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‘Late Show With Stephen Colbert’ Review: A Bigger Tent, But the Spirit’s the Same

'Late Show With Stephen Colbert' Review: A Bigger Tent, But the Spirit's the Same

Even more than with scripted TV, it’s absurd to judge a live TV show based on its first episode. The “Goodfellas”-inspired tracking shot that paid tribue to “The Daily Show’s” crew underlined just how massive an undertaking producing a new episode of television four days a week can be, which makes getting every part of the production working in harmony a goal that takes weeks or even months to achieve. (John Oliver may have burst out of the gate with an all-but-fully formed version of “Last Week Tonight,” but that’s the exception, one aided by the show’s relative similarity to his former “Daily Show” gig.) So when you look at the first episode of Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show,” you’re not asking if it’s a great late-night show. You’re asking if it could be one.

“Late Show’s” maiden voyage, after nine months of prep and a week of unaired shows, was still a rickety one: The taping ran over two hours, with several pieces reshot due to technical difficulties, and Colbert’s interview with Jeb Bush felt like it had chunks cut out at random. His first interview, with George Clooney, was stiff, and if Colbert’s decision to begin his stint as a network TV chat host asking Clooney about his humanitarian work in Darfur was a statement of principle, it nonetheless made for an awkward segue from the grinning pleasantries. For all Colbert’s talk of reinventing late-night, “Late Show” stuck close to the “monologue, desk piece, guest, guest, musical guest, goodbye” HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall pressed Colbert on at TCAs, a routine Colbert rightly described as “boring.”

And yet, it wasn’t the same old thing, largely by virtue of having Colbert in the host’s chair. He may have left his “Colbert Report” character at Comedy Central, but he made it clear that the “Report’s” sense of humor has a place on “Late Show” as well. In the evening’s most inspired (if not universally admired) bit, he introduced the audience to a series of knickknacks scattered around his set (many of them straight off the “Report’s” shelves) before landing on a “cursed amulet” that purportedly forced him to work in a plug for one of the broadcast’s sponsors. It was vintage Colbert, or “Colbert,” cashing a product-placement check with one hand while playfully flipping the bird to the “regrettable compromises” of keeping a show on the air in an ad-skipping world.

In pairing Clooney with Bush, Colbert made a pronounced gesture towards even-handedness, even if he reserved his hard(ish) questions for the political candidate and pitched softballs to the Hollywood liberal. He opened the episode with a country-hopping version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and closed it with a guest-star-filled (and haphazardly staged) version of Sly & the Family Stone’s “Everyday People,” lingering on its final line: “We got to live together.” Bush made vague assurances about healing the U.S.’ political divisions, but Colbert’s “Late Show” followed through. Falling ratings or no, network television is still the closest thing the country has to a family dinner table, and he wants everyone to have a place. Every late-night show has a personality. Colbert’s has a vision.

Here’s how critics reacted to “Late Show With Stephen Colbert’s” premiere:

James Poniewozik, New York Times

The taping of the episode ran two hours, and the edits to get it down to size were conspicuous. Mr. Colbert and crew want to restore the idea of bigness to late night — down to the set, which restored the Ed Sullivan Theater dome — but they’ll need to work on fitting their production into its package. But as overstuffed and messy as this new “Late Show” could be, big is a refreshing goal at a time when late-night shows have been redefined as content creators for your phone. It is maybe the biggest slight and highest compliment to say that none of the episode’s best bits seemed especially viral.

Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter

Not surprisingly, this first night seemed like an amalgamation of every piece of Colbert — from pre-“Daily Show” TV stuff all the way through post-“Colbert Report” weirdness that he exhibited online while touting his new CBS series over the summer. There were some nerves — how could there not be? — and there were plenty of flashes of the wickedly smart and super-fast comedic intellect he’s honed over the years. Did it all work? Of course not. But what I liked most was the feeling that Colbert was going to reveal a side of himself that he didn’t get to show much on the “Colbert Report” or even “The Daily Show” — a side that was much more reflective of his days on “Strangers With Candy” or even the “Dana Carvey Show.” Beyond minor first-night quibbles, I have little doubt that Colbert will be absolutely essential viewing on a nightly basis and his show will be a success no matter what way he eventually settles in the chair. The key for him is to make it original, not imitative of what we’ve seen from the past or too safe and comfy — and I think he’s only just beginning on that original route.

Alan Sepinwall, HitFix
It wasn’t a great hour-plus of TV. The monologue had some fairly tired jokes about being at CBS (even the bit where Les Moonves kept switching the telecast over to “Mentalist” scenes evoked Conan O’Brien’s old “Walker Texas Ranger” Lever gag), both Colbert and George Clooney struggled to feign interest in their interview, and even the livelier conversation with Jeb Bush suffered from being so heavily edited — the actual taping ran a couple of hours and had to be drastically trimmed — that there was little sense of actual give-and-take, on top of the usual difficulties in getting a presidential candidate from either party to seem genuine and candid in this kind of setting. There are a lot of bugs to be worked out in any late night show debut, and I expect Colbert to only get better at this, even as I expect to be watching his “Late Show” far less often than I did “The Colbert Report.” His take on the format wasn’t boring — the opening credits, which made Manhattan look like the world’s largest dollhouse, and the music of Jon Batiste and Stay Human, were both marvelous — but nor was it exciting enough to make me set a season pass for the kind of show I long since lost interest in.

Tim Grierson, Rolling Stone

Whether recapping Donald Trump’s most ridiculous sound bites as he binged on Oros or shouting out longtime director “Jimmy” Hoskinson to cut to a particular shot (another “Report” callback), his version vibrated with the same giddy pleasure Letterman’s old fans felt when that late-night icon seamlessly transitioned from NBC to CBS: Here we have an exciting, brand new show, which feels just like the old one we loved.

Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times

There were a few small glitches and creaks, I will admit in the name of critical scrupulousness and credibility, but you don’t leave a great party complaining about a crack in the bowl the potato chips were in. It started strong, ended strong, and in between it was mostly … strong.

Will Leitch, Bloomberg

The show itself was fun and relentlessly positive and energetic. Colbert is doing everything in his power to show that he’s not only not his former character, he’s not David Letterman either. (He clearly adores Letterman, but Colbert was so abuzz with the vigor of performance it was like someone sent a shock through him. He was bouncing around the stage. Low-energy Bush never had a chance in that regard.) But the major takeaway from the first night is just how much of the show is going to revolve around Colbert’s singular talents. The band almost felt part of the periphery, the guests obligatory, the monologue truncated and beside the point. The show came alive when Colbert sat down at his desk and began to entertain, most notably with his inspired Trump bit.

Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture

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.

Melissa Maerz, Entertainment Weekly

Is late-night ready for another politically-minded, semi-absurdist host at a time when so much programming is geared toward breezy chit-chat and broad morning-after memes? If not, we might hold Colbert responsible. Long ago, he and his fellow “Daily Show” alums made the networks’ late-night programming seem outdated, especially compared to the experimental, satirical news shows on cable. Now it’s up to Colbert to make smart late-night programming relevant again. Whether he can do that as the “real” Colbert remains to be seen. But so far, he’s good at pushing guests like Bush to reveal something real about themselves. 

Todd VanDerWerff, Vox

Colbert has been hosting a talk show for a decade now. Of course he knows what he’s doing. But it’s easy to miss just how much changing shows can produce a kind of nervous energy that consumes a first episode with jitters. (See also: Fallon’s first night hosting “The Tonight Show.”) Add to that the fact that Colbert is now in a much larger venue (the cavernous-by-TV-standards Ed Sullivan Theater) and working with double the time of his old show, and you have numerous opportunities for the premiere to fall on its face. Instead, this was one of the most confident debuts in years. Not everything was perfect, but everything felt thought through. That’s not nothing, and it bodes well for what’s to come.

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