The very first Late Show With Stephen Colbert was the Barack Obama 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote address of talk show debut episodes. Like that speech, it was insistent on suggesting the things that divide us aren't as large as we might imagine. Can't we all come together to perform "Everyday People," laugh at mild political humor, and make fun of Donald Trump?
And yet the episode also very quickly reminded viewers of why Colbert came to prominence in the first place. Weird gags and ultra-conceptual bits arrived like lightning bolts amid the typical proceedings of the late-night network talk show.
There were rampant fears that Stephen Colbert's seemingly bugnuts persona from The Colbert Report would be replaced by a bland talk show host in his new network digs. If this Late Show didn't dispel those fears entirely — there's more than a little '50s sitcom dad to Colbert, and always has been — it at least suggested that the series might grow in confidence and get even weirder.
The Colbert Report, after all, reached its greatest heights of absurdity several years into its run, once the audience was comfortable with the format. The audience is already comfortable with this format, so those weird bits feel less like experimentation than they do a promise of what's to come.
Here's the good and bad of this first episode.
Good: Stephen Colbert is an earnest purveyor of American good times
Colbert's most underrated quality is his weird timelessness. It's almost as if he stepped out of one of those '50s sitcoms, fixed the audience with a grin, and started riffing on whatever props he found around the set. Some of that is his ultra-crisp styling. Some of it is his radio announcer voice. But much of it is just the way he carries himself, the sheer earnestness with which he fixes the audience. Even when he was playing a character on Report, Colbert had some sense of sincerity bubbling along underneath the surface.
That's out in full force on Late Show. The episode opened with the host and several co-singers performing "The Star-Spangled Banner," as if kicking off a baseball game, and it continued throughout the sections in which he insisted that though he and his brother don't agree politically, they still love each other. His folksy, wholesome Americana extended to his subtly red, white, and blue ensemble, for goodness sake.
Colbert's chief competition, Jimmy Fallon, also exudes this kind of earnestness, but in the form of a goofy younger brother. Colbert seems far more paternal in nature, and it'll be interesting see if that lets him carve out space opposite his formidable competitor.
Bad: The Jeb Bush interview was chopped all to hell
Colbert perhaps didn't lay into Bush as heavily as political partisans (or fans of awkward late-night interviews) might have liked, but the real flaw was in how choppy the editing of the segment was. Colbert would ask a question, Bush would barely answer, and the whole thing would leap to the next bit. Near the end, the onscreen text said viewers could check out more at the Late Show website, and it seemed less an offer than an outright beg.
Colbert is one of TV's best interviewers, managing to seem genuinely approachable while still willing to go for the jugular. But that sort of thing takes time, more time than the rigid format of the late-night talk show might allow. With time, Colbert and his team will hopefully figure out how to make these more thoughtful discussions fit within the narrower confines, or at least get better at editing.
Good: Colbert wasn't afraid to get weird
Some of the evening's strange bits were stronger than others. The suggestion that any product placement seen on the program was at the behest of an ancient neo-Hittite god/demon that Colbert had sworn a blood oath to was a particularly inspired bit of wackiness. However, the made-up movie for first guest George Clooney to promote played better in concept than in execution.
But the point here isn't which bits worked and which didn't. It was that the show was willing to go there in its first episode, getting conceptual and strange from the get-go. Maybe this isn't what America needs right now, and the odd stuff will be phased out. But it almost felt like Colbert assuring his biggest fans that the show would have plenty of out-there gags.
Ehhh: It was just a talk show
There have been vague hopes from some that Colbert would somehow remake late night in his own image. That certainly wasn't the case in the first episode. The show had a monologue, an extended comedy bit, the first guest, the second guest, and a musical performance, just like late-night talk shows have had seemingly since the dawn of time.
Whether you think this is a good or bad thing depends on the amount of faith you have in the Weird Colbert triumphing over the hidebound nature of the format he finds himself in. Me, I think he's going to pull it out. But many, many others have assaulted the great dragon that is late-night talk, and almost all have been consumed by it.
Bad: The technical direction in the musical number was sloppy
So much of directing a pseudo-live television show (something that is filmed in one go and broadcast later, like a talk show or game show) is about making sure to pick the right shots in the moment, and making sure the multitude of cameras on the floor are there to capture the right moments.
Late Show acquitted itself just fine in the moments when the episode was basically a talk show, but in the final musical performance, the direction became chaotic. It was often hard to figure out where all of the many, many musicians were in relation to each other, and when Colbert emerged from backstage to sing a verse, the overhead shot chosen to highlight him mostly allowed him to get lost in the crowd.
Add to that frequent mishaps with the microphones in this number, and a premiere that was refreshingly free of snafus made up for that almost entirely in one sequence.
Good: Those opening credits!
Making what appeared to be frequent use of tilt-shift (a filmmaking technique that makes real life look like models in a diorama), the sequence turned the streets of New York into something out of a dollhouse. It was terrific.
Weird: Stephen keeps his script with him
Yeah, talk show hosts usually have cards or something on their desk to keep their hands occupied, but what was obviously a script for the show felt strange within the confines of the talk show format. When Jon Stewart used to have those pages on The Daily Show, it seemed like he was a newscaster, because that was the show's conceit. Here, it felt like Colbert was worried he would forget a line.
Good: The band is killer
Jon Batiste and Stay Human made for a fun, funky blast of music to play viewers in and out of ad breaks. If the only thing Fallon and his house band the Roots ever gave to late night was suggesting bands could have hip-hop, R&B, or funk sounds at their core, that would be more than enough.
"Bad": Whatever happened to late-night hosts hating each other?
Fallon drops by to wish Colbert good luck twice? What is this? The Babysitters' Club?
Good: The show feels remarkably self-assured
Even in the moments that didn't work, or the moments that blatantly fell apart, Late Show felt like a series that's been on the air for a few years, not one that just debuted.
The obvious response to that is that Colbert has been hosting a talk show for a decade now. Of course he knows what he's doing. But it's easy to miss just how much changing shows can produce a kind of nervous energy that consumes a first episode with jitters. (See also: Fallon's first night hosting The Tonight Show.) Add to that the fact that Colbert is now in a much larger venue (the cavernous-by-TV-standards Ed Sullivan Theater) and working with double the time of his old show, and you have numerous opportunities for the premiere to fall on its face.
Instead, this was one of the most confident debuts in years. Not everything was perfect, but everything felt thought through. That's not nothing, and it bodes well for what's to come.
The Late Show With Stephen Colbert airs weeknights at 11:35 on CBS. You can watch selected moments at the show's website.