With the amount of changeover that’s been happening in late night lately, this might not necessary to say anymore, but here goes: The first few episodes of any late night talk show can only be considered an experiment, because no one finds their voice right away. But now that “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” has completed its first week, we have at least four hours of television to evaluate. And that feels like enough to have a sense of what we might anticipate from the former Comedy Central star’s new reign on CBS.
Featuring a wide array of guests, musical performances and comedy, here’s a quick ranking of each episode, from worst to best:
4. Episode 3 (September 10)
To be clear, Colbert’s two-part interview with Vice-President Joe Biden was without a doubt his best interview of the entire week. Colbert took this newfound opportunity for sincerity to really dig into the Vice President’s grief over the recent passing of his son in a way that didn’t feel exploitative, while also drawing upon his own personal tragedies to make a connection. But the show’s opening football comedy sketch — featuring a number of NFL greats who weren’t that great at selling their individual bits — pretty much bombed, and listening to CEO Travis Kalanick try to spin Uber’s more exploitative business practices was genuinely aggravating. (Kalanick always reminds me of the guy in “Dirty Dancing” who loves Ayn Rand and won’t help out Penny when she “gets in trouble.” And that guy’s a class-A jerk.)
3. Episode 2 (September 9)
Scarlett Johansson proved to be a surprisingly game guest, especially when it came to an off-the-couch stargazing bit that maybe went on a little too long, but was otherwise engaging. And while it was certainly neat to have Colbert question Elon Musk’s supervillain potential during their sit-down, a pretty cool haircut wasn’t enough to give Musk’s interview much spark. The comedy bits were decent but lacked franchise-able potential; Kendrick Lamar’s musical performance was a treat for fans of Kendrick Lamar, but not quite the big band sensation of the previous night’s closer.
2. Episode 1 (September 8)
Episode 1 earned mixed but largely optimistic reviews, and I’d agree that there was a lot of potential packed into it. The two major comedy beats — an extended “celebration” of Donald Trump’s campaign so far and a celebration of Sabor hummus sponsored by a demonic amulet — were both interesting, and while the George Clooney interview wasn’t groundbreaking, the bit clearly filmed backstage a few hours before showtime about Clooney’s next movie was fun. More importantly, Colbert’s interview with Governor Jeb Bush, in which Colbert stressed the need for both sides of the political spectrum, hit a theme echoed by the show’s closing number: an all-star band of performers singing a cover of Sly And The Family Stone’s “Everyday People.” “We’ve got to live together,” sung by a joyful chorus backed up by a brass band, ended up being surprisingly resonant, even days after the fact.
1. Episode 4 (September 11)
Every bit of this episode proved interesting. Well, maybe not a pretty standard riff on the 2016 Presidential candidates, including a run devoted to calling out Hillary Clinton’s struggles with authenticity. But there was more interaction between Colbert and Jon Batiste than ever before (a crucial bit of show chemistry that so far had been a bit lacking), a delightful interview with the always delightful Amy Schumer and Stephen King coming on stage wearing his brand-new National Medal of Arts (which he wouldn’t let Colbert touch). A fake bit of product placement starring Laura Linney had a dark, existential edge that really worked for me, and in maybe one of the show’s best gags to date, Colbert’s musical guest for the night was Troubled Waters; a “Paul Simon tribute band” led by a guy named Allen who looked an awful lot like Paul Simon. (For fun, you might check out the official website for Troubled Waters, which includes a tour schedule from 2012 and the number to call for booking info. For even more fun, you might try calling it.)
It wasn’t necessarily a perfect week, but no one bats a thousand, and there’s plenty for the “Late Show” team to be proud of. There’s also, of course, plenty to improve.
One clear issue, immediately, is that of diversity — and not just behind the scenes (where the all-white “Late Show” writing staff includes 17 men and two women). The first week’s interview guests were George Clooney, Governor Jeb Bush, Scarlett Johansson, Elon Musk, Vice-President Joe Biden, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, Amy Schumer and Stephen King. Six men, two women, all white. Band leader Batiste, in the grand tradition of the current late night scene, is black, and Kendrick Lamar did command the stage for a medley from his new album “To Pimp a Butterfly” (still can’t believe that’s a real album title). But Colbert’s first interview guest of color, as announced so far, will be UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon next Thursday, followed by Lupita Nyong’o on Friday.
That said, there is something notable about the diversity of occupations found in that assortment of guests: three actors (two of whom are also award-winning writer/producer/directors), two politicians, two technology CEOs and one of America’s most legendary living novelists. “The Colbert Report” always had a similarly diverse range of guests, and that plurality of interests is yet another way for “Late Show” to define itself in contrast to the other late night options.
At this point, the comedy that Colbert’s team is interested in can be divided into two categories: “the Presidential campaign,” and “general weirdness.” The political jokes are solid but familiar; meanwhile, I’m enjoying the general weirdness a great deal, even when it doesn’t work.
It’s a commitment to comedy seemingly born of the man who previously occupied the slot: Maybe the most telling bit of Colbert’s first week is the extended tribute he paid during his first show to David Letterman, who retired from “Late Show” in May after over 30 years on television. Colbert reflected on watching Letterman as a somewhat nerdy college student whose social calendar left him free and clear to watch “Late Night With David Letterman” at 12:30am in the ’80s.
“I am not replacing David Letterman. His creative legacy is a high pencil mark on a doorframe that we all have to measure ourselves against. But we will try to honor his achievement by doing the best show we can and, occasionally, making the network very mad at us,” Colbert said during that first show. And when you look back over Letterman’s legacy — from Stupid Pet Tricks to the Top 10 Lists to no shortage of other strangeness — it’s clear that Colbert is looking to define his own voice in that sort of tradition.
That said, I’d bet money that sooner or later, Colbert might experiment with the sort of games that have become a staple of Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel’s shows, if only for the basic fact of what they bring to a program. As alternative comedian/talk show host Chris Gethard told Indiewire earlier this year, about how the gamification approach made guests more relatable to audiences raised on video games:
“I think games on late night shows are reflective of the fact that it’s like, well, that person’s doing something that’s on my level. You see people on ‘Fallon’ smashing eggs on their heads. And it’s like, well, that’s a regular person in a weird way. That’s a much more regular person than a Carson interview ever was. I think people in the suburbs don’t wanna feel that separation. They actually wanna feel more included. And I think games cut that distance between Hollywood and real life.”
But so far, “Late Show” has avoided that strategy, marking for itself yet another welcome counterpoint to the other late night offerings.
Recently, when I’ve had trouble falling asleep, I’ve been rewatching “The Late Shift,” a 1996 HBO film about the battle between Jay Leno and David Letterman to take over “The Tonight Show.” (I’m not sure why it makes for good sleepytime viewing, aside from the fact that there aren’t any explosions and Daniel Roebuck’s Leno impression has a vaguely soothing quality to it.) Point is, leaving aside its relationship to the actual truth of what happened as deals were struck and promises were betrayed, what’s fascinating about “The Night Shift” is that it provides a portrait of an era when there weren’t over a half-dozen options for your televised bedtime story about the day’s news and events. Leno and Letterman fought bitterly over the opportunity to host the one game in town that mattered: “The Tonight Show.” The iconic show of shows.
We now live in an age of… well, calling it diversity feels false, given how the only non-white and male faces behind a desk are on basic cable (yep, shout out to Trevor Noah and Larry Wilmore on Comedy Central, plus the 2016 debut of Samantha Bee’s TNT series, “Full Frontal”). So let’s say, instead, that we’re talking about plurality. Or, at the very least, options.
I’d like to hear someone — anyone — argue that it’s a bad thing to have more options for how one might process a day’s worth of news and pop culture before going to bed (or watching the next day). Because here’s an idea I’ve become obsessed with, courtesy of James Poniewozik eulogizing Jon Stewart’s time on “The Daily Show”: “In the body of American civil discourse, Jon Stewart was our liver.”
It’s one of those “so simple it’s perfect and brilliant” analogies that not only puts Stewart’s legacy in perspective, but contextualizes the entire concept of the late night genre in very human, physical terms. It’s been a long day. You’re about ready for bed. But first, you’ll let some nice man in a suit and tie tell you what you might have missed, and maybe, hopefully, make it okay.
Even a week doesn’t feel like enough time to really gage what Colbert will be doing with “Late Show,” and so we’ll be giving him more time to settle in; the same way we’re actually still giving James Corden, who follows him at 12:30am, time to find his groove. Corden is smart and funny and talented, but is still figuring out how, exactly, to be himself and also be the host of a late night television show. Of course, being yourself on television is not an easy thing. Just ask Colbert, who up until last week had never actually done it before. As he joked with Vice President Biden during their Thursday night interview, “I can’t imagine what it’s like to spend nine years pretending to be somebody you’re not.”
Now, Colbert is on his quest to find his authentic self. Thankfully, so far it’s fun to watch. Can it be what America needs, to process the day’s events? “Late Show” now, officially, feels like a real option.