And so it came to pass Tuesday night, after nine months of gestation and preparation, of podcasts and promos, that Stephen Colbert, late of “The Colbert Report,” became (only) the second host of CBS’ “Late Show,” created for David Letterman in 1993. And it was good, it was very, very good.
There were a few small glitches and creaks, I will admit in the name of critical scrupulousness and credibility, but you don’t leave a great party complaining about a crack in the bowl the potato chips were in. It started strong, ended strong, and in between it was mostly ... strong.
In moving from a basic-cable comedy network to the top spot in the late-night lineup of a major broadcast network, Colbert is not just trading desks or getting a bigger room. Where prime-time TV series come and go, at times so quickly you can feel the breeze, big-time late night shows change hosts once a generation, if that. It is not so much a hiring as an investiture.
After an opening filmed piece, a supercut of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that featured the host singing with citizens on a baseball diamond, a bowling alley, in factory and field -- without irony, but partially to get to Jon Stewart’s “Play ball!” -- he bounded onstage. (He is a good bounder, as “Colbert Report” fans know.) He twirled, shared some high kicks with bandleader Jon Batiste of the New Orleans Batistes, as an audience that could not have been more in his corner chanted his name.
And at last, as will be the case going forward, he was able to take it all in unfiltered, to accept the love without the pretense of it feeding his self-love. There were echoes of “The Colbert Report" -- “Hello, nation,” he said in opening (adding, “I don’t know what that means”). A bit on Donald Trump could have played without change on his former show. There was a tribute to David Letterman, the “high pencil mark on the door frame we all have to measure ourselves against.”
The choice of Colbert to follow Letterman always felt sensible. He’s an Emmy winner, a Time magazine cover boy, and, seemingly, everything else that has a cover. And he shares many of Letterman’s best qualities: curiosity, intelligence, seriousness, a sense of the absurd, a speedy mind, a nose for phoniness.
He is unlike Letterman, too, in ways that suggest new possibilities -- younger, though at 51 still the oldest host in late night; less acerbic; less haunted. He seems too smart and sensitive never to have had a dark night of the soul, but self-loathing does not seem to be one of his challenges.
Jeb Bush and George Clooney were his first guests, a yin-yang booking that seemed to say, “Whatever you might have expected from all those years of liberal-skewing, conservative-skewering satirical faux punditry, the new Colbert would not bow down to your expectations.” The real key to his intentions seemed to be in the night’s closing number, in which bandleader Batiste was joined by (among others) Colbert, Mavis Staples, Buddy Guy, the Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard and Ben Folds, in a performance of Sly Stone’s “Everyday People.”
“We’ve got to live together,” everybody sang. Colbert has acknowledged that he’s another white man in a late-night field dominated by them -- a fact that his singing with Staples made quite clear. But he is not making it all about himself.
That didn’t keep him from asking Bush some straight questions about policy; and if he didn’t press him as hard as Letterman might have, he didn’t just let him go. “I’m going to say something that’s heretic I guess,” said Bush. “I don’t think Barack Obama has bad motives,” only bad ideas.
“Oh, you were so close to getting me to clap,” said Colbert, who in the “spirit of civility” admitted to Bush, “There is a non-zero chance that I would vote for you.”
They joked a little about the pictures of presidents that sometimes grace schoolrooms. “It’s a little Stalinist, isn’t it?” said Colbert, reminding us that he is a different cat in network late night.
The Clooney interview that preceded it took a second to get on its feet, wobbling between seriousness and shtick. At last it relaxed into a bit in which Clooney’s lack of a product to promote let them invent one, a film called “Decision Strike.” There were clips.
Will it be a hit?
It’s a question that will be asked, and unanswered; but seems for the moment beside the point. There will be none of that Leno-Conan business. CBS is a patient, not a panicky, network. Their turnover is slow.
Network president and CEO Les Moonves, who hired him as “the only logical successor to Dave” -- and was in the audience Tuesday night as part of a joke about switching the show back to reruns of “The Mentalist” -- has himself been there for 20 years; at 65, he can take the long view.
But even from Tuesday, the view looks good.
“It is not easier necessarily to approach something with energy and vitality than with dread and morbidity,” Colbert said in one of the podcasts posted in the run-up to the premiere. “It is only better.”
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