How beloved is Stephen Colbert? Well, George Clooney was the first guest during Tuesday night’s premiere of Colbert’s The Late Show. When Clooney took his seat on stage, the audience responded by chanting: “Ste-PHEN! Ste-PHEN!”
Joy radiates from Colbert. This man has an effervescence about him, a glee he can barely contain beneath his sharp blue suit. (Seriously, even if everything else about the show were a bomb, that is a great suit.) He opened his long-awaited debut show by harmonizing “The Star-Spangled Banner” with people all across the country — in this way, he addressed us as “nation” before he’d even begun — and then by high-kicking alongside bandleader Jon Batiste. If anything about the night appeared to be a concerted effort to make internet-worthy #content, it was the immediately gif-able moment of Colbert twirling in a circle as his theme song came to a close.
Though this show does not seem to arrive as miraculously fully-formed as The Colbert Report did all those years ago — Colbert’s inaugural episode of his Daily Show spinoff introduced us to the word “truthiness” — there was a feeling of, if not quite focus or purpose, at least hyper-competence and enthusiasm. This man is very, very happy to be here. And he can sing! He can dance!
A huge part of Colbert’s appeal is his mix of bombast and humility. His old character was all narcissism, all the time. His real self both has enough humility to assure viewers that he would never try to “replace” David Letterman and enough ego to unabashedly shout his own his own name at the end of his title credits into a microphone he has stashed away in his desk.
Plenty about the premiere worked, and some of it was downright delightful: The toys-as-cityspace in the title credits, the new Late Show theme song, the “Donald Trump is the equivalent of toxic junk food we should be too smart to consume, yet we devour it just the same” bit in which Colbert shoveled handfuls of Oreos into his mouth, the elaborate-comedic-bit-as-product-placement, the booming, cameo-packed performance of “Everyday People” that ended the night. There were glimpses of the real Colbert — the pennant his mother got when she attended Martin Luther King, Jr.’s freedom march in 1963; his siblings in the audience — and winking references to the fake Colbert he used to be. (The Captain America shield is prominently displayed.)
Most of it, though, was just fine. Clooney was mediocre as guest number one — would’ve preferred Amal, let’s be honest — with little to discuss but pre-taped scenes from a fake movie and a quick mention of Clooney’s activism for Darfur. Actors, even actors with worthy causes and no promotional duties to distract them, are rarely entertaining guests.
Jeb Bush, a smart choice as a message to conservatives everywhere that Colbert won’t bite, was better, maybe because it was clear Colbert really did want Bush to answer some substantive questions, even in a jovial atmosphere. (The setup with Colbert’s own brother, “who I love but disagree with on everything politically,” as a way to ask Bush in what ways he disagreed with his own ex-POTUS of a brother, was a clever one.) While Colbert still claims some political ambiguity — a devout Catholic who swears there was “a non-zero chance” he’d vote for Jeb — the audience has outed itself, early on, as Daily Show liberal. At one point, when Bush allowed that Obama “didn’t have bad motives,” there was a pause in which, as Colbert pointed out, the crowd almost clapped!
The question, it seems, is this: Is Stephen Colbert so exceptional that his presence alone could entice a person to watch something as ordinary as a late night show?
There are circles in which it is blasphemous to suggest late night isn’t a very important institution. Yet like all our institutions that once seemed so powerful and vital — the evening news, print journalism, pretty much anything that revolved around dudes at their desks, now that I think about it — late night has not seemed to figure out how to demonstrate its continued urgency in a modern culture.
Late night is, to use a gentle term, a dated institution, an insider-y world of dad-aged white men playing Game of Thrones over who gets to sit behind what desk. Attempts at adapting to the Way We Consume Media Now have produced mixed results. Jimmy Kimmel mostly makes children cry about Halloween candy that isn’t really missing; he presents this as fantastic entertainment. Jimmy Fallon produces what is not so much as show as it is a string of YouTube videos tethered together by Questlove; he has the stage presence of one of those bar mitzvah DJs that will not rest until every last wallflower is on the dance floor playing Coke and Pepsi whether they like it or not. Your mileage may vary, but I’d wager none of these hip experiences has exactly proven to the American public that one needs to stay up until zero dark thirty to watch these gents adhere to the classic monologue/jokes-from-a-desk/guest/guest/musical guest/goodnight routine.
There is a generation, surely, to whom the distinctions among these franchises holds some major significance — this is your moment to talk about how Johnny Carson can never be replaced; go ahead, take your time, we’ll be here — but to the younger, web-savvier audiences Colbert spent years courting over at Comedy Central, the attraction here is not “Letterman’s old seat” or “the Late Show franchise.” There is a reason the crowds were not chanting “Late SHOW! Late SHOW!”
Colbert fans lined up all Tuesday afternoon to score seats at this premiere taping. He has this audience’s attention, admiration, even their devotion. Let’s see what he does with it.