There was enthusiasm surrounding the announcement Stephen Colbert - the man we're most familiar with as The Colbert Report's pompous, right wing pundit-host - would be replacing David Letterman on CBS' The Late Show, but it was an enthusiasm laced with slight trepidation. Who is Stephen Colbert? The real Stephen Colbert? And would he be the right man to host a network late night program five nights a week?
Just who is Stephen Colbert and how will he distinguish himself from the character he played for nearly a decade on Comedy Central was the focus of much of the lead-up to the premiere of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert - for both the show's marketing and preceding media coverage. Yet, had you been paying close enough attention to the man behind the desk of The Colbert Report all these years, you'd have seen enough of the real Stephen Colbert seep through to know that, yes, he certainly is the right man.
The "historic" first episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert began with a Star-Spangled performance that could have easily been conceived as an opener for The Colbert Report, what with its patriotism and pageantry (and requisite Jon Stewart cameo), but it was Colbert's own generous spirit coming through as he sang the national anthem across the country that sets the performance apart. Sure, Colbert still has the self-assuredness viewers have come to expect from him, but there's a genuine warmth here that was purposefully lacking from his conservative caricature.
From there, Colbert continued the show with a traditional monologue brimming with quippy, one-liners. ("As long I have nine months to make nine hours of TV, I can do this forever.") Clearly, the talented improviser isn't looking to necessarily reinvent the wheel when it comes to late night programming, but there are signs he's looking to change things up a bit. His choice of New Orlean's John Batiste as his band leader, for example, was sign of this and already the two appear to have blast working together, though their on screen camaraderie isn't quite what we've come to expect from a late night host and his band leader. Then again, it's only the first episode and theirs will hopefully be a partnership we'll enjoy watching grow.
Once seated behind his fancy new desk, Colbert took time for a short exchange with The Tonight Show's Jimmy Fallon (the first of two and a promise of more bits between the two to come) and a few remarks on his predecessor David Letterman. Then things took a bizarre but uniquely Colbert twist as he hocked Sabra hummus via cursed amulet and monkey paw like only Colbert can - straight-faced and with earnestness. This will surely ease the concerns of anyone who worried CBS would tame Colbert too much, as instead it seems the network is letting him do what suits him (and failing that, Les Moonves hits The Mentalist switch).
Before welcoming his first guest, Colbert has one more bit that quite obviously is the most like what we've come to expect from his other, pundit self. It isn't the first time Colbert has skewered Donald Trump either, and the Oreo comparison (yet another sponsored segment?) likely won't be his last, but the bit comes across as if Colbert is playing catch up with all material Trump has provided throughout his presidential run. Much like how Jon Stewart's tirades on Trump during his final episodes were funny but at the same time felt too easy, the Trump/Oreo bit doesn't feel as fresh as the sort of commentary we've seen Colbert produce before. That may be due to Trump over-saturation more than anything else, but at least it was certainly amusing to watch Colbert subject himself to almost lethal doses of both Trump and Oreos.
As a first guest on the first episode of your new late night program, you can't do much better than George Clooney, arguably one of the world's biggest movie stars along with being a charitable and concerned human being. Though again, perhaps to further highlight how much of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert is the same but different, Clooney didn't come with anything to promote, so instead he and Colbert simply made up a movie and then spoofed the phoniness of countless late night interviews. It's a brilliant bit and one made all the better by Clooney's willingness to play along and Colbert's genuine desire for his guests to enjoy themselves. (Something also of note, Colbert standing up and greeting his guests, a hugely noticeable departure from his Colbert Report character.)
Which brings us to the show's far more anticipated and publicized guest appearance - Republican presidential candidate, Governor Jeb Bush. Now, had this been an interview opposite his pundit persona it likely would have gone quite differently, but in no way is Colbert trying to 'stick it the man' from behind the desk of The Late Show. The interview's aim is to be informative as well as entertaining, and that's something Colbert handles with aplomb. He never really pushes Bush too hard on any particular issue (it isn't as if the former governor is in the hot seat), yet Colbert still manages to throw in a few barbs at (Jeb!) Bush's expense - just nothing mean-spirited.
The premiere's sign off was a grand musical affair, as will likely be a trend given Batiste's enthusiasm and Colbert's eagerness to sing along. It was a performance filled with fun guests, most notably Mavis Staples, Ben Folds and Buddy Guy. And though perhaps not quite the star-studded affair he went out with on Comedy Central, the musical finale serves as genuine reminder of Colbert's love of being in front of an audience.
The Late Show with Stephen Colbert is something new but familiar, the same but different. There are hints of the wackiness and pointed commentary Colbert displayed while hosting The Colbert Report, but it's been slightly mellowed, better to conform to a wider, more mainstream audience. But this isn't The Colbert Report-light and the premiere holds promise of only good and funny things to come. After all, this is merely one episode and Colbert surely has much more to offer.
The Late Show with Stephen Colbert airs weekday nights on CBS at 11:35/10:35c.