“The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” proved in its premiere episode that Stephen Colbert is still “Stephen Colbert.” He's just more than that now too.
The nice thing about shoehorning Colbert into David Letterman's old gig is there's an inherent excitement about how the “Colbert Report” alum interacts with celebrities. That made the stodgiest parts of his premiere (amiable chats with George Clooney and Jeb Bush) a breeze, and it allowed Colbert to spend the rest of the hour trying out bizarre bits. At one point he was stuffing Oreos into his mouth in response to Donald Trump soundbite blitz. At another he obeyed a haunted amulet's requests for product placement. Weird, yes, but the episode ultimately felt like a traditional Letterman experience supercharged with “Colbert Report” zeal.
We picked out five provocative quotes and jokes that best illustrate the direction the show wants to take. In no particular order:
1. “With this show, I search for the real Stephen Colbert. I hope I just don't find him on Ashley Madison.”
Cute, inoffensive joke. In fact, it's almost a dad joke. Part of hosting a show on CBS at 11:30 is appeasing some dads. If he was consciously courting the Baby Boomer demo on “The Colbert Report,” he never did it with such earnest, quaint tactics before.
2. [Pointing at the domed ceiling in his studio.] “That is all digital projection. I wanted Michelangelo to paint it but it turns out that Ninja Turtles aren't real.”
This was the most “Colbert Report”-type quip of the evening. He was clearly feigning idiocy with anchor pundit flair. It's odd realizing only now how well Colbert's shtick applies to apolitical topics. Even when musing about studio artwork he can summon the jingoistic flavor of a lovable numskull.
3. “Trump's not white. He's more Oompa-Loompamerican.”
Colbert tried to resist making jokes about Donald Trump and despaired at his endless visibility, but he ultimately buckled and threw us some hair insults. He added the above Oompa-Loompa joke too, and I think it's fair to call it the most disappointing barb of the evening. There isn't a person alive who hasn't thought to compare Trump's complexion to an Oompa-Loompa's. Maybe the wordplay of “Loompamerican” has slight novelty value, but it felt beneath Colbert's standard for political comprehension.
4. [To George Clooney] “I'm grateful you're here because you don't have a project to push or anything. You just came because you're a nice guy.”
There was a pleasant awkwardness to how genuine Colbert seemed when addressing his first guest, George Clooney. Unlike on “The Colbert Report,” we didn't immediately sense a comic angle to his Q&A, and it took a few minutes of conversation (including one boring crack about how Clooney is wife Amal Alamuddin's “arm candy”) before we got to the good stuff: a fake trailer for a fake Clooney movie called “Decision Strike.” That was absurd enough, but then Colbert presented Clooney with a brilliant wedding gift: a resplendent Tiffany's item engraved with the words “I Don't Know You” on it. It was a righteous skewing of the talk show hobnobbing that remains an oppressive format standard.
5. “I used to play a narcissistic conservative pundit – now I”m just a narcissist.”
With this joke to guest Jeb Bush, Colbert officially established his own rebranding. Though he frames it as mere simplification, he's actually opening himself up to more types of megalomaniacal role-playing by embracing general narcissism. Now we expect him to tackle broad social matters and celebrity news with the vaudevillian grandeur he once reserved for political opining. Though he won't be abandoning his familiar world of satire any time soon, it's clear that “The Late Show” will allow Colbert to sling truthiness wherever he sees fit.