When David Letterman announced he was stepping down as host of the Late Show after a decade-spanning and format-changing run, many hoped the new host would be a woman or a person of color, as there are so few in prominent roles on mainstream American TV. Instead, the job went to Stephen Colbert, host of Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, a spin-off of The Daily Show.
Stephen Colbert might be another middle-aged white male, but he couldn’t be more different from David Letterman. That’s not a knock on Letterman at all—he essentially invented modern late-night television—but if anything Colbert has done this summer in the run-up to taking over for Letterman (or previously, for that matter) is an indication, he just might reinvent the medium.
This week, Colbert hosted a 40-minute public access show in Monroe, Michigan called Only in Monroe. After interviewing its regular hosts and delving far too deep into a local Yelp spat, Colbert sat down with rapper and Michigan-native Eminem (21:54 in the video below):
First and foremost, yes, this was a publicity stunt. Pretty much everything Colbert has done since wrapping up The Colbert Report has been to promote his Late Show takeover. But that doesn’t mean these stunts can’t also be a preview of what’s to come—what schticks he’ll bring with him, what persona he’ll embody, and just how he’s going to put his stamp on American late-night TV.
In fact, it’s possible this stunt in particular is something of a dry run for his actual show. It had everything, from riffing off local news stories (something he did at The Colbert Report as well) to conducting an outlandish interview with an unexpected celebrity next to a potted plant—perhaps an homage to comedian Zach Galafianakis’ surreal improv web series Between Two Ferns.
If Colbert’s Late Show is anything like his appearance on Michigan public access TV, he’ll already be well on his way to innovation. He’s a fantastic interviewer—good at getting the subject to say interesting things but also excellent at just being ridiculous—and he’s also fearless. Colbert isn’t afraid to make himself look like an absolute nutcase if it works for a bit.
He’s not the “straight man” that Letterman, Leno, or Seth Meyers are, but he’s also not quite as colorful or zany as Conan O’Brien. Colbert falls somewhere in between, in an area of comedy all his own. Bizarre, newfangled, but always intelligent.
He’s even experimenting with his choice of live band. Colbert hired New Orleans musician Jon Batiste and his band Stay Human to serve as the house band for the Late Show, and they’re a far cry from Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra, who played for Letterman. Batiste, in addition to being a virtuoso on piano, regularly plays the melodica. Stay Human is perhaps best known for traversing the streets of New York City, playing their hybrid of jazz, soul, and funk parade-style. The band’s 2011 album MY N.Y. was recorded entirely on city subways:
No doubt, Stay Human will bring that much-needed energy and creativity to late night. (To be fair, others are innovating in the music aspect of late night as well, including The Roots on NBC’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, as well as Reggie Watts on The Late Late Show with James Corden, which Colbert will precede on CBS.)
CBS is letting Colbert do whatever he wants to do, and he’s retaining many of his writers from The Colbert Report. Come September 8, we’ll see just how much his brand of astute absurdist humor changes late-night television.