Colbert's Style Proves Singular in Late Show Debut (REVIEW)

Matt Roush
The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS

It's going to be fun getting to know the real Stephen Colbert. As he told Jeb (or should we shout "JEB!") Bush on the frenetic opening night of CBS's splashy new Late Show: "I used to play a narcissistic conservative pundit. Now I'm just a narcissist."

All those Colbert photos staring down from the gorgeous new set's vaulted stained-glass-looking ceiling would seem to back him up on that. Except this Colbert, shedding the blowhard-buffoon character he played so dexterously for a decade on Comedy Central, is too genuine in his enthusiasms (including musical), too exuberant in his obvious delight to be back in the game, too quick in his sharp ironic wit, to be dismissed that easily.

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The first-night jitters were obvious, including clunky editing of the interviews (Bush's felt especially truncated), uneven pacing and an overall manic quality that most truly paid off during Colbert's much-anticipated Donald Trump riff. Gorging helplessly on Oreos in response to Trump's stand against "Big Cookie" (aka Nabisco), he blurted, "Someone on television should have a modicum of dignity and it should be me!" Fat chance.

The Oreo gag would have been even funnier if Colbert hadn't just a few minutes earlier been scarfing down hummus as part of a bizarre, ill-conceived and overextended product-placement sketch that involved a cursed amulet. "How can I be of service, oh infernal master?" he queried in mock terror. (Presumably not addressing CBS's sales department.)

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS

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On the plus side, Colbert's rapport with glowy first guest George Clooney was charmingly self-effacing, and got even better with Bush, who he coached on how to pause for applause—"and then hit them with what they don't want to hear." When Bush proudly referred to his Florida reputation as "Veto Corleone," Colbert smilingly quipped, "You know he is an anti-hero in that movie?"

A rousing jam session during which Colbert joined in with swinging music director Jon Batiste and his band Stay Human, plus guests including Mavis Staples, ended the show on a high note.

Clearly, Colbert's Late Show won't revolutionize the late-night talk format as much as eventually tailor it to his own sensibilities, promising substance as well as silliness. And a genuine respect for the tradition he's upholding. Colbert was effusive in his praise for his trailblazing predecessor David Letterman, he shared a friendly moment with time-slot rival Jimmy Fallon in a video salute (and later a final locker-room gag). Even Jon Stewart, the superstar who introduced him to late-night shenanigans on The Daily Show, got in on the act, appearing in Colbert's pre-taped national-anthem opening, taking off a catcher's mask to shout, "Play ball!"

The ball is now in Colbert's court, and I look forward to seeing where he runs with it.