If there was any doubt that Stephen Colbert would bring his unique brand of basic cable weirdness to American broadcast TV, banish it.
Dancing to his new melodica-infused theme song in the gorgeous, revamped Ed Sullivan Theatre in New York (adorned with his old Captain America shield and an “ancient cursed amulet”), the former Colbert Report host and Daily Show correspondent kicked off the premiere of The Late Show in the same confidently absurd fashion with which he entertained audiences for a years on Comedy Central.
But first came a harmonized-yet-still-oddly-monotone rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner, with one very special cameo:
Then, he jumped right into a fairly traditional monologue. ”We’re all witnessing television history,” he said. “And like most history, it’s not on the History Channel.”
Most likely, Colbert’s monologue will morph over time—he has said he will try to experiment with the form. And indeed, if he innovates in this format as he did in his last, this first monologue could one day seem like an ancient artifact—not unlike that cursed amulet, which commands Colbert to promote the show’s sponsors (2:20 in the video below):
It’s clear that Colbert and his staff are trying to balance his strange Colbertian style of humor with some of the things that have made late-night comedy so successful in the US for decades. And to underline that point, CBS CEO Les Moonves sat in the first row with a lever that he could use to switch the broadcast at any point to the CBS show The Mentalist:
Moonves should be happy though—Colbert’s premiere more than doubled the ratings of David Letterman’s premiere last year, and easily beat its late-night rivals, Jimmy Fallon (NBC) and Jimmy Kimmel (ABC).
As soon as Colbert sat down at his desk, it felt like a continuation of the Colbert Report, almost as if he had never left. His main gag was a ridiculous, long-winded metaphor about Donald Trump using Oreo cookies, which Colbert devoured throughout the five-minute segment:
Colbert seems committed to doing political humor, even now that he has shed his “narcissistic conservative pundit” character. “Now, I’m just a narcissist,” he said. When Colbert sat at his new desk, making fun of major political players as only he can do, he proved that he doesn’t need the facade of that character anymore (though of course we’ll miss it forever).
The real Colbert was surprisingly candid about his own political beliefs, at one point calling out his brother—who was in the audience—to reveal that the two differed politically, but still loved each other. (The implication being that Colbert’s brother, who lives in South Carolina, is more politically conservative.)
The show’s first guest was actor George Clooney, who—with the help of Colbert and his writing team—debuted three exclusive clips from what (he claimed) was his new action thriller Decision Strike, in which he plays the secretary general of the United Nations:
Next up was Republican US presidential candidate Jeb Bush. Colbert asked Bush why he wanted to be president, and how he disagreed with his older brother, former president George W. Bush, on policy. (Jeb said he would have done more than his brother to stop out-of-control spending.) Colbert also pressed for details on how the candidate planned to change the hostile political climate in Washington:
Colbert’s questions were a bit tougher than the ones you’d hear on other late-night TV shows, but they weren’t necessarily hard-hitting. That’s another thing Colbert will have to figure out over time—just how political he wants the show to be. (With Moonves literally watching.)
The night culminated in a performance by the house band, Jon Batiste and Stay Human, along with guests including Mavis Staples, Buddy Guy, and Ben Folds. Batiste, who operates the only melodica on late-night TV, is full of energy and creativity (video), and is a perfect fit for Colbert’s up-tempo, eccentric approach to the gig.
There were some technical glitches (the interview with Bush was very clearly edited down), but those should be ironed out as time goes on. Overall, it was a confident premiere, and those who were fans of Colbert will surely stay fans of Colbert. The question for him, and for CBS, is how many new fans will he reel in?