“I used to play a narcissistic conservative pundit. Now I’m just a narcissist.”
Stephen Colbert uttered this line to Jeb Bush on the premiere of his new show, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, which is not only notable for the comedian taking David Letterman’s seat but the first time we meet Stephen Colbert as Stephen Colbert. For nine years we’ve known Stephen as the right-wing megalomaniac, not too different from someone like Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity, a performance he not only kept on Comedy Central four nights a week but on interviews, in person, and even in front of Jeb’s brother George W. Bush in perhaps the most definitive and greatest moment of the Stephen Colbert persona. What made The Colbert Report so great was how Colbert took a faux-conservative stance in order to help viewers to discover not only the obvious ironies behind the character’s argument but those of the surrounding world (the foundation of Colbert Super PAC shed more light on the medium than any of the cable channels did).
During the interviews leading up to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, (or, as Colbert put it on television, The Late Show starring with Stephen Colbert), Stephen talked about the difficulties of maintaining his persona throughout his tenure on The Colbert Report. But indicating from The Late Show’s pilot, Stephen Colbert has much of the same energy and playfulness as “Stephen Colbert” did, confidently going through his monologue, going through a bit about CBS getting ready to replace him with The Mentalist reruns, and doing mock product placement for Sabra. His new set at the Ed Sullivan Theater reflects the old Colbert’s self-absorbed, patriotic perception, featuring many of the same memorabilia on the walls and having the room’s walls covered with pictures of his face. The episode’s opening minutes, where Stephen sung the national anthem in various places and featured a cameo by Jon Stewart, could have come straight out of The Colbert Report. Yet while the tone of The Colbert Report was tongue-in-cheek, The Late Show opts its host to be more buoyant, friendly, and open-minded.
Stephen’s cheery attitude showed that the comedian was doing what he loved, and his enthusiasm I suspect is what will be The Late Show’s greatest strength. Take for example Colbert’s take on Donald Trump’s candidacy, using the candidate’s criticism of Nabisco to create a metaphor of the media’s gluttony of Trump sound-bites by having Colbert ravenously devour a box of Oreos. It isn’t a stretch to say that the scene could have been from The Colbert Report, but Stephen’s earnestness made it feel well established for broadcast television. Anyone can make Trump jokes but the way Stephen Colbert can take physical comedy into political humor is still one of the comedian’s best skills.
As far as interviews go, Stephen utilized the traditional talk-show format with George Clooney, engaging in some banter about the guest’s marriage as well as a sketch. While Clooney’s bit felt conventional, Stephen’s interview with Jeb Bush was the highlight of the show. Stephen initially gave Jeb the easy softball question of “Why do you want to be President of the United States,” but he then asked the former Florida governor how he differed from his brother, in a move which clearly caught Jeb off the hook. It may not be as politically sharp as the interviews Stephen did on Comedy Central, but could you imagine someone like Jimmy Fallon asking the same question? Now that he can play himself, Stephen has the advantage of asking his guests more straightforward questions, something I hope becomes a trademark of the series.
Though The Late Show with Stephen Colbert hasn’t quite yet found its tone, I’m certain Stephen will surely deliver the goods on CBS. Given nearly full-creative control on the series’ format and featuring much of the same staff, hopefully The Late Show will become as funny and concise as The Colbert Report.