When Vice President Joe Biden appeared on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” last week, still reeling from the springtime death of his eldest son, Beau, and now subject to relentless speculation over his presidential ambitions, his host, the heir to David Letterman, briefly broke character. The carefully cultivated smarm of Colbert’s Comedy Central persona, without cable’s sharp edges or partisan complexion, had (unfortunately) survived the transition to CBS, but with the misty-eyed Biden beside him, these remnants of “The Colbert Report” swiftly melted away. (See the video below).
“When we see you, we think that we’re actually seeing the real Joe Biden,” Colbert remarked, and though he soon turned the moment toward comedy—”I can’t imagine what it would be like to spend nine years pretending to be somebody that you’re not”—this interest in authenticity carried Colbert’s otherwise lackluster first week to surprising heights. Confident and expansive, genuine and genuinely moving, the interview offered a glimpse of a classic in the making, if only the host deigns to peel back the mask.
From the “Star-Spangled” opening sequence of his debut episode, filmed at a number of “all-American” locations (baseball diamond, factory floor, small-town Main Street), Colbert has thus far struck an uneasy balance, close kin to the anodyne rhythms of campaign events and press conferences, between old and new, self-obsessed and self-aware. Against the vibrant sounds of the new house band, Jon Batiste & Stay Human, or the beautiful title sequence, a New York panorama in miniature, the familiar chants of “Stephen! Stephen!” and the news chyron to the left of the screen suggest the rather too tenacious hold of the host’s years of political satire. It’s as if Colbert believed so thoroughly in the “narcissistic conservative pundit” he constructed on “The Colbert Report” that Colbert the entertainer became trapped inside him.
Of course, any person prepared to host an hour of television five nights a week is playing a role as surely as the candidate shaking hands and kissing babies on the trail. The problem for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” is its apparent belief that allusions to Les Moonves, “The Mentalist,” “Thursday Night Football” and late-night wars absolve all sins, when the constant pausing to wink and nod at the viewer in fact contributes to the show’s strained, airless atmosphere. It’s no surprise, in this vein, that Colbert’s most effective segment is the regular pause for politics between monologue and first guest. After so many years of practice, responding to the absurdity of Donald Trump, campaign merchandise, and focus groups comes naturally. Unlike nearly everything else on “The Late Show” to this point, it just is.
By contrast, there’s a whiff of desperation—not wholly undeserved, given Letterman’s success—to the bizarre, rococo gags that pop up from time to time. An evil amulet shills Sabra hummus; Laura Linney laments yesterday’s coffee; Colbert engages in faux-philosophical inquiry with Scarlet Johansson or goes off on an extended mid-episode tangent about Lizard Man. In these interludes any comic momentum Colbert’s built comes to a screeching halt, and he lacks the eccentric bravado necessary, as Conan O’Brien has long understood, to sell an impatient audience on such flights of fancy.
Which returns us to the issue of the real and the ersatz, the person and the persona. Though he peppers “The Late Show” with knowing asides, it remains unclear where one Colbert ends and the other begins, which can make it difficult to assess where he’s going with this strange, sometimes heady brew. Talking over Johansson until even she doesn’t know what story she’s telling, he still seems the vain firebrand of “The Colbert Report,” a gambit that grew tiresome even when limited to 22-minute joke-a-thons with a throwaway interview tacked on the end.
Asking Jeb Bush tough questions on the “emotional narrative” of American politics and translating the purported success of Florida’s schools to a federal system, on the other hand, Colbert emerges as an incisive, moderate wonk, gently funny, avuncular rather than bombastic. Indeed, his inclusion on the guest list of politicians and entrepreneurs, such as Tesla’s Elon Musk and Uber’s Travis Kalanick, in addition to actors and musicians, indicates an admirable interest in expanding the late-night conversation, even if his interviewing skills need honing.
In was in this mode, the host encouraging Biden to discuss his late son, his faith, and his 2016 dilemma and then stepping back to let the live taping unfurl, that “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” first held out the promise of a truly novel entry in a timeworn genre. Inviting, unmannered, and effortlessly compelling, the exchange, which drew back the curtain on the Colbert’s personal history, too, never needed winks and nods, knifelike one-liners or obscure bits to become superlative television. For that single stretch, perhaps ten minutes in total, Colbert unlearned the lessons of his former, far icier format and discovered the warm, remarkably simple purpose of this one: whether in search of humor or succor, we tune in, as Colbert complimented Biden, to feel something real.
“The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” airs weeknights at 11:35 p.m. on CBS.