I’ve watched Stephen Colbert do comedy on television for two decades. Well before The Colbert Report and a little before The Daily Show, he was on Exit 57 and The Dana Carvey Show, two short-lived sketch programs from the mid-90s exploding with talent. Exit 57, which co-starred Amy Sedaris and Paul Dinello, would eventually spawn Strangers with Candy; the creative team on The Dana Carvey Show also included Steve Carell, Charlie Kaufman, Louis C.K., and Robert Smigel.
That storied comedy lineage may explain why Colbert’s debut on The Late Show felt both new and familiar. Even the opening rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” recalled Colbert’s duet with Orleans frontman/former congressman John Hall. But callbacks are necessary, part of the process of relocation. And so Colbert tipped his hat to his late night forebears (particularly David Letterman and Conan O’Brien) and his own career in comedy throughout the night (e.g., the Sabra gag had to be a nod to the sponsor jokes on Dana Carvey), but he also began the longer process of defining the feel of his place in the late night landscape.
He also had a cursed amulet and a cursed monkey paw. George Clooney and Jeb Bush were there too, but gosh, a cursed monkey paw.
Colbert isn’t playing a character anymore, and yet Late Show Colbert and Report Colbert have a goofy charm in common. When he wasn’t a caricature of sociopathic right-wing ideologues, Report Colbert would suddenly become a lovable, nerdy oddball. That’s the vibe Colbert strikes as a host on The Late Show. While interviewing George Clooney, he was affable and warm without being too obsequious (or if he was, that was part of the joke). The interview got awkward in a semi-enjoyable way, though never quite reaching the cavalier dada bliss that Craig Ferguson brought to his interviews on The Late Late Show. Celebrity interviews can be the weakest part of any talk show, and while Report Colbert resorted to brash pundit gravitas to fill dead spots in interviews, Late Show Colbert seems like he may default to his innate niceness.
By contrast, Colbert’s affability seemed like a stealth move while interviewing Jeb Bush. Nine years ago, Colbert used his character to deliver a glorious George W. Bush diss track at the White House Correspondents dinner; last night, Colbert used his charm to try to get a presidential candidate to admit his own brother was an epic fuck-up as POTUS. Jeb Bush vaguely admitted that his brother was an overspender. (I wonder what the Bush administration spent all that money on. Jeb couldn’t say the “I” word.)
The writing on The Late Show feels like an extension of The Colbert Report by way of Late Night with Conan O’Brien, which makes sense given some behind-the-scenes stuff. Colbert brought much of the Report staff with him to CBS, and he also hired Brian Stack, a Conan writer for many years. The Oreo gag involving Donald Trump felt like it could have been something off The Colbert Report, but the monkey paw gag and The Mentalist joke (an homage to Conan’s Walker Texas Ranger lever?) seemed like something from the mind of Stack. This is obviously all conjecture, but I look forward to seeing how these styles of comedy blend as the show evolves and continues to define itself.
You know, to a certain extent judging a late night talk show on just its debut episode is unfair. Debuts are special occasions that deviate from the format whereas late night talk shows are all about the recurring format: monologue, first comedy segment, guest one, second comedy segment, guest two, and the musical act. Even The Colbert Report and The Daily Show had their recurring segments and bits as well; the format is a solid framework that makes the writing teams’ jobs a little easier. It’s also something to come back to, a pattern that’s fun in itself and that yields new pleasures when the pattern is varied or broken.
Will The Late Show with Stephen Colbert be worth watching every night? Probably not every night, but it’ll be worth streaming for the best bits the next day. (As a teen, I used to stay up late watching Letterman and Conan. The internet of today would have made things, like waking up for high school, much easier.) Colbert’s slate of guests lined up for the next few shows include Kendrick Lamar, Emily Blunt, Stephen King, Amy Schumer, Willie Nelson, Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders, and what looks to be a dual performance by TV on the Radio and Run the Jewels.
Colbert closed his debut episode with a rendition of Sly & the Family Stone’s “Everyday People,” featuring Mavis Staples, Ben Folds, Buddy Guy, Brittany Howard, and members of Beirut. It was a festive jam, with members of the show’s house band (led by Jonathan Batiste) heading into the audience, and Colbert himself taking to the mic.
What became clear, if it wasn’t clear enough already: Stephen Colbert is one of the most likable people on TV. That’s probably why I’m still watching him after 20 years.