Early in his first episode of CBS’s “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” the new host joked about all the time he has had to prepare for his much-hyped debut. “As long as I have nine months to make one hour of TV,” Stephen Colbert said in his monologue, “I could do this forever.”
But in a way, the premiere, which ran about 10 minutes overtime, will be among the least important episodes of the series. Most late-night hosts don’t find their groove for weeks or months — most notably Jimmy Fallon, Colbert’s competitor who grew from awkward to sweetly relaxed across his first season on NBC’s “Tonight Show.” The first episode was really just a rough look at what Colbert has in mind, a glimpse at some of the chemistry — between him and his band leader, Jon Batiste, between him and his audience, between him and the glamorously redesigned Ed Sullivan Theater — he hopes to develop in time.
That said, the first Colbert “Late Show” — four months after David Letterman’s retirement — was promising if not perfect, ranging from sharp meta-late-night humor and funny politically tinged bits to the kind of bland chitchat that makes the network late-night talk show an often frustrating genre.
The highlights were the more clever twists that showed Colbert subverting talk shows in general. CBS CEO Les Moonves sat in the front row with a switch that changed the “Late Show” to “The Mentalist” whenever Colbert seemed to veer off track or put down CBS. Colbert’s first guest, George Clooney, pretended to be promoting a movie called “Decision Strike,” and absurd clips that mocked action movies were shown. Colbert joked about how he really doesn’t know Clooney — a goof on the instant familiarity that late-night hosts often pretend to share with their guests.
Late night competitor Fallon appeared twice, a warm way to remind viewers that the tedious talk show wars of yore are over. At one point, Colbert revealed that Fallon would be on a screen positioned behind the guest seats, in case he gets bored. (The new theater has a plethora of screens on the walls, it seemed.) And at the end of the show, we saw Fallon in a supposed late-night locker room, with Colbert’s photo from Time magazine on his locker. Another pleasing cameo: Jon Stewart, on a baseball diamond in the opening segment as the catcher yelling, “Play ball!”
Colbert appeared comfortable playing himself instead of a fake conservative pundit, a transition he goofed on when he said, “I’ve been on the search for the real Stephen Colbert; I just hope I don’t find him on Ashley Madison.” He sang in both a pre-filmed sequence harmonizing to “The Star-Spangled Banner” with random people, and in the finale of “Everyday People” with Mavis Staples, Ben Folds, Buddy Guy, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, and others. And his body language was loose all night, particularly when he first came on stage dancing like a whirling dervish, the enthusiastic audience chanting, “Ste-phen, Ste-phen.”
He made a few political jokes, in case viewers worried that he might be jettisoning the timeliness and edge of “The Colbert Report.” Zeroing in on Donald Trump, Colbert ridiculed clips of the Republican candidate, most notably Trump talking about how he’ll never eat Oreos again since Nabisco moved a factory to Mexico. Colbert announces that he’s going to stand up to “Big Cookie,” until he starts eating Oreos and becomes seduced by their deliciousness. Laughing at Trump is old news on late night, but Colbert nonetheless killed it, making up, perhaps, for lost time since Trump announced his candidacy.
Colbert dropped in occasional asides that showcased his political wit, too. He showed us the pennant his mother got for attending Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. “Sadly, civil rights only won the pennant that year,” he said. “Racism won the World Series.” Boom.
But by the time Jeb Bush came on stage, unsure how to navigate a host who’s reputation was made on mocking conservatives, the show fell into a bit of a slump. Colbert asked him why he wanted to be president, eliciting a stock answer, and he invited Bush to differentiate himself from his brother George (more fiscal restraint, was his response). Colbert did the best he could to make the segment sing, especially when Bush noted that there were many photos of Colbert in the theater. “I used to play a narcissistic conservative pundit,” Colbert said. “Now I’m just a narcissist.” But Bush stubbornly stayed on script.
Colbert also stumbled in his efforts to make a promotion of the show’s sponsor, Sabra hummus and snacks, into some kind of deal with the devil.
There was none of the requisite host-bandleader banter in the premiere, so we didn’t get a strong sense of Batiste. He (and his melodica) were shown a number of times, and he and the band, Stay Human, led the rocking finale with lots of good energy. And their theme song is bouncy and melodic. But the impact of having such an audience-focused and energetic musician on the stage was unclear — one of those things that will probably evolve along with the show. And the premiere was good enough, and Colbert was sharp enough, to make me want to see where it all will go.