It’s damn near unusual for an entertainer as popular and successful as Stephen Colbert to come out of a decade-long series run without earning at least a few detractors. By virtue of his originality in form and mission, The Colbert Report headliner made of himself one of television’s most favored names, ascending steadily from cult phenomenon to mainstream giant. The achievement of latter plateau earned Colbert his hosting gig on a different kind of late night TV, which kicked off Tuesday night with the premiere of the Late Show with Stephen Colbert after what felt like millennia of anticipation. Although Colbert didn’t close his inceptive hour without plenty to smile about, the episode marks the first time in ages that the superhuman television star met with backlash.
Anyone keeping a close eye on Twitter during Colbert’s dog and pony show must have caught at least a few barbs about his shaky monologue, overwhelming set design, or choppy celebrity interview with George Clooney. Some in this community excused the weaker parts of the performance as “first night jitters,” or kinks the host would doubtlessly work out before long. Others, however, leapt to comparisons with Conan O’Brien’s brief tenure on The Tonight Show, prognosticating the very same fate for the Comedy Central vet.
Naturally, this antipathy was balanced out by enough praise, fueled either by genuine amusement or holdover glee from the Report days. Either way, Colbert didn’t disappoint everyone. But seeing any negative sentiment attached to the Colbert name isn’t something to which we’re accustomed. Of course, we’re not dealing with quite the same Colbert anymore.
Truly, Colbert felt most at home during segments like his parody of the media’s overconsumption of Donald Trump coverage, and his absurdist delivery of product placement by way of a cursed relic. What’s more, Colbert’s interview with Jeb Bush ran with far greater fluidity and life force than did his prior chat with Clooney, which survived principally on meatless patter. It was opposite Clooney that we saw a Colbert we didn’t quite expect: one carrying the late night hosting torch with too tight a grip.
The marriage of cursed relic sketches and pseudo-schmaltzy celebrity chitchat is not a surprising benefactor of mixed reception. Certain elements of the program indicate that Colbert wishes to preserve his magnetic weirdness even in the face of an audience not universally willing to digest it. But other facets suggest that he’s highly conscious of this new breed of viewership, perhaps looking to appease the lot with the traditional bloodless banter they’ve come to expect from first guest interviews.
Many defenders of the hour were wise to point out that few new late night shows, The Colbert Report included, kicked off immediately with an adroit understanding of their ideal tenors. Having spent the past decade observing the many talents of showman Colbert, we can predict with confidence that he'll find his footing one way or the other, be it closer to the Report end of the spectrum or that of late night tradition. While we have yet to see what form Colbert's Late Show image will take, we have at least one thing to go on: No matter how tame and tepid certain elements of the premiere may have been, no other host would have employed a cursed relic to sell hummus on his first night. That's a good sign.
Images: CBS (3)