host of The Late Show last night, taking the coveted position from the now retired David Letterman. While Colbert seemed still in total awe of his latest gig, the results of his debut were a bit of a mixed bag, with more than a few flat moments falling between moments of his typical greatness.
Much has been made regarding Colbert’s ability to translate as host of a regular late night TV host. Though he made waves as host of the wildly popular Daily Show spinoff The Colbert Report, many wondered if the comedian would be able to survive without relying on the blowhard shtick he perfected over a decade on Comedy Central. The host seemed uncomfortable at first, especially during the monologue which had Colbert gushing over the fact that he was now host of The Late Show and many of the jokes felt unduly tame. Of course, this can easily be chalked up to first night jitters; presumably, Colbert has a long time to find his groove and his place among the late night pantheon, and last night’s monologue was, if nothing else, the comedic equivalent of dipping your toes into the water. It makes sense, I suppose. He’ll need time to find his groove and adjust his style to better fit the late night scene.
Once behind the desk, Colbert seemed infinitely more at ease, however. Much of his first night was spent glowing at the new set, which is still located in the famed Ed Sullivan Theater in New York, where Letterman called home for 22 years. It was, for the most part, a beefed up version of his Colbert Report set, complete with Captain America shield and pictures of his own face. Still, he felt almost leashed—which makes sense considering network television constraints. The first episode was marred somewhat by product placement, though the comedian did his best to turn these into jokes. While the Oreo bit seemed uncomfortable at first, Colbert turned it around and made it a hilarious comedic takedown of both Donald Trump and the media’s seemingly unending obsession with his run at the presidency.
Political humor is where Colbert butters his bread, so I hope he continues the legacy he established on The Colbert Report with more biting commentary. While he’s made it clear that his portrayal on his previous show was all shtick, you cannot deny the substance of his material. Talking about movies and television is all well and good for a late night TV host—that is, of course, the nature of the beast—but I do hope that finds ways to use his comedy in political ways. Time will tell, but if the Oreo bit was any indication, Colbert’s still got it.
His first ever guest was George Clooney, who graciously joined the fun despite having nothing at all to promote. This was a good move on behalf of The Late Show, which allowed Colbert to have a big name without taking the focus off himself. Clooney proved to be as gracious and affable as ever and, for lack of anything else to promote, the actor filmed a series of fake scenes for a fake movie, continuing the late night TV tradition of working in skits amidst interviews and bits.
The second guest was Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, who looked and felt awkward and out of place and was greeted by an unenthusiastic crowd. The move was clearly made as a way to make the candidate appear more likeable for voters. The result was just the opposite. While he did his best to smile and laugh, the candidate was so obviously out of his element. In the most eyebrow raising moment of the evening, Colbert asked Bush how he differed politically from his brother, pointing out that his own brother, who was in the crowd that night, held entirely different views from his own but that the love was still there. In response, Bush laughed and answered that he was, “Younger and better looking” than President George W. Bush.
To close the initial outing, Colbert’s musical director Jon Batiste led a rousing and star-studded rendition of Sly & The Family Stone’s “Everyday People.” Joining him onstage was Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks, Ben Folds, Alabama Shakes, Buddy Guy, Beirut, and the legendary Mavis Staples. It felt, if anything, like a statement of intent. Colbert has no intention of doing Late Show in half-assed, small minded ways. Bigger has always been better as far as Colbert is concerned, and this is a tradition he intends to keep going.
Overall, despite the mixed bag, it was a solid first effort for Colbert that left plenty of room for the comedian to grow. I’m sure he’ll find his comfort zone soon enough but, for now, it sure is nice to see him on TV once more. He’s got some solid momentum built in already and if he can just keep building off of that, he’ll do just fine. While no one can ever fully replace Letterman on The Late Show, Colbert has proven that he doesn’t intend to try. Instead, he’ll be bringing his own spin on the late night TV style, and the world is arguably a better place for it.