It’s still early — with 40 episodes and counting — but so far The Late Show With Stephen Colbert has lived up to at least some of its initial promise of mixing up the late-night scene.
Gone is the wacky, ultra-conservative persona of The Colbert Report, who graced Comedy Central for 10 seasons. In its stead, we have the "real" Stephen Colbert, something that’s been a rare commodity in years past. And Colbert is aware of the fact that the public and the media are not entirely attuned to what he’s like outside of The Colbert Report's conservative caricature.
What we’ve seen on the new Late Show so far is an animated host who falls somewhere between a zany, sitcom-style dad and an intuitive interviewer who isn’t afraid to steer the conversation into more serious, straightforward, and sincere territory when the opportunity presents itself.
However, what’s really helped the Late Show stand apart from its crowded competition is a consistent mix of distinctive guests, several of whom have never appeared on late-night television before.
Even more impressive is the diversity of guests Colbert’s team has selected. In the span of a week, viewers can expect to see sit-downs with the likes of Archbishop Thomas Wenski, Secretary of Energy Dr. Ernest Moniz, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai. No other current late-night show boasts such a varied lineup.
With Colbert at the helm, Late Show hopes to convey a seamless combination of satire and intellectualism, attributes that made The Colbert Report so successful for so long. Colbert's natural charisma might draw the raucous chants of "Stephen, Stephen, Stephen" every night from the audience. But his legacy will rest on the rich humanity he brings to his wide variety of guests.
Let's look at how he tailors his approach for every new person who sits on his couch, via 15 very different guests.
Politicians typically appear on late-night shows to seem comfortable and relatable, someone you can picture sitting down and having a beer with.
Therefore, the expectation is that they’ll talk a bit about themselves and their campaign, should they happen to be running for office. Perhaps at the end of the show, they’ll participate in some type of game with the host. It’s very PR-friendly.
Colbert interviewed his fair share of politicians on The Colbert Report, but rather than the standard softball late-night interview, he parodied opinionated, personality-driven political shows. He's kept up the energy with his Late Show interviews, but now he's steering the conversation toward the candidates’ policies and viewpoints.
Politicians are a late-night staple, especially with an election just around the corner, but entrepreneurs are seen much less frequently. Yet Colbert has made a conscious effort to make them a regular part of the Late Show rotation. He’s mixed well-known figures such as Elon Musk with breakout tech luminaries from ever-growing companies like Snapchat and Airbnb.
3) Social activists
There’s a tendency to view social activists as symbols for a particular movement, and rightfully so. Because of this, it’s easy to forget that the most well-known activists are first and foremost human beings. And that's what Colbert wants to remind his viewers of. These activists are more than their causes, just as politicians are more than their platforms and entrepreneurs more than their products.
4) Digital media mavericks
Colbert has, in the process of expanding The Late Show's guest roster to include online sensations like PewDiePie and the Night Vale creators, become a pioneer by embracing internet celebrities at a more rapid pace than his late-night counterparts. His struggles with these encounters can be attributed to a lack of exposure. After all, he’s not new to interviewing important figures; he did it throughout his tenure on The Colbert Report.
It’s entirely possible, and likely, that he’ll improve over time. However, a large part of that will come down to how much of his interview time is dedicated to explaining who his guests are as people, rather than simply why they are on The Late Show.
Meaningful conversations with celebrities are a rarity in the late-night scene. Again, most interviews pander to people’s baser instincts — and promoting new projects — rather than anything substantive.
7) Unusual entertainers
Most late-night shows regularly feature a musical performance. Colbert has followed that tradition to an extent, but even in the standard musical guest mold, the performers have been adventurous. He’s hosted the likes of Atlanta-based artist Raury (who used his time to express disdain for Donald Trump by wearing a Mexican soccer jersey with the GOP candidate’s name crossed out) and John Legend (duetting "America the Beautiful" with Colbert).
But the host has also brought in entertainers who don’t fit the traditional musical performance mold.
The Late Show’s unique mix of guests is what makes it so satisfying
Late-night television is populated by many versatile hosts. But what sets The Late Show apart in the late-night landscape is its celebration of the influential, not just the famous.
Credit for that doesn’t go solely to Colbert; the behind-the-scenes work of The Late Show’s co-executive producer, Emily Lazar, is imperative to its tone. The pair's collaboration has allowed Colbert to carve out a distinctive niche for himself and his show over a remarkably short period of time.
But it’s Colbert’s focus on gentle humanism that connects these disparate guests and interview approaches. Whether he’s talking to someone about faith, morality, ethics, or Swedish curse words, Colbert the interviewer always attempts to go deeper than the standard late-night talking points. And more often than not, through that focus on his guests' humanity, he accomplishes conversations of substance as well as comedy.