“It’s become clear to me that I’ve won television,” was the reason Stephen Colbert gave in an interview with Jon Stewart ending his beloved late night news satire show “The Colbert Report” after ten seasons. Fast forward nine months and Colbert is back in the race. Only it’s not quite the same race, or even the same Colbert. “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” finally gives viewers the opportunity to meet the real Colbert.
“I used to play a narcissistic conservative pundit,” he told interviewee Jeb Bush in the premiere, which aired last Tuesday. “Now I’m just a narcissist.”
Tuesday’s episode also featured George Clooney as an incredibly poor choice of celebrity guest star. Given his lack of a project to promote and lack of even any history with Colbert, the resulting interview was easily the most bizarre and uncomfortable segment in a show that also featured a demonic amulet promoting hummus. Considering that “The Late Show” is primarily a talk show, it wasn’t a good way to start.
Mediocre interviews aside, Tuesday’s episode was enjoyable and, ultimately, promising. In the end it was Colbert himself who stole the show with his enthusiasm and energy, carrying “The Late Show” with considerable success through the pitfalls into which nearly all new programs fall: general awkwardness, lack of direction and technical mishaps.
It’s not just the face and the name that members of the former Colbert Nation would recognize in “The Late Show.” It’s the humor — just as biting and clever as always, but with a new self-depreciative twist.
But who is this new Stephen Colbert? Well, he’s the real McCoy, as he went out of his way to demonstrate, not just by separating himself from his “Colbert Report” persona, but by repeatedly acknowledging his family, especially the members present in the audience: his wife and children, as well as his brother. He likes to dance, and has a very particular style that I’m sure will be making its way posthaste to social media as a via GIF. At the same time, though, Stephen Colbert of “The Late Show” is discovering himself just as much as we are discovering him. “With this show, I begin the search for the real Stephen Colbert,” the man himself admitted in his opening monologue, “I hope I just don’t find him on Ashley Madison.”
Since the premiere is no more an accurate reflection of what a talk show will be like than a pilot episode is of a television series, this review also covers the second and third episodes of “The Late Show.”
Episodes two and three make it clear that Colbert does have a plan, and that plan is politics. A look into the show’s lineup of future guests reveals a steady stream of politicians and political figures such as former U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. It’s a smart move, considering Colbert’s biggest direct competition Jimmy Fallon’s pop and celebrity culture focus, though only time will tell if it will pay off.
Colbert’s political focus also almost — but not quite — hides his greatest weakness as a host: celebrity interviews. Of the first three episodes of “The Late Show”, the third is easily the strongest, and the fact that it’s the only one lacking a traditional celebrity guest isn’t a coincidence. But there is hope for the future. Episode three also gives us our first true glimpse into Colbert’s tremendous potential as a talk show host in his deeply personal and poignant interview with Vice President Joe Biden. Colbert carefully navigated a minefield of sensitive topics, including the recent death of Biden’s son Beau, and the resulting interview was easily one of the best in Colbert’s career thus far. If he’s capable of that, he’s capable of holding a dynamic conversation with an actor for fifteen minutes. He just hasn’t figured it out quite yet.
Right now “The Late Show” is good, but it’s well on its way to becoming something truly great.
“The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” airs weeknights on CBS at 11:35 p.m..
Image Courtesy of CBS