Facing almost impossibly high expectations, Stephen Colbert seemingly raced through a checklist of agenda-setting moments in his mostly terrific “The Late Show” debut. Cameo by Jon Stewart. Check. Work in CBS CEO Leslie Moonves. Check. Earnestly pay tribute to David Letterman. Check. And perhaps most pleasantly, throw in a nod to late-night rival Jimmy Fallon, proving this won’t be a bitter Letterman-Jay Leno-type rivalry. If the goal was establish the CBS show as fun-loving (a silly bit with George Clooney) yet potentially topical (an interview with Jeb Bush), as another Bush family member might say, “Mission accomplished.”
Of course, the one ridiculous question that has dogged Colbert in the buildup to his CBS premiere has been whether anyone knows the real guy, inasmuch as he played a character throughout his run on Comedy Central. The answer is pretty obvious: If you’re smart and funny enough to improvise in that manner, you ought to be able to conjure some spontaneous comedy without requiring that bag of tricks.
Not surprisingly, Colbert looked least at ease during the opening monologue, which doesn’t really play to, or at least fully capitalize upon, all of his strengths as a performer. Wisely, he pretty quickly segued to behind the desk, where the show essentially took off.
After an amusing shtick with Moonves – in which the CBS honcho periodically preempted “Late Show” for “The Mentalist” reruns that had been keeping the time slot warm – Colbert expressed his admiration for Letterman, no doubt speaking for a segment of his audience when he discussed discovering the host while in college. Letterman, he said, represents “a high pencil mark on a door frame we all have to measure ourselves against,” a beautifully articulated sentiment on how Letterman influenced the generation of comics that followed.
It was during the next section, however, where Colbert really hit his stride, engaging in a hilarious bit in which he sold his soul by plugging a sponsor, then analogizing the comedic urge to ridicule presidential candidate Donald Trump to the way people consume Oreos – namely, it’s hard to eat just one. Put together, those sequences captured Colbert’s gifts as a performer and ability to be witty and zany all at once, in a manner few can replicate.
That approach worked more fitfully with first guest Clooney. Although it was a funny idea to lampoon the two having nothing to talk about without a movie to plug, it actually would have been nice to give the actor-director a little time to discuss his interest in Darfur, as opposed to racing into that bit.
Colbert was better during the Bush interview, prodding the candidate on how he would make politics less partisan, and using his own brother as an example, cleverly, to ask, “In what ways do you politically differ from your brother George?” He also opened with a question that probably isn’t posed enough – “Why do you want to be President of the United States?” — proceeding to demonstrate that his own politics won’t get in the way of conducting thoughtful yet entertaining discussions.
The clunky elements within the expanded premiere, actually, were somewhat beyond Colbert’s control, foremost among them a staggering nine-minute break between Clooney and Bush. Yes, the network’s got to pay the bills, but even allowing for the fact the original material was frontloaded, that felt borderline numbing – a description that also applies to the audience continuing to chant, “Stephen! Stephen!” well past the opening love fest.
Colbert closed the show by joining Mavis Staples and his band in a joyous sing-along, reflecting the infusion of energy he brings to this CBS franchise. Although he joked at the outset about the benefits of having nine months to produce a single hour of TV, Colbert looks like he has the skill set to settle in and make this job his own, night in and night out. And if that’s true, he just might leave his own lofty mark on that door frame.