After months of speculation, America finally met “the real Stephen Colbert” on Tuesday night, and it turns out he’s a lot like the one we already knew.
In his debut as host of CBS’ “Late Show,” Colbert joked about politics, made light of his narcissism and had a bit of self-referential fun with the talk show format, as he did for nine years in character at “The Colbert Report.”
But there were also obvious attempts to broaden the appeal of his comedy, both geographically and aesthetically, beyond the loyal members of the Colbert Nation, and to remind viewers that Colbert is, after all, just a guy from suburban New Jersey with a wife, kids and even a Republican brother.
The broadcast was bookended with musical performances underscoring this folksy theme. It opened with a montage of the host singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” with people around the country — from a Little League team in Central Park to a family in Fort Worth, Texas. (The recently retired Jon Stewart even showed up in a cameo, exclaiming “Play ball!” at the anthem’s conclusion.)
And it ended with a rendition of, fittingly enough, “Everyday People” by Jon Batiste and Stay Human, the “Late Show” house band, and a bevy of special guests, including R&B singer Mavis Staples. (Because it’s apparently required that late-night hosts can also carry a tune, Colbert showed off his voice in the final set too.)
And while many observers wondered how Colbert’s off-kilter sensibility would translate to broadcast television, the host seemed at ease with the more standard late-night format. His monologue — yes, he did one — had a loose, conversational quality and the requisite topical jokes.
“With this show, I begin to search for the real Stephen Colbert,” he said. “I just hope I don’t find him on Ashley Madison.”
In the tradition established by his predecessor, David Letterman, there were a few good-natured shots at CBS, whose president and CEO, Les Moonves, kept a watchful eye from the front row, his hand at a switch that, should Colbert misbehave, would turn the network from “Late Show” to a rerun of “The Mentalist.”
And as for Letterman, Colbert took a few moments to recognize the comedian who spent 22 years at the Ed Sullivan Theater. “We will try to honor his legacy by making the best show we can, and occasionally, making the network very mad at us,” Colbert said.
But there were moments, too, that felt like “The Colbert Report” on a bigger, beautifully renovated stage — namely an extended gag about Donald Trump’s vow to give up Oreos. Sitting behind a large, semicircular desk as images flashed over his right shoulder, Colbert made the point that the media, including himself, can’t seem to resist the sugary jolt of Trump coverage.
“Someone on TV should have a modicum of dignity, and it could be me,” Colbert said, repeatedly going back for “just one more” Oreo/Trump joke until his face was covered with cookie dust.
In another bit of wink-wink product placement that felt lifted straight out of “The Colbert Report,” the host joked that he’d gotten the job at “Late Show” only after swearing on a cursed amulet. The downside of this Faustian bargain? He had to plug Sabra Roasted Red Pepper Hummus on the air. (Move over, Bud Light Lime.)
Colbert’s interview with George Clooney in some ways felt like the most conventional part of the broadcast. After a brief mention of Clooney’s activism on behalf of Darfur, their chat moved on to lighter topics, including the actor’s marriage to a prominent human rights lawyer and an extended joke about “Decision Strike,” a fake movie Clooney is pretending to be promoting. In a mildly subversive gesture highlighting the phoniness inherent in the talk show, Colbert presented Clooney with a gift — a paperweight engraved with the message “I don’t know you.”
An interview with Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush provided viewers with a glimpse of how “the real Stephen Colbert” is likely to handle politics in a coming election year. The host was polite and seemed genuinely interested in hearing what the former Florida governor had to say. “There is a non-zero chance that I would vote for you,” he said. “You seem like a very reasonable guy.”
But unlike his friend and new rival at 11:30 p.m., Jimmy Fallon, whose recent interview with Bush steered clear of any policy specifics, Colbert tried to get the candidate to go off-script. After introducing his brother, Jay, and noting that they differ politically — a move that made it seem as if Colbert were teeing up a softball question about family — the host put Bush on the spot: “In what ways do you differ politically from your brother George?”
When Bush replied with jokey platitudes about being younger and better-looking, Colbert followed up by asking for policy specifics. Bush eventually faulted his brother for his failure “to control Republican congressional spending.”
“So he was not conservative enough?” asked Colbert, who also pushed the candidate to clarify his views on the role of government — and didn’t make a single mention of the Paleo diet.
Bush countered with some pointed observations of his own. Looking at the domed ceiling of the Ed Sullivan Theater, projected with images of Colbert’s face in a self-aggrandizing flourish reminiscent of “The Colbert Report,” Bush said, “You’ve got more pictures of yourself than I thought you’d have.”
“I used to play a narcissistic, conservative pundit,” Colbert replied. “Now I’m just a narcissist.”