The Stephen Colbert of CBS’ “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” which made its long-awaited debut Tuesday night, initially didn’t seem all that different from the Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report”.
The audience greeted him with chants of “Stee-ven! Stee-ven! Stee-ven!” He greeted the audience with a rallying cry of “Hello, Nation!” His red, white and blue Captain America shield adorned his new set, much like his old set.
Colbert sat at a desk and used a series of news clips to skewer Donald Trump – engaging in an imaginary conversation with the presidential wannabe while likening battling the temptation to make Trump jokes to the challenge of eating just one Oreo.
“Oh, Donald I love you, too,” an exasperated Colbert said through a mouthful of cookies. “But I think I’m going to hate myself in the morning.”
But Colbert should wake up Wednesday morning feeling pretty good about the first pages of the next chapter in his late night TV comedy career. With the Trump bit, he started to shed his reactionary character – but not his talent as a master of comic reaction.
On “The Colbert Report,” he simply would have used his blowhard conservative character to mock Trump under the guise of being a fan of the outspoken developer and former “Celebrity Apprentice” star. On Tuesday, we got to see more of the real Stephen Colbert as he exhibited a familiar comedic sensibility, but without the extra layer of artifice.
The broad smile Colbert flashed throughout his debut helped generate a buoyant atmosphere in the overhauled Ed Sullivan Theater. So did the infusion of infectious, high-energy music from the new “Late Show” house band, Jon Batiste and Stay Human, who offered a rollicking version of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” with an all-star lineup led by Mavis Staples.
The upbeat approach also permeated Colbert’s interview with George Clooney, who was one of the final guests of David Letterman’s 22-year “Late Show” run. A series of clips for a fake Clooney movie about intrigue at the United Nations dominated the segment. The gag could have been lifted out of the playbook of Letterman, whom Colbert hailed near the top of the show as one of his comedy heroes.
Colbert set another kind of tone in his interview with GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush, deftly mixing jokes (“I used to play a narcissistic conservative pundit,” he told Bush. “Now I’m just a narcissist.”) with touches of serious conversation about family and rancorous partisanship (“We have to restore a degree of civility,” Bush said). In the nights to come, Vice President Joe Biden, Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer are slated to chat with Colbert.
The political slant – in both humor and guests – appears to be one way Colbert hopes to distinguish himself among competition that includes Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Larry Wilmore and Jimmy Fallon, who made two cameos on “The Late Show” Monday.
But, as previously noted
, Colbert’s bigger challenge remains distinguishing his new TV self from his old TV self. He showed Monday night that while he’s leaving behind the character who once defined him, he’s stilled propelled by the smart, fast and funny style that lifted him to one of late night television’s biggest stages, where he put on an inaugural show worthy of chants of “Stee
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.