Screengrab via 'The Late Show' CBS
After executing eye-high kicks with his bandleader and muzzling the studio audience, Stephen Colbert greeted viewers of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert last night with a very familiar phrase: "Hello, nation." For a blissful second, he seemed to still be playing his role as the conservative haranguer of illegal immigrants, ivory towers, bears, and commoners lacking cosmic treadmills, a character he inhabited for nine years on The Colbert Report. But the blue-suited host quickly checked himself, admitting, "Folks, I don't know what that means." Thus despite his confessional GQ cover story (and a publicity push that landed his mug on every bus, subway wall, and taxi roof in New York City), the 51-year-old Colbert remains in transition, an actor reminding himself not to act in front of a camera.
"With this show, I begin the search for the real Stephen Colbert," he said. Like his fictional alter ego, this gent is still a star-spangled patriot fond of his own image—a projection on the dome of the Ed Sullivan Theater recast David Letterman's longtime home as a faux-stained glass basilica in homage to St. Stephen. "I used to play a narcissistic conservative pundit, now I'm just a narcissist," he joked. But unlike his past TV self, this Colbert followed the traditional late-night format, standing for the monologue and letting the guests (George Clooney and Jeb Bush) bask in attention when they were introduced.
In another departure from his cable days—where he traded verbal barbs with Fox Newsers Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly and once pretended to attack Jon Stewart and Conan O'Brien with nunchucks—Colbert depicted network hosts as a cordial fraternity who literally share a locker room. This summer, when he was a guest on Jerry Seinfeld's web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Colbert mentioned that he and The Tonight Show's Jimmy Fallon broke bread in Manhattan when it was revealed that the two would become time-slot competitors. While their mutual "rival" Jimmy Kimmel (who tapes his show in LA) was nowhere to be found in last night's episode, Fallon appeared twice—Colbert even gave his NBC counterpart airtime to promote his own lineup. Regardless, yesterday was a ratings win for Colbert, whose season premiere garnered 123 percent more viewers than the debut of Letterman's final season.
First episodes can be notoriously rocky, and in Colbert's case he had a lot of boxes to check off: He had to introduce a new personality, a new house band (Jon Batiste and Stay Human), a new theme song, a new opening montage, a new set, a new product placement (handled awkwardly, making Comedy Central fans miss Jon Stewart's semi-serious scorn for Arby's), and even his boss, Leslie Moonves, who was seated in the front row feigning readiness to switch CBS programming back over to The Mentalist at any moment. There were also kind words reserved for his predecessor as Colbert vowed he wasn't "replacing" David Letterman and said that Letterman's "creative legacy is a high pencil mark on a doorframe that we all have to measure ourselves against. We will try to honor his achievement by doing the best show we can, and occasionally, making the network very mad at us."
Although Colbert is incredibly likable—in and out of character—and viewers would be smart to withhold judging the show too harshly, the host set expectations quite high when he stated early in the episode, "I have to say, as long as I have nine months to make one hour of TV, I could do this forever." Surprisingly, Colbert's Late Show interview segments were both disappointments. Instead of having a frank conversation with Clooney—who, refreshingly, had nothing to promote —the writers filled their nine minutes with clips from a generic, underwhelming, made-up action flick starring the actor. Florida governor and presidential candidate Jeb Bush received less airtime than Clooney and his fake flick. The politician was asked one question with amazing possibilities: "Without in any way diminishing your love for your brother, in what ways do you politically differ from your brother, George?" But sadly, Colbert—an astute parser of political BS—didn't press the candidate for a detailed answer. Aside from asking that lone query, Jimmy Fallon could and would have delivered the exact same interview on his program.
An hour of nightly TV time allows each network host to carve out a trademark personality. With lip-sync battles and irreverent thank-you-card-writing, Fallon is energetic, hammy, and a little immature, while Kimmel is often mocking, sometimes poignant (as seen with his love for Letterman and his outrage over the death of Cecil the lion). Jay Leno was a glad-hander hardwired for punchlines and automobiles, while David Letterman was the wisest-cracking son Indiana ever produced. The Late Late Show 's James Corden is a bubbly fanboy, while Seth Meyers of Late Night appeals to the highbrow late-nighters with segments such as Venn Diagrams and Live New Yorker Cartoons.
During his stints at The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, we more or less always knew what was on Colbert's mind—himself, or at least some hilariously inflated version of it. Whoever this Stephen Colbert will be—the playfully preening charmer; the chummy professional equally at ease with comedians, celebrities, and politicians; the (mostly) earnest family man with a love of America only surpassed by his love of Middle Earth; or some combination of them all—it's clear people will be watching to find out.
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