The late night talk show is dead.
In a new entertainment era, they’re no longer the rare windows to celebrity and comedy newcomers they once were. The humor is safe, and its typical format feels stodgy and dated (for everything I don’t love about Fallon’s nightly BBF-athon, he deserves credit for bringing a little spontaneity back to late night). Late night talk shows feel important to culture because, well, late night talk shows have been important to culture. Now, it’s a relic. No one seems to watch late night; they watch the important YouTube clips the next day.
So with the late night talk show format being a corpse, Stephen Colbert seems to be having fun playing "Weekend at Bernie’s," bringing a little weird oddball blip to its pulse – at least judging by last night’s debut of "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert," formerly known as "The Late Show with David Letterman."
It may be goodbye to "Stephen Colbert" and hello to Stephen Colbert, but the first bit seemed to show the transformation is going pretty gracefully. The national anthem singing – complete with Jon Stewart cameo, natch – wasn’t high on real laughs, but it had Colbert’s odd mixture of droll earnestness.
That second part was clearly on display as soon as he emerged from the stage’s garage door for the first time. He was joyfully big eyed and almost as enthusiastic as the Colbert-chanting crazies in the audience (who can do us all a favor and calm the hell down for episode two and beyond) stiffly bounding and dancing around on stage like a human "Team America: World Police" puppet.
The big question coming into the night – other than what actual Stephen Colbert would be like – was what would he do for a monologue, one of the more archaic parts of the late night format and something Colbert never did on "The Colbert Report."
The answer ended up being … a monologue. It wasn’t a bad monologue, mind, but for a guy known for his satirical voice and wit, a standard stand-up monologue, hitting on easy targets like Willie Nelson (get this: He likes pot!) and the Ashley Madison leak with fairly safe punchlines. The gag involving CBS executive chief Leslie Moonves prepped with a lever to cut to "The Mentalist" was fun – partly because the first clip picked, involving some tense quill-tossing, was so dopey – but it also felt like The Necessary First Episode Self-Effacing Joke. For a selection that was criticized for being too predictable and too safe, the monologue was unfortunately exactly that.
I hope Colbert ditches the monologue at some point during this early run, because as soon as he parked himself behind his desk – "carved out of a single piece of desk" – he instantly took off, and "The Late Show" became his, already invested with a new kind of character. No, not Stephen Colbert the Megalomaniac Conservative Pundit but something pleasantly … off, a talk show host whose show keeps threatening to pop out of its cozy, expected seams (a good sign for a first episode).
The dorky self-reflexiveness teased itself with the announcer turning out to be Colbert himself and the audience submissions note turning into a passport renewal service. It reached its peak, though, with an extended Sabra product placement gag enforced by a demon-possessed goat skull. It went a little long, but it was just so wonderfully weird. In a late night game packed with canned bits of celebrity viral formula and mildly exhausted man on the street vignettes, it was refreshing to see something so overtly bizarre – even if it didn’t completely work. It could make for a great running gag – for Colbert and even more so for his corporate overseers looking for sponsors.
Even when his next segment threatened to go safe by taking aim at the nation’s bulleye Donald Trump, Colbert turned it into something fresh, fun and clever. In the cozy confines of a very "The Daily Show/Colbert Report"-esque desk-set monologue – complete with over-the-shoulder graphics – Colbert got all of his Trump mocking done in one swoop, wittily turning Trump’s "won’t eat Oreos" soundbite into a gag about indulging – and then binging – on a "cookie" of a joke. Points are docked, however, because I desperately wanted Oreos after the bit was done (CBS’s advertising department did their job and then some Tuesday night) and I had none, and I became very depressed.
The biggest surprise of the night, however, came during the interview segments – usually the background noise of the late night format. First, Colbert’s absurdist "talk show mocking talk show" humor came back in fine fashion during his interview with George Clooney.
An admittedly odd choice considering he had nothing particular to pitch – though the upcoming advertised movie "Our Brand Is Crisis" is Clooney-produced – the actor and Colbert made funny awkward banter about how they most certainly did not know each other (a slight jab at Fallon’s Taylor Swift-ian friendvertizing, mayhaps?) and cutting to clips from a movie that didn’t exist. Much like "Colbert Report" – the writing staff, unsurprisingly, is much the same – he’s clearly having a lot of fun mocking the format he’s working in, and I hope it continues.
Then came the highlight of the show: his interview with Jeb (!) Bush, oddly enough. And really, if "The Late Show" turned into Colbert just interviewing with the presidential candidates for the next few weeks, it could morph into appointment viewing. While maybe a touch overeager, Colbert flitted the line perfectly between having fun with his guest and prodding with some legitimate questions. In general, his interview style – now unstrained by his former persona’s dumbness – works really well; he’s easy-going and chummy, but not overly so, with sly fastballs of bite. You don’t often get to call the interview segments on late night shows worthwhile; last night, however, the interviews – namely Jeb’s – were some of the expected highlight of the entire debut.
As you’d expect from a first go-around, the show wasn’t pristine. Some gags went long, some of the format feels dustily traditional – it’ll be interesting to see what he does with a guest who DOES have something to sell – and it might take a bit of time for the tone to completely gel into something consistent. Also, the musical act – what could only described as a mass of music, featuring band leader Jon Baptiste and many cameos – was a little awkward, with plenty of side-eyed "Are you supposed to be singing now?" looks. There was a lot of sincere joy packed onto that stage though.
For his first show, however, "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" did a surprisingly strong job of making a seemingly deceased format pull a Terry Gilliam and turn out to be alive after all. Here’s to the sequel not being a "Weekend at Bernie’s II."
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.