The closest thing to a big television moment during the first week of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert was his interview with Vice President Joe Biden. The latter is still thinking out loud about running for president, the former launching something just as life-altering — a late night talk show. Biden spoke openly about the recent death of his son. “My son was better than me,” the vice president said. “He was better than me in almost every way.” The conversation shifted toward Colbert, who lost his father and two of his brothers when he was 10 years old. The interview was full of substance, devoid of talk show banter but still funny enough to play well before a live audience.
Interviews with Biden, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush and technology CEOs Elon Musk and Travis Kalanick sent a clear message: Stephen Colbert will be the grown-up in late night television — a counter-programming antidote to Jimmy Fallon’s game show dance party featuring stupid celebrity tricks.
Colbert opened his first show with a filmed segment, singing the national anthem in various cities with diverse Americans. It felt like a non sequitur — as much as the beginning of anything can be a non sequitur. But the anthem, the promos with Mitt Romney, playing host to Jeb Bush on the first night and especially Toby Keith on Thursday was an extended hand to conservatives: You are welcome here. This show will be hosted by Stephen Colbert — progressive Sunday school teacher from South Carolina — not “Stephen Colbert” from The Colbert Report.
The following night, Colbert said production problems almost prevented the first show from airing. The two-hour taping had to be edited down to one. When The Late Show tried to send the finished product to CBS, the computers kept crashing. He said: “At 11:20 — and again, this actually happened — no one in the building could give me a guarantee for certain that the show was going to go on the air last night.”
There are less harrowing issues, edges to be rounded. The set seems too bright, too blue — lit up like CNN on election night. When Colbert runs out to open the show, he greets bandleader Jon Batiste with spin moves and high leg kicks, dancing a thin line between fun and lame, between Fallon and Ellen. The crowd chants “Stephen” a lot, a staple of The Colbert Report. The least palatable part of The Daily Show and Colbert was their pep rally atmospheres. But having a built-in following is a positive.
Colbert is playing to his strengths. He doesn’t perform a monologue, just a few cold opening remarks. After the credits, he is seated at his desk for a Daily Show-style take on the news. His favorite target: Donald Trump. Colbert, who was in the same Second City class as Chris Farley and a supporting player on the short-lived Dana Carvey Show (1996), is a veteran of sketch comedy. The latest example was the excellent “Yesterday’s Coffee” ad with Laura Linney on Friday.
Quentin Tarantino ripped television critics in an interview with Vulture last month: “Who the fuck reads TV reviews? … TV critics review the pilot. Pilots of shows suck.”
That goes double for late night shows. The first weeks are an experiment, the first years uneven. Colbert enters the genre at a disadvantage, because he has never hosted a variety show. When Fallon became host of The Tonight Show last February, it was after five years of refining his act on Late Night at 12:35 a.m. Late Night was a proving ground and a safe place to fail for David Letterman, Conan O’Brien and Fallon. Colbert doesn’t have that luxury. Fallon’s show is a lightning-quick, lip-synch machine. Colbert’s is still an unknown.
About a year ago, on Late Night with Seth Meyers, Craig Ferguson — then near the end of his 10-year run as host of The Late Late Show on CBS — said it took a couple years for his show to find itself.
CRAIG: Anyone who does a TV show over and over and over again — you’re going to go crazy. You’re going to go crazy. I know you think you’re not going to go crazy. You’re going to go fucking crazy, Seth.
SETH: Do you go so crazy that you don’t know the day you go crazy?
CRAIG: … and that’s when the show is yours.