The Stephen Colbert era hasn’t even officially begun yet, but hey, this was a pretty good start. The Colbert Report host appeared on David Letterman’s Late Show on April 22, less than two weeks after CBS announced that Colbert would be Letterman’s replacement when the legendary talk-show host retires in 2015. Colbert also confirmed that the Report would be concluding its run at the end of 2014.
From the moment he stepped out on stage, it was clear that Colbert wouldn’t be in character for his interview with Letterman (it was even more obvious once he opened his mouth). It’s strange — though not entirely unprecedented — to see Colbert on the set of a late-night talk show, behaving and talking like someone other than “Stephen Colbert,” but the choice wasn’t surprising.
Though widely heralded, Colbert is likely unknown to many of Letterman’s regular viewers (rest assured, however, that plenty of those who tuned in tonight did so only to see the newly crowned prince of late night). Perhaps most comforting to those regular viewers is just how relaxed Letterman appeared throughout the interview, leaning back in his chair, legs spread so wide that his knees nearly met Colbert’s. In case it weren’t already obvious from his earlier statement in the wake of the announcement, Dave approves.
Colbert didn’t set the world on fire with his performance, but he proved himself every bit as witty as when in character on his own show — with genuine sincerity taking the place of bombast and buffoonery. The 49-year-old comedian made sure to compliment his soon-to-be predecessor right off the bat, declaring, “I’m going to do whatever you have done here. It seems to have gone pretty well.” Letterman returned the kind words, noting that CBS “could have just as easily hired a boob like me,” but opted for Colbert instead.
It’s far too early to confirm that Colbert is a worthy successor to Letterman’s legacy, but the signs are encouraging. As Colbert explained, “I don’t know why you do comedy, but it’s not because everything is all right up here, for me.” The comment plays beautifully into Letterman’s image as the tortured comedic genius whose work isn’t about the money or the fun or the fame — it’s the only way he can maintain his sanity. Colbert may not be as curmudgeonly as Letterman, but anyone who can stay in character for the better part of a decade has a remarkable comedic drive.
As the interview drew to a close, Letterman even suggested the two take a selfie together. Even Colbert seemed a little shocked, but it only goes to show that nothing is impossible when you’re the new darling of late night. This was only the beginning.