A visibly excited Stephen Colbert rushed on set to usher in a new era of “The Late Show,” making his best effort to push the program into the post-David Letterman era and turn the Tiffany Network a stronger player in the late-night wars.
Colbert dropped the bloviating pundit character that helped him rise to fame on Comedy Central, but he brought along many of the elements that made that network’s “Colbert Report” an audience favorite. Jon Stewart, who helped give Colbert a leg up on his “Daily Show,” made an appearance in a pre-taped segment (and was listed as an executive producer in the program’s closing credits). And Colbert burnished his fondness for sci-fi and all things geek in a routine that invoked South American mythological figures – and also wrapped in another facet of his previous tenure by showcasing PepsiCo’s Sabra hummus during the program’s opening segments.
“I used to play a narcissistic conservative pundit,” Colbert joked to Governor Jeb Bush, one of the guests on the program. “Now I’m just a narcissist.”
Colbert is CBS’ new hope in an increasingly contentious skirmish to dominate TV’s late-night time period. Advertisers like the programs that fill the wee-hours schedule because they lure younger viewers with humor and commentary about current events – and, increasingly, get passed along on social and digital media. Under Letterman, CBS boasted a show controlled by one of TV’s respected – and, perhaps, flintiest – hosts. In this new era, CBS owns the program and can push it to gain more revenue through product placement, international syndication and on-demand video streaming.
The comedian tried to bask in the trappings of Americana. The Ed Sullivan Theater, retrofitted since Letterman departed in May, was festooned in red, white and blue, and lots of stars, and Colbert’s set and audience were bathed in pale blue light. The show opened with a segment showing Colbert singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in different parts of the country.
To be sure, there was funny business. Colbert enlisted new rival Jimmy Fallon to make a cameo, made fun of Donald Trump while chomping on Oreos, and enlisted George Clooney to take part in a series of sketches about a fake movie. And a bit involving Leslie Moonves, the chief executive of CBS Corp., moving a switch to toggle from Colbert to a repeat of “The Mentalist” when the host displeased him generated some laughs, and was perhaps one of the biggest signals of a new era. Letterman, who once used his “Late Show” perch to make fun of Moonves, would likely never have felt comfortable doing such a bit.
But Colbert appeared to want to take the program beyond the surface stuff. During the segment with Clooney, he emphasized several times that the actor had no current project to promote and tried to focus the conversation on understanding Clooney’s motivations for rallying around the people of Darfur. He spoke with Bush about the charged “emotional narrative” over which Republicans and Democrats continue to spar – and even tried to get him to find flaws in the Presidency of his brother, George W. Bush.
The weeks ahead could bring more of the same. “The Late Show” is scheduled in days ahead to have comedienne Carol Burnett appear alongside Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer from the hot Comedy Central program “Broad City.” Justice Stephen Breyer will sit down for a conversation. In an era when audiences are tired of seeing celebrities hawk their latest movie or TV program, this kind of “curation” might prove welcome.
There were some awkward moments, too. The Bush interview was choppily edited, and an exchange in which Colbert passed a gift to Clooney that was meant to be passed along to other celebrities seemed odd. The segment in which Pepsi paid for its hummus to appear left open the question of whether the Oreos Colbert chomped just a few minutes later were placed there due to advertiser desire or writers’ instructions.
The show attracted a roster of blue-chip advertisers, including Anheuser-Busch InBev and Sony Pictures. More noticeable, perhaps, were the long string of tech marketers that lined up to support the show. Amazon, Google’s YouTube and Netflix were among the sponsors seen hawking their wares.
Colbert seemed to go out of his way to express a theme of inclusion. While interviewing Bush, Colbert pointed out one of his siblings who was sitting in the audience, noting that the two loved each other while they held vastly different political beliefs. The show’s musical segment featured Mavis Staples, Brittany Howard, Ben Folds, Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks and others – including the host – singing the old Sly and the Family Stone chestnut “Everyday People,” a song about people of all backgrounds figuring out how to get along.
Whether or not the crowds Colbert hopes to lure under his tent enter and stay there amid fierce competition remains to be seen.