It’s clear that people love “Stephen Colbert” the host of “The Colbert Report.” What’s not entirely clear is if people will love Stephen Colbert, the new host of The Late Show on CBS. The opening minutes of the show indicate that the audience (and the overnight ratings) do indeed love Stephen as Stephen. However, there were moments when “Stephen’s” sharp political wit stepped in and reminded people of how a master skewers politicians. One such moment came when Colbert equated media coverage of Donald Trump to eating Oreo cookies — and how we seemingly can’t get enough. That was the “Stephen” people love.
The Stephen who isn’t quite sure how to fawn over George Clooney was less successful in maintaining The Funny in the face of not playing a character. There was a bit that poked fun at action adventure films that was slapped together to make Clooney funny, but conversations about his work in bringing greater public awareness of the genocide in Darfur — and why he got involved in such a cause — were sort of grinned away by Clooney. Colbert quickly understood what Clooney knew: The Late Show is about having a good time, not making the program a forum to discuss a humanitarian crisis. And to get back on comedy footing, they quickly transitioned to a prolonged bit about a fake action adventure movie starring Clooney that came with clips. Fairly standard stuff for late night talk shows, but considering this is Stephen Colbert we’re talking about, it was an overall a banal experience.
New shows take time to find their footing, and even The Colbert Report had many missteps in the first year, so one should cut Colbert and his staff some slack. However, what I’m afraid may happen, happened to another edgy and groundbreaking talk show host when he got a show on CBS. David Letterman was and is the Dean of Postmodern and Deconstructive Comedy. Yet, when he hosted The Late Show, his acerbic wit and ability to penetrate the fourth wall with an irreverent “I don’t give a crap” comedy dissipated. Colbert runs the risk of something similar happening by going from cable to a network show — though, in this day and age, do people really discern a difference?
In his interview with former Florida Governor Jeb(!) Bush, there was a moment when the comedy of “Stephen Colbert” was quite present. Alas, this bit was edited out of the show and made available as a “bonus” clip on The Late Show website (and YouTube Channel).
Bits like this are what make people love Colbert. However, when he played Stephen Colbert straight by singing Sly & The Family Stone’s “Everyday People” with Mavis Staples, it came off as both forced and disorganized.
Despite all that, Colbert is clearly having a grand old time with his new gig (growing pains and all), and will certainly smooth out as the show finds its footing by understanding what works and what doesn’t in this new format. Colbert has no desire to shoehorn in bits from his old show (unlike Jimmy Fallon), but he and his fans know that his strength lies in his ability to juggle multiple layers of comedy without dropping any balls. Alas, he dropped a few last night, but even a master stays good at his or her craft by keeping at it.