The question on America’s mind last night was “Who is Stephen Colbert?”
Now that our favorite fake neo-con has stepped away from The Colbert Report and taken his place behind David Letterman’s old desk, on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, who would he be? Would we recognize the man whose truthiness made us laugh for the last decade?
Or would we see a stranger behind the desk, a guy who looks like someone we used to know?
Colbert wasted no time in answering this question directly on his CBS debut. He explained to his guest, Jeb Bush, the difference between his old show and his new show succinctly, “I used to play a narcissistic conservative pundit. Now I’m just a narcissist.”
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. To try to understand the difference between Stephen Colbert, the man who loved bald eagles and Bill O’Reilly, and Stephen Colbert, the man who will be bringing celebrity interviews into our homes for the foreseeable future, let’s look at what else he did in his premiere.
Colbert opened up the show with a sequence of people singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” capped off with an old friend telling America to “Play Ball!”
Colbert then greeted the audience with a familiar, “Hello Nation.”
But after these brief nods to his past, the host looked toward the future. Even though he did it with a joke, he made it clear that this isn’t the Report anymore. He said he’ll spend the show “looking for the ‘real’ Stephen Colbert,” and then remarked, “I just hope I don’t find him on Ashley Madison.”
As Colbert launched into his show, he gave us what we expected, a performance straddling the line between the persona he spent a decade perfecting and the kind of host CBS wants him to be. This version of Colbert will have the larger-than-life confidence of Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert with less politics and less edge. There are still self-consciously egotistical moments (instead of running over to his guests, he will act as both announcer and host), but the days of absurd self-portraits within self-portraits and naming everything he can after himself are likely long gone.
Colbert did veer back toward the political at moments. Of course, he hauled out America’s current preferred political punching bag, Donald Trump, for a few bits. What comedian working today can resist? But Colbert’s attack on Trump was as much about his personality as his politics. This segment gave us further evidence that CBS Colbert will have the same humor he used to, but just with a little less bite.
After digging in on Trump, Colbert brought out his first celebrity guest: quintessential celebrity guest George Clooney. It is odd watching Colbert interview someone in earnest, without a game, allowed to be genuinely interested in what his guest has to say. It turns out Colbert’s charm is just as potent when it’s being used in earnest. Clooney hit the standard late-night talking points: his charity work, his wife, and his new movie. But, in a nod to Colbert’s penchant for absurdity, Clooney promoted a movie that doesn’t exist.
Though the interview was a tad more absurd than the average Fallon or Kimmel spot, this was still very much a late-night talk show moment.
With a guest like Clooney, a throwback to an era when celebrities dropped by late-night shows and dusted off their latest anecdotes, you don’t expect fireworks. With Jeb Bush, you couldn’t help but wonder if Colbert would take a few jabs at the candidate, even though he’s no longer in the news satire business.
Like in his bits on Trump, Colbert largely danced around any political tension, except for a brief moment when Jeb took an easy shot at President Obama, and Colbert couldn’t help but rag on him for it. While Colbert did make fun of Jeb’s campaign logo and nepotism, when the conversation got political, it was all softball questions. This Colbert doesn’t look like he’s going to challenge his guests as much as he’s going to make them feel at home.
Colbert closed the show with the performance led by his band leader John Batiste, and featuring Mavis Staples, Ben Folds, and of course, Stephen Colbert. Colbert then capped off the night with a cameo appearance by Jimmy Fallon.
If you’re looking for a cynical edge or hoping for political punches, you’ll be disappointed in this new iteration of Stephen Colbert. But, if you’re looking for the exuberance, intelligence, and hilarity you’ve come to expect from him over the years, it seems those things have come over from cable intact. The Colbert Report was a satirical show punctuated by the occasional moment of earnest sweetness, the rare admiring conversation, or the surprisingly hip musical guest. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert looks like it’s going to be just the opposite: a genial, exuberant good time with touches of cynicism, absurdism, and satire applied in small doses.
And though this show might take some getting used to, that doesn’t seem to be a bad thing.