The “Real” Stephen Colbert Settles Into His ‘Late Show’

colbert_late_showWhen it was announced last April that Stephen Colbert would be taking over the Late Show, I felt abandoned. I wanted this Stephen Colbert, not a different, more earnest, more human, America’s-favorite-uncle Stephen Colbert. I worried, with a lot of other people, that CBS wouldn’t let him be weird enough, or nerdy enough, or sharp enough, and — more concerning still — that in a sea of surely requisite Hollywood interviews, he would never have journalist and Supreme Court analyst Emily Bazelon on again, even if their chemistry was a rare and powerful gift to television, because wouldn’t it all be J. Law now?

But Stephen Colbert — the real one — was tired of it, and tired, he told Time, of “not letting people in,” and with the Late Show, he could be “a comedian” and not a character. The Report thrived on the tension between human performer Stephen Colbert and blowhard pundit “Stephen Colbert.” There is no tension in the Late Show: it’s all real Colbert (or at least, real-by-way-of-television Colbert). “I used to play a narcissistic conservative pundit,” he told first-night guest and one-time Republican presidential front-runner Jeb Bush. “Now I’m just a narcissist.”

And by narcissist, he seems to mean the nicest-seeming and most earnest host on TV. The purity of his joy as he bounded on stage, high-kicking, for his Tuesday night debut, was contagious: it’s hard to watch him without beaming, because he is delighted and delightful and how can you not want this to work so badly? It has to work, because while Colbert has always been best when he’s at his seemingly incompatible-with-late-night weirdest, he is so transcendently good in general (except at hiring a diverse writing staff) that the world would be out of whack if it didn’t. A new Late Show is an empty space, and as Steve Carell pointed out to The Times before the premiere, few people are better at filling empty spaces than Stephen Colbert.

But when the show debuted last Tuesday night, the space didn’t seem so empty after all. The space felt an awful lot like, well, like late night. Which is the point, of course, but it’s hard not to feel a little disappointed: oh, so this is what it’s going to be then. It was a pleasant show and a likable show and a sometimes-funny show, but more than anything, it was a mild show. “Tonight, I begin the search for the real Stephen Colbert,” he announced, with almost an edge. Then: “I just hope I don’t find him on Ashley Madison.” Bad-um ching. CBS has been “so welcoming I feel like a third Broke Girl.” Something about Willie Nelson’s new marijuana brand. A Donald-Trump-is-tan-and-crazy joke. The interviews, with George Clooney and Jeb Bush — two very different men united in total blandness — were similarly muted.

This middle-of-the-road cautiousness seems like a deliberate attempt to build an audience beyond the dedicated members of the Colbert Nation, but it risks sacrificing so many of the things that Colbert is best at: improvisation, irony, faux naïveté, satire, a profound comfort with awkwardness. Stephen Colbert can do a million things that only Stephen Colbert can do, and the exciting thing about this whole enterprise is the chance to see him do those things, and none of those things are telling Broke Girl jokes.

Fortunately, over the course of the first week, we got glimpses of what the show could be, suggesting that maybe all we have to do here is be a little bit patient. These segments, when they happen, are like tiny, perfect jewels, or diamonds in the rough, or maybe unpolished geodes, that someday could add up to a beautiful stone necklace, or at least a cohesive rock collection. If they do, we will have The Late Show at its finest. What exactly that show might look like isn’t clear yet — and it’s so, so early — but the first week is hints at possibilities.

On Wednesday, a solid but standard chat with Scarlett Johansson (with perhaps a few too many references to her appearance) morphed into a new segment, “Big Questions with Even Bigger Stars,” and finally we got Colbert doing his Colbert-y thing. It was sharp and sweet and weird and had the tone of a deranged production of Our Town, and this is the reason to watch Colbert and not any other nice-seeming middle-aged man on television. On Friday, he and Serious Actress Laura Linney nailed a commercial parody for Yesterday’s Coffee (“tastes like you made it today”). We got a segment on the absurdity of campaign merchandise that felt familiarly Report-like. The first week continued to support my theory that Colbert is best with non-Hollywood guests, but the good news is that there were a promising number of them, from Elon Musk to Justice Breyer, with more on the way. (Does U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon go on Fallon?)

And then there was the Biden interview. It was a staggering discussion about loss and faith between two men experienced in both. New Yorker writer Evan Osnos called the Vice President’s appearance “the most public and painful demonstration of emotional honesty by any politician in months, if not years,” and while that’s a testament to Biden, it’s also a testament to Colbert. The Late Show — his Late Show — is a space where magic like that can happen, and the fact that it could never have happened on the Report feels significant: this is what the “real” Colbert can do.

Colbert’s sensibility, which isn’t hip or cool or obviously suited to this new role, is, counterintuitively, the thing that’s most exciting about watching him in it. The new host of the Late Show is a guy who isn’t going to be at his best doing traditional late night. That may also be the key to the show’s success.

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