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The Late Show with Stephen Colbert review: new digs, same meta-comedy | Television & radio | The Guardian

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Stephen Colbert

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert review: new digs, same meta-comedy

Colbert worked hard to shed his Comedy Central image but his old persona crept into his CBS debut alongside guests George Clooney and Jeb Bush

Stephen Colbert makes his debut as host of CBS’s The Late Show.
Stephen Colbert

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert review: new digs, same meta-comedy

Colbert worked hard to shed his Comedy Central image but his old persona crept into his CBS debut alongside guests George Clooney and Jeb Bush

Brian Moylan

@brianjmoylan

Wednesday 9 September 2015 03.58 EDT Last modified on Tuesday 5 September 2017 16.37 EDT

From the very opening moments of The Late Show, it was obvious its host was trying to put aside any memory of “Stephen Colbert”, the character that fronted The Colbert Report on Comedy Central for a decade.

He wore a suit that was three shades of blue too electric and was sporting a smile that was far too broad. He was also doing Wonder Woman spins with reckless abandon, something his bloviating alter-ego never would have endured. At one point in the broadcast, he even joked: “I used to play a narcissistic Republican pundit. Now I’m just a narcissist.”

Just because his persona was different doesn’t mean the old humor of the Colbert Report was missing. If the Report was a caricature of a talking-head program, the new Late Show was at its best when channelling that same meta-humor, making fun of (and deconstructing) the conventions of a talk show. And in case anyone was missing the Colbert of old, there was still enough of a political bent to make this the late night show that tackles hard news better than any of its competitors.

But first we got a brief tour of his new digs, a dome projected with two dozen likenesses of the host, alongside a cursed amulet. This bit was truly bizarre, with Colbert explaining how he got the job by making a deal with an ancient demon who demanded he make regular sacrifices in order to maintain his perch. The beast was clamoring to be paid, said Colbert, who tearfully placated it with product placement.

This was an inspired piece of showmanship and actually made me a little bit fonder of Sabra roasted red pepper hummus. Whether it was all a joke or “native advertising”, as the kids on the web call it, we’ll never know – at least not until the next time the amulet demands to be heeded.

A segment devoted entirely to Donald Trump, the lowest-hanging fruit in the comedy world at the moment, didn’t fare as well. Likening Trump jokes to Oreos and junk food, Colbert allowed himself to tell a whole series of them, only to point out that there has to be something better to talk about – that these anecdotes are just empty calories. It was all a bit disingenuous – like having your cake and eating your Oreos too.

Facebook Twitter Pinterest George Clooney after his Late Show appearance. Photograph: Callahan/REX Shutterstock

A rather awkward interview with George Clooney, who, it was made clear several times, was not there to promote a project, turned out to have been intentionally awkward. Both men ran out of things to say to each other and sat in stony silence for a few moments before inventing a fake movie for Clooney to plug, complete with clips obviously recorded earlier.

This is what Colbert has been doing all along: taking the things he sees in the media landscape, following them to their logical and absurd conclusions, then repackaging them with clever observation to render them ludicrously harmless.

It smells not only of vintage Colbert Report, but also the early days of David Letterman, who was making a meta-talk show because Johnny Carson wouldn’t let him have any of the regular set pieces. But like a stepfather talking to his new stepchildren, Colbert went out of his way to let us know that he wasn’t replacing Letterman.

In fact, he has the opposite problem of Letterman, so often criticised for seeming chilly and aloof during interviews. Colbert talks a little bit too much, making it hard for his guests to get a word in.

With Clooney it was obviously a gag, but opposite his other guest, Jeb Bush, it came across as nerves or over-eagerness, like a golden retriever who’d fetched a felled duck out of the reeds. Add to that his odd tic of chewing on his pen a little too much, and Colbert seemed like a novice who couldn’t contain himself.

We’ll have to check in several months from now to see how his mile-high view of the talkshow translates when he has five outings a week and not nearly as much time to plan them. This opener was by no means a perfect show, but there were enough really inventive jokes to make Colbert already seem like an innovator. And he sure offers an interesting worldview that we’re not getting from either of the Jimmys.

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