Much has been said about Stephen Colbert’s move from Comedy Central over to late night network television. For a Peabody winning journalist, some even viewed the move as something of a downgrade for Colbert, given the limitations of the format he moved into. The structure of late night TV has been roughly the same since the days of Johnny Carson, with things only really beginning to shift even slightly in the last couple years. With a personality as vibrant and intelligent as Colbert’s, there’s been a fair amount of buzz surrounding his Late Show debut, with much of it heralding it as the beginning of a new era.
The first episode is officially in the books, so now we’re left to break down the elements that worked, what didn’t, and just how much (if at all) Colbert will be diverting from the format of his late night contemporaries. The show itself went as smoothly as it could have. In singular moments, Colbert subverted common tropes of the trade, made most evident when he gifted his inaugural guest George Clooney with a paperweight with “We Don’t Know Each Other” etched into the surface. As Vulture said in their review of the episode, it was “a disarming acknowledgment of the same artificiality and insincerity that critics of the ossified talk-show format have been griping about.”
At other times though, Colbert’s Late Show fell into comfortable clichés shared with every other host on the airwaves: The live band led by an affable personality in Jon Batiste, the “just not famous enough to be cool” musical guests, and the couch that played host to the celebrity guest of the night all figured into this. In the midst of all this, there were flashes of the Colbert of old, most evident during the 5-minute sequence devoted entirely to making fun of Donald Trump.
The sum total of the new Late Show’s premiere for the most part was positive, with plans in the works giving us plenty of reasons to be excited. The upcoming slate of guests shows a commitment to better, more meaningful conversations, peppered with people like Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. This is really the territory that The Late Show can set itself apart from its late night competition, that typically only talk to actors looking to plug their latest movies. Colbert’s background as a political satirist plays heavily into his expertise and willingness to go beyond the typical banal conversations that are most common of the format, and will serve him well in attempts to stand out from the crowd.
Vulture‘s review of the episode goes on to astutely note the biggest advantage Colbert has over hosts like Jimmy Fallon and Conan O’Brien: “He’s an actor.” The guy has spent years as a caricature of an O’Reilly-esque conservative host, and only now is getting the chance to put his true talents on display. The late night format is one that demands little in the way of depth from its host, with most gaining a large majority of their fame sitting behind the desk. With Colbert, we already have a fully made celebrity who doesn’t need the flash and video virality that his competition requires to be noticed. Rather, we have a host who can spread his wings and truly deliver us an intelligent yet entertaining Late Show unlike anything we’ve ever seen.
Further episodes will shed more light as to what’s in store for the immediate future of the show, but early returns are at the very least promising. Subversion in many ways is the purest form of creation, and in that philosophy Colbert stands to turn late night television completely on its head. Soon, we’ll see if the world is ready for what will represent the biggest shift in the format in almost half a century.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickNorthwest
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