[A version of this review appears in the Oct. 1, 2015, edition of the Rutland Reader.]
If I’m being completely honest, I’m over late night. When news broke last year that Stephen Colbert would be replacing David Letterman on CBS’ The Late Show, I felt a twinge of disappointment.
The late-night talk show is one of television’s most static forms. It’s also one I’ve mostly soured on. Little has changed since the early days of Johnny Carson. At this point, even the work Letterman did to turn the genre on its ear is now more than 30 years old.
Since then, it’s been the same formula in various iterations. To be sure, sometimes the results are still excellent. Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, and Seth Meyers are all talented, and each consistently delivers solid comedy on their respective programs.
However, in recent years, much of the absurdist humor perfected by Letterman and carried forward by O’Brien has been overtaken by silly pranks, celebrity canoodling, and the ongoing quest for next-day Internet virality.
With Fallon leading the charge, late night has become banal and comically uninventive. Sketches and bits have become vehicles for celebrity cameos. Interviews have become sycophantic and vacuous. And then there are the games. Those damn games. To be fair, Fallon’s charm and enthusiasm does go a long way to make this tonal shift palatable — I’ll admit some of these segments are delightful. But while it’s all entertaining enough, it’s not comedy.
There’s also late night’s problematic lack of representation. Even with the addition of Larry Wilmore and Trevor Noah, late night still has a ways to go. The conversation of the lack of women hosts overshadowed a Vanity Fair cover story as a group photo of the male hosts circulated on social media. But, hey, at least Miss Piggy has a late night show now. That’s kind of progress, I guess.
As a cord-cutter, I decided to review the Colbert’s debut on The Late Show piecemeal via the videos posted to the show’s YouTube channel as well as various clips that appear on my Twitter and Facebook feeds. Aside from this being the easiest way for me to tune in, my choice also reflects the way an increasingly large number of people, especially Millennials, now consume late-night TV.
(Full episodes of the Late Show are available to stream on on CBS’ All Access site. A handful of recent ones are free, but you’ll have to drop $6 a month if you want watch anything older than about a week.)
Even before Colbert’s stepped on the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater Sept. 8, expectations were unreasonably high. Colbert is one of the most significant satirical voices of our time. For nearly a decade he lampooned right-wing pundits on Comedy Central’s Colbert Report — a sustained joke that, in perhaps a sad commentary on our current ideological climate, never got old. His performance at the 2006 White House Correspondents dinner will endure as one of satire’s most important documents that rivals anything ever written by Twain or Swift.
To put a talent like Colbert in the constraints of the late-night format seems like a mistake. Look no further than Conan’s doomed tenure on The Tonight Show to see what happens when a host is too clever for his audience. Though unlike Conan, Colbert is a natural performer — a true song and dance man well suited for the variety show.
Yet even a talent like Colbert needs some time to get his bearings. Watching clips from throughout this first month of episodes, Colbert and his writers’ trepidation is apparent. They are still testing the waters and attempting to find a rhythm for the show.
While the monologues are a bit dull — why won’t networks finally let this tired segment die already? — Colbert is at home during the desk segment where he gets to do extended bits on topical issues that echo his work on the “Report.” As with his previous show, he uses this pre-guest time to unpack a single story over the course of a few minutes with consistently funny results.
Pre-taped sketches also show promise. An ad for a product called Yesterday’s Coffee finds takes a dark turn as Colbert and Laura Linney find themselves trapped in an endless cycle of coffee making.
Another mocks celebrity lifestyle brands, like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, with Colbert’s own version called Covetton House, which offers over-the-top products like a tie stand “painstakingly carved out of locally-sourced hat stands” and a bison wallet — not made out of bison, but made by a bison. It’s the kind of off-center humor that suits Colbert well.
While he has shed the archconservative persona, Colbert seems to have left his ironic egomania and vanity in tact. It’s another put-on that belies the charmingly impish man underneath.
Colbert’s greatest strength, however, may be in his interviews. He’s already established his show as a forum for big ideas as well as big stars, featuring public figures beyond the realm of celebrity. In addition to the cavalcade of presidential candidates, the show has welcomed tech figures like Elon Musk and Tim Cook as well as U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz who discussed the Iran nuclear deal.
As an interviewer, Colbert displays intellect and humanity. His powerful interview with Vice President Joe Biden was perhaps one of the most unguarded and authentic conversations with a politician in recent memory as the duo movingly discussed family, loss, and their shared Catholic faith with candor and sincerity.
A visit from Ted Cruz, meanwhile, allowed Colbert to flex his intellectual muscle as he challenged the Republican on gay marriage and his selective memory of Ronald Reagan. In a move that demonstrated Colbert’s respect for thoughtful discourse, he admonished the audience when it began to boo Cruz, saying, “Guys, however you feel, he’s my guest, so please don’t boo him.”
A recent appearance by GOP frontrunner Donald Trump was substantive yet surprisingly civil, likely disappointing those hoping Colbert would go for the jugular. Rather, he let Trump speak for himself, even giving him a chance to apologize for or clarify any of his numerous offensive remarks. Trump declined.
It’s difficult, even unfair, to pass judgment on a show like this so early into its run. But given his track record and talent, I have every reason to believe Colbert will succeed, and likely even best his competition. The real test for the show is not in these opening weeks. It will come several months from now, after the buzz and novelty has worn off, on a random night when no major guests are booked. To see what Colbert brings to the stage then will truly show us what he’s got. And I’m sure he’ll deliver.
CHECK IT OUT: The Late Show with Stephen Colbert airs weeknights at 11:35 p.m. on CBS.