The audience chant was the same but this was not the same “Stephen! Stephen! Stephen!” who bounded onto the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theatre on Tuesday night. This was not “Stephen Colbert,” mock narcissistic conservative pundit. This was the real Stephen Colbert. “Now I’m just a narcissist,” he joked.
Colbert’s debut episode of “Late Show” was history of a sort; this was the changing of the guard after 22 years. But Colbert’s “Late Show” does not, at first glance, look to be an epochal game changer. Despite some minor tweaks to the format (an opening monologue before the opening theme and credits), this is pretty much your standard late night talk show.
And while the new boss is not quite the same as the old boss, David Letterman’s influence is keenly felt. Colbert opened the show with a gracious tribute to the “Late Show's” original host (a courtesy Jay Leno did not extend to Johnny Carson when he first took the reins of “The Tonight Show”). A later bit featuring faux movie clips to give first guest George Clooney something to promote was pure Dave. (An earlier goof in which CBS honcho Les Moonves was poised to switch the show back to reruns of “The Mentalist” was pure Conan).
Some other random thoughts:
- Framing the show with “The Star-Spangled Banner” and a spirit-lifting rendition of Sly & the Family Stone’s inclusionary anthem, “Everyday People,” Colbert seems to be indicating that his show will be a wide tent.
- Jon Stewart’s cameo as the umpire who thunders, “Play ball,” was a big surprise. At first glance I thought it was Michael Douglas.
- During a recent interview with Howard Stern, Colbert insisted he was not in competition with “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon. Stern insisted that this new round of the late night wars were going to get vicious. So it was nice to see Fallon play along with Colbert in a couple of bits. The image of the two of them saying goodnight in an imagined late night talk show locker room like the Coyote and the Sheepdog in those vintage Warner Bros. cartoons, was a great grace moment.
- Not all the jokes can be good, as Groucho Marx once apologized in “Animal Crackers.” Like the cursed amulet to whom an enslaved Colbert was compelled to hawk a sponsor’s product. But one appreciates the commitment and intensity brought to bear on the sublime absurdity of the concept.
- More inspired was Colbert’s extended riffs on Donald Trump, in which the act of joking about Donald Trump was compared to binging on Oreo cookies.
- Colbert brings a more mature sensibility to late night than the two Jimmys, and that could make for nice counterprogramming. A look at his upcoming guest list finds some notable non-celebrities, including CEOs (Elon Musk), a Supreme Court justice (Stephen Breyer) and authors (Stephen King). Among the entertainers scheduled to appear, Colbert is including Broadway artists along with the expected parade of movie and television stars.
One show down; an auspicious beginning. The Nation, it appears, is in good hands.
Donald Liebenson writes news and features for Millionaire Corner. He has been published in the Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Los Angeles Times, Fiscal Times, Entertainment Weekly, Huffington Post, and other outlets. He has also served as a marketing writer for Chicago-based Questar Entertainment and distributor Baker & Taylor.
A graduate of the University of Southern California, he is married with a college-age son. He also writes extensively about entertainment.