The Late Show With Stephen Colbert Doesn’t Reinvent the Wheel, But It Takes It for Quite a Spin

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Stephen Colbert during the premiere episode of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. Photo: Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS

It became clear last night, if it wasn’t clear already, that Stephen Colbert has an advantage over his late-night competition: He’s an actor. There’s a depth and solidity to actors that comic performers can never quite match, and it manifests itself in moments like the one we saw last night, when Colbert, newly installed as the host of The Late Show, engaged in a long conversation with a demon amulet that may or may not have represented his CBS boss, Leslie Moonves, and urged Colbert to shill for the show’s sponsor product, Sabra Hummus. It was a funny bit, anyway — one that, in time-honored Letterman tradition, became less funny as it went on, then somehow inexplicably funny again — but it took a turn for the sublime when Colbert waxed rhapsodic on the amulet’s Satanic power, then seemed momentarily overcome by the horror of what he had become.

“I must be forever enslaved by its hideous drone, and make certain …” He trailed off and stared blankly down at a spot on his desk. “Sacrifices,” he finished.

The weirdness of the pause was amplified by Colbert’s unnerving intensity. It was the kind of moment that NBC’s Jimmy Fallon or ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel or TBS’s Conan O’Brien would have italicized and tossed off, if their writers had thought to create it (and who knows if they would have; it’s the kind of moment that only Colbert could do properly, anyway). They would have winked at the audience and moved on. Colbert let the moment hang there, and for a marvelous second, the show turned into a late-night version of Angel Heart. He was feeling it. Colbert is really feeling the moment — when he seems to let a silly bit overtake him, even possess him, he becomes a true star, the kind of person you’re never not happy to see.

Colbert’s inaugural broadcast on CBS got off to a troublingly typical start. Much has been written about the stupefying sameness of late night, a genre of programming that seems ferociously committed to only hiring white, straight men, and has proved unable to let go of stock elements that have been around since Johnny Carson took control of The Tonight Show over 50 years ago: the desk; the couch; the monologue; the band led by an affable, smiling “character” (in this case, Jon Batiste). Colbert’s show reproduced all of those elements, plus aspects of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, the program that provided his old Comedy Central series The Colbert Report with a lot of its comedy-news DNA. There was even a “Weekend Update”–type segment with Colbert riffing on the presidential race before bringing out his second guest, Republican presidential candidate and Florida governor Jeb Bush (who remained doggedly stiff and on-message no matter how hard Colbert tried to steer him off-script and toward spontaneity, getting answers out of him). The news segment was built around an extended comparison of the media’s inability to stop reporting on Republican candidate Donald Trump’s foot-in-mouth belligerence and the American consumer’s inability to eat just one Oreo; it was a Daily Show bit in the best way, finding a comic metaphor for the addict mentality of the fourth estate.

Colbert didn’t reinvent the wheel, but he took it for quite a spin, and his charisma enlivened even the bits that didn’t quite work, like his “gotcha” question to Bush about the ways in which he differs politically from his brother George. (Bush’s answer — that his brother wasn’t as tightfisted as he would presumably be — was innocuous but might still be framed by pundits as a dis.) The broadcast brought out George Clooney as its debut guest even though he had no new movie to sell, then gave him one, a political thriller generically titled Decision Strike, and cut to a series of amusingly cheap images of Clooney hamming it up behind and near his dressing-room door. Colbert also asked him about his ongoing interest in Darfur and presented him with a belated wedding gift, an engraved paperweight inscribed with the phrase “We Don’t Know Each Other” — a disarming acknowledgment of the same artificiality and insincerity that critics of the ossified talk-show format have been griping about. There was a genuinely thrilling performance by Batiste and his band, Stay Human, of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People,” with Mavis Staples, Derek Trucks, Aloe Blacc, Brittany Howard from Alabama Shakes, and the great Buddy Guy. Colbert joined in, bouncing around as if riding an invisible pogo stick, and singing (like his old Daily Show castmate Ed Helms) in a trained professional voice, not embarrassing himself, or us, à la Jimmy Fallon in his tedious Fred Travalena–of-pop mode.

Were we seeing Stephen Colbert, or some new incarnation of “Stephen Colbert”? This seems a distinction without a difference — true actors just like to act and can’t entirely turn it off, and if you enjoy them, you don’t want them to. If Colbert ends up doing a slightly milder version of the shtick that enlivened his old show, I would not complain, because at its best, The Colbert Report was better than any other ongoing series at capturing the ways in which every aspect of public life has become a show of some kind. On cable, Colbert spent nine years playing a hypercaffeinated right-wing parody of himself, Bill O’Reilly by way of Jack Paar. The fun often came from watching him stay in character while sometimes breaking character, but mostly it came from the moments when the show would depart from its mandate to be a news-show parody in the vein of its time slot lead-in The Daily Show, and just let Colbert show off his chops as an interviewer, a musical performer, and an improvisational comic.

On paper, just about anybody could have done the sort of material that Colbert did last night, but in reality, nobody could. His level of commitment is formidable; maybe it was my imagination, but even Fallon, who showed up in a couple of jokey “hail fellow well met” bits, seemed rattled by it. Only Colbert could have handled that severed monkey’s paw so tenderly, contemplating it as if it were a dear pet. This show is too new to praise without reservation, but Colbert deserves every good thing you can say about him. After the final credits rolled, I set my DVR to record it. I haven’t done that for a late-night show in years.