‘The Late Show with Stephen Colbert’ Report Card: A for Effort, B- for Execution

“Tonight, I begin the search for the real Stephen Colbert,” announced the new host of The Late Show, during the opening monologue of last night’s debut. “I just hope I don’t find him on Ashley Madison.” It was the key line of the night, on two levels: first, it explicitly identified the primary obstacle in going from a character-based program like The Colbert Report to a personality-based one like The Late Show, and secondly, it revealed that the way to get over that hump is not by doing lame topical monologue one-liners.

That particular identity crisis has been central to the discussion of Colbert’s Late Show since he was announced as Letterman’s successor last April. And it’s not just a question of who Colbert is, or who he would be; it’s a question of exactly what kind of show he would put on. Would he follow in Letterman’s footsteps, with a “traditional” monologue/desk bit/interview/music format? Would he do something more conceptual, along the lines of The Colbert Report? Would he do a weirder, more far-out show, like that of former Late Late Show host Craig Ferguson (or Colbert’s own bizarre and funny warm-up videos?) Would he push into a sketch-heavy format, more in line with his Second City background? Or would he succumb to the Fallon/Kimmel/Corden model, valuing sharable, bite-sized, viral-ready #content?

After watching the debut show, it’s still hard to tell exactly what Colbert’s Late Show is going to be; what we got last night was a strange hybrid of Letterman’s show and the Report. From the former, Colbert gave us a monologue, some pre-planned bits with a game guest (George Clooney), a decent political interview (with Jeb Bush), and a big musical finish. But on the ends and in between, there were pieces that could well have come right out of his last show — particularly the extended (and very funny) Donald Trump/Oreo desk bit, complete with Report-style graphics — and the kind of weird sidebars that helped give that show a personality beyond political satire.

Just as the difficulty of transitioning such bizarre bits into an earlier time slot haunted Letterman and Conan when they moved out of Late Night, it’s easy to wonder how such bits as the “cursed amulet” will land with network audiences. It was a weird bit, but one that worked — primarily because it was so unexpected, particularly as it moved into a sponsor announcement.

But Colbert seemed markedly ill at ease during his opening monologue. Such unsteadiness is understandable, as he doesn’t have the stand-up background of a Letterman or Fallon, but he might be wise to take a page from Seth Meyers and just start at the desk, where he seems more comfortable. And it also didn’t help to have so few good jokes, since he hasn’t yet established enough of a talk-show persona to turn bad jokes into big laughs like Letterman or Carson could. And the closing, an underwhelming and rather un-funky “Everyday People” performance, with “very special guests,” unexplained photos, and a singing host, was just plain off — it felt like a premature, and not entirely earned, victory lap.

That said, there was a lot to like in Colbert’s Late Show. The opening sequence, of the host singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in various locations across the country with shifting duet partners, was lovely. The running gag with CBS president Les Moonves in the front row, manning a switch to go from The Late Show to Mentalist reruns (“I’m sure I will have no need to use this thing. Move on”) was terrific. The tributes to Letterman and mentor Jon Stewart were charming, as were the little cameos from crosstown rival Jimmy Fallon. The business with George Clooney’s fictional movie played like gangbusters.

And Colbert pulled off a slick bait-and-switch in his interview with Governor Bush. While seeming to address the move from Right-spoofing pundit to centrist chat-show host by introducing his brother in the audience as a bridge-building symbol, Colbert then pivoted on his guest: “I love my brother even though we politically differ. Without in any way diminishing your love for your brother, in what way do you politically differ from your brother, George?” He threw the candidate a bone — and for his trouble, got a very forced smile. The Governor also trotted out his “Veto Corleone” line again from the debate, which he should stop using for the simple reason articulated in Colbert’s response: “You know, he was the antihero in that movie.” It’s not often you get to use a debate retort weeks later!

Overall, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert is off to a somewhat unsteady but nonetheless entertaining start. Colbert remains, as ever, endlessly likable, and if he didn’t burst out of the gate with his new program and persona fully defined, well, that’s understandable. He’s got time to figure it out.