Talk about your great moments in television: When Stephen Colbert charged the stage at the Ed Sullivan Theater last week, kicking off his new phase as host—and Letterman successor—of The Late Show, I felt positively giddy. I had no idea how much I missed this guy—those glasses, that hair, the way he danced. (Is there a better dancer on TV than Colbert? Okay, well, is there a better middle-aged, white-male dancer on TV?) Seated at his new desk in his new hi-tech, church-of-Stephen studio, Colbert’s megawatt, crap-munching grin and happiest-dude-in-show-business energy were potent. This man was all-in, fully invested. Even if the ship sank, he was prepared to fail and fail BIG.
Since The Colbert Report ended its 10-season run in December, we’ve had plenty of time to (a) wonder how its host would stop spoofing Bill O’Reilly and start being himself and (b) worry if such a transition would kill Colbert’s mojo. But aside from maybe his blazer being a lighter shade of navy, the real Colbert isn’t so different from the late “Colbert.” “I used to play a narcissistic, conservative pundit,” he told guest Jeb Bush on the debut show. “Now I’m just a narcissist.”
Indeed, the first section of each Late Show, when it’s all-Stephen-and-nothing-but, is pure joy. Some gags are dull, like a segment called “The Hat Has Spoken,” in which Colbert dons a big furry hat and issues proclamations such as, “On a really hot day, anyone who says, ‘Hot enough for you?’ to another person will immediately be set on fire.” But now with Jon Stewart gone, how wonderful is it to have a Daily Show alumnus read us the news again? The persistent shots at Hillary (“What’s the difference between Donald Trump’s hair and Bernie Sanders’ hair? I’ve been advised to make the punchline about Donald Trump’s hair so as not to alienate left-leaning Democrats.”) and the Donald himself (“Knock knock. Who’s there? Orange. Orange who? Speaking of Donald Trump …”) taste as sweet as ever.
But when the guests arrive, things quickly feel off. Some are great (Amy Schumer, Emily Blunt). Some are a snooze (George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson). But Colbert is just so damn nice—earnestly, butt-kissingly, brown-nosingly nice. He has fun with billionaire Elon Musk (whom he compares to both Tony Stark and Lex Luthor) and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick (whose plan for Uber food delivery gets flat-out teased). But if it’s a politician, Colbert devolves into Arsenio Hall, giving both Jeb Bush and Joe Biden the impression that they have his vote. As the Washington Post recently put it, “If you’re nice to everyone, if you tell everyone how terrific they’d be as president, then your enthusiasm ceases to mean anything.”
Perhaps the hairpin turns from irony to extreme sincerity are preliminary attempts to immediately distance himself from the former “Stephen Colbert,” and that split will even itself out over time. (Letterman, after all, was weirdly nice in his early interviews, too.) And guess who’s coming to dinner on September 22? Trump, whom Colbert recently referred to as an “Oompa-LoompAmerican.” As if you and I and everyone else won’t be watching.
The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Monday-Friday, 11:35 p.m., CBS.