“The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” on CBS
There’s a certain level of trepidation a reviewer feels when approaching a new late-night talk show. Mostly because, well, there’s not much to talk about. As innovative and original as each successive host dreams of being, the shows themselves are hidebound and hamstrung by a formula that’s been kicking around the airwaves since the ’50s. Watching each new iteration of “The Tonight Show,” “Late Night,” “The Late Show,” etc., you realize there’s not an awful lot one host can really add to the genre—other than a trademark bit (David Letterman’s Stupid Pet Tricks or James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke or Conan O’Brien’s In The Year 2000). What, for example, will comedian Stephen Colbert be bringing to Letterman’s old post at CBS’ “The Late Show”?
Colbert has some big shoes to fill. Not only is he in the unenviable position of following up on Letterman’s longtime gig (22 years at CBS), but he’s got to compete with the huge success he had on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.” His first week at “The Late Show” was alternately funny, rocky, filled with potential and bogged down by convention.
When you break it down, the formula for late night is more or less set in stone. The host mounts the stage to thunderous applause. He delivers some topical jokes in the form of a monologue. He retreats to a desk to offer a longer scripted bit, wherein he frequently points to his band leader. The host then welcomes two guests, engages in genial chatter and allows them to plug their latest projects. In the last 10 minutes, a musical guest sits in with the band. Colbert, like all his other network brethren, follows this formula to a T.
Colbert gets a touch of his own flavor in there. His post-monologue sketch seems to want to concentrate on up-to-the-minute politics. Although Colbert has dropped his “fake conservative pundit” personality, he’s still trading on most of the same jokes and feigns the same jovial egotism. Mostly, he seems to be having fun. His style is to crack as many jokes as possible with the guests. In this regard, he feels like a throwback to the Golden Era of Johnny Carson—who, on his worst night, looked like he was amused to death. Out the gate “The Late Show” is loaded with laughs. Which bodes well.
It’s also incredibly familiar, right down to the set dressing. Colbert has pimped the theater with a multilevel, church-like interior. For the most part, though, it’s the same brick-lined warehouse with the wooden desk and the fake picture window overlooking the simulated Manhattan skyline as every other late-night talk show. The pacing is also visibly rickety—which can, for the next couple of months, be chalked up to new show jitters. Colbert’s opening night interview with George Clooney was awkward (and as Colbert later admitted, heavily edited). His conversation with Joe Biden resulted in some unexpectedly honest talk about the Vice President’s dead son. And his back-and-forth with Uber creator Travis Kalanick was missing several interruptions by angry New York cab drivers in the audience.
Colbert knows what he’s doing. He’s a smart, funny, entertaining guy. But it’s going to take him some time to get used to this bigger, brighter stage. Hopefully in the process, he’ll give late night TV something it desperately needs—a kick in the ass.