When Stephen Colbert was announced as the second-ever host of CBS’s The Late Show (succeeding David Letterman, for whom the program was created), fans and observers wondered just how the transition would go. Colbert, after all, was famous for playing a character, a blowhard politico, on Comedy Central’s Colbert Report.
Tuesday night’s premiere of The Late Show under Colbert didn’t put those questions to rest, exactly; after all, Colbert’s had a little over one hour on-air as himself, after some nine years as “Stephen Colbert.” His precise persona remains hazier than the precise place he’ll occupy in the late-night firmament. In contrast to the naif-like Jimmy Fallon and the prank-loving Jimmy Kimmel, Colbert is to be the network host who thinks the hardest about what it means to be a network host.
The first episode of the show reflected, more than anything, a productive sort of anxiety over bridging Colbert’s intelligence with the imperatives of network TV. Colbert brought a Grand Guignol commitment to his moaning over the favors he owed a spirit inhabiting a dark amulet in his studio; the principal favor was to promote a brand of snack food that had presumably paid CBS for the privilege. He carried across a fairly sharp metaphor over how over-coverage of Donald Trump in the media is like glutting oneself on Oreos, but in so doing broadcast several clips of Trump from August that were, themselves, a bit past their sell-by date. Colbert has earnestly committed to being both a good host and one that fits into our media climate, but the first episode’s humor came from how he fit his persona into that framework rather than how he redefined it.
A first episode is too early to tell what, exactly, the show will become: Jimmy Kimmel’s current claim to fame—taped pranks and acid-tipped celebrity stunts—came to the fore once his ABC show was well underway. But Jimmy Fallon’s debut on NBC’s Tonight Show, reliant as it was on totally good-humored, toothless star cameos, set the tone, and it’s not hard to imagine that Colbert’s first episode will do the same. The show’s high points came in Colbert’s interactions with his celebrity guests. Colbert made a big show of presenting first guest George Clooney with a wedding gift: A Tiffany paperweight—typical hostly chumminess—engraved with the phrase “I don’t know you.” And to Jeb Bush, he spoke frankly, telling the presidential candidate “There is a non-zero chance that I would vote for you” and using personal anecdotes to invite the Florida politician to speak more about how he specifically differs from George W. Bush. (The answer, for what it’s worth? The 43rd president’s Republican Congress that spent money too profligately.) None of this was weird or subversive but for the fact that it took place in a context where late night is best at producing next-day clips, not commentary on the celebrity-industrial complex or political insights.
Colbert was dutiful in many senses: He featured (in brief cameos) his former boss Jon Stewart and main competition Fallon, gave a deeply earnest tribute to his predecessor Letterman, and paid tribute both to CBS’s sponsors and to his family. He’s clearly ready to go broader: Colbert used his opening minutes to make late-night talk-show-host-y jokes, like flat references to Ashley Madison, the History Channel, and Willie Nelson’s widely-remarked-upon love of marijuana, that would have been more than a bit too broad for cable. His renovating the ceiling of the Ed Sullivan Theater to resemble a cathedral’s dome seems to have symbolic meaning: This is something akin to church for Colbert (a devout Catholic). He’s born to be, and has worked yet harder to be, a great traditional talk-show host at a time when the value of such a host has never been less clear.
Indeed, the way he’ll fit into the talk-show ecosystem as it exists in 2015 remains to be seen. Colbert’s two terrific interviews felt both too substantial and too meta to really thrive on a YouTube ecosystem that has recently rewarded hosts who’ve enlisted celebrities for either party tricks or just plain tricks. The show will find its groove very soon, but it may take a bit longer to figure out exactly what role Colbert will play: Affable throwback act, or world conqueror?
His fans, though, have reason to hope. There’s room for real subversion in the late-night talk show that hews to the traditional, and not just in new ways to get sponsor messages in. Colbert, in his show’s first moments, mentioned his pride in his mother: A pennant she got for attending Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech adorns the studio. “Sadly, civil rights only won the pennant that year,” Colbert said. “Racism won the World Series.” It’s a sharper, franker, and better-developed joke than anyone other than a Colbert fan might have expected from network late night. And best of all, it was delivered by Colbert as himself.