At the TCA panel to discuss his new job as host of “Late Show,” Stephen Colbert didn't want to go into specific details about his plans for the show. At one point, I asked him directly if he was planning to use the same format – monologue, desk piece, guest, guest, musical guest, goodbye – that had been the familiar structure of the genre practically going back to its origins in the 1950s.
“Well, that sounds boring,” a smiling Colbert replied, to laughter from the assembled press and CBS employees. “So no. I'm going to go with no on boring.”
But when Colbert's “Late Show” finally debuted last night, that was almost exactly the format he wound up using. (Technically, there were two desk pieces between the monologue and the first guest.)
So no, Colbert wasn't looking to reinvent the talk show wheel on his first night in the Ed Sullivan Theater. It was so traditional in many ways – and the crowd full of “STE-PHEN!”-chanting members of the Colbert Nation so pumped up to be in the presence of their leader again – that the audience literally applauded Colbert's introduction of his desk.
But if the format was the same, his “Late Show” debut also offered a few promising reminders that what separates these shows has far less to do with the way the segments are arranged than with the personality of the man at the center of each of them.
It wasn't a great hour-plus of TV. The monologue had some fairly tired jokes about being at CBS (even the bit where Les Moonves kept switching the telecast over to “Mentalist” scenes evoked Conan O'Brien's old “Walker Texas Ranger” Lever gag), both Colbert and George Clooney struggled to feign interest in their interview, and even the livelier conversation with Jeb Bush suffered from being so heavily edited – the actual taping ran a couple of hours and had to be drastically trimmed – that there was little sense of actual give-and-take, on top of the usual difficulties in getting a presidential candidate from either party to seem genuine and candid in this kind of setting.
The Bush interview was where the loss of “Stephen Colbert” could have been most keenly felt, if only because the ridiculousness of that character always injected spontaneity at moments when his guests were most rigidly sticking to their talking points. But the actual Colbert had some tricks up his sleeve, whether he was using the presence of his conservative brother in the audience to elegantly walk Bush into a discussion of where he might disagree with his own brother's political philosophy, or responding to Bush's discussion of his Florida nickname as “Veto Corleone” with an incredulous, “You know he is an anti-hero in that movie?” reaction.
That Colbert scheduled Bush, Elon Musk, and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick for his first week points to a desire to have different – and, hopefully, more substantial – discussions than simply letting actors plug their new movies. Even the Clooney interview opened with a (too) brief conversation about his charitable work in Darfur; “genocide” is not a word you expect the Jimmys or Conan to be tossing around most nights, let alone on as high-profile a night as this. Hopefully, once Colbert gets used to having an hour to play with, he and his producers will have a better sense of what types of guests to book, and how long to let those interviews run, because with Craig Ferguson gone from “Late Late Show,” Colbert is one of the few guys holding one of these jobs who seems genuinely interested in the talk part of hosting a talk show.
And both desk pieces demonstrated that “Stephen Colbert”s weird sense of humor was shared by the man who played him. The first one, involving a cursed amulet forcing Colbert to do an in-show ad for Sabra hummus, ran on a bit long, but felt like something specific to Colbert's comic voice. And the second one, where he compared the media's inability to stop running idiotic Donald Trump sound bytes to the difficulty of eating only one Oreo once you open the package, was a delight, building and building until there was no way for it to end other than a gluttonous Colbert dropping all the remaining cookies into his mouth from above:
There are a lot of bugs to be worked out in any late night show debut, and I expect Colbert to only get better at this, even as I expect to be watching his “Late Show” far less often than I did “The Colbert Report.” His take on the format wasn't boring – the opening credits, which made Manhattan look like the world's largest dollhouse, and the music of Jon Batiste and Stay Human, were both marvelous – but nor was it exciting enough to make me set a season pass for the kind of show I long since lost interest in.
What did everybody else think? If you're part of the Colbert Nation, did this feel connected enough to the old show to satisfy? If you're a Letterman fan, or simply new(ish) to Colbert, how do you feel he did on night one?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org