Midway through the first episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the host did a bit in which he both satirized the media’s obsessive coverage of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and admitted that he’s powerless to avoid doing his own obsessive coverage. Colbert promised his audience he would only eat one Oreo, symbolizing one Trump joke. But the Oreos were so enticing, and the pleasure from ingesting them so rewarding, that he couldn’t help but indulge in one, then another, then half the box at once, and then a second box.
This bit was superficially about Trump, but it’s also a symbol of what Colbert’s trying to do, and what he’ll have to do, with this new show. For nine years on Comedy Central, Colbert cultivated an unprecedented strain of politically-infused comedy so draining that he’s told multiple interviewers that he had planned to leave the show even if CBS hadn’t come calling. But replacing David Letterman, in timeslot if not in substance, is an opportunity for Colbert to flex different muscles and achieve a childhood dream.
Unfortunately for Colbert, viewers, particularly fans of The Colbert Report, can’t feel the burn of Colbert’s flexed muscles, and they don’t much care about his childhood dreams. They want Colbert to do for CBS and The Late Show what he did for the late-night cable landscape: subvert, expand, reinvent. Anything less than a hard left-turn from the tired tropes of network late-night (monologue, desk bits, guest, guest, musical guest, good night, rinse, repeat) is bound to disappoint viewers who see Colbert primarily as a disrupter.
By many accounts, Colbert doesn’t see himself that way. If he did, he wouldn’t have gone to CBS, one of the least disrupt-able media platforms possible, given its longstanding tradition of big-tent success. And now that he has, he’s challenged with finding a middle ground between the explosive departure from the format that his most ardent fans crave and the safe extension of the brand and formula that network executives and more casual late-night viewers are seeking. As he said on his first show, David Letterman is irreplaceable. But so is The Colbert Report. It would have been unreasonable to expect the first Colbert Late Show to wow in the same way that the first Report did. It’s a different set of obligations, and a much bigger set of pressures – stiff competition with timeslot rivals Jimmys Fallon and Kimmel, assuming the mantle of the most revered television host of the last three decades, distracting viewers from the unlimited number of viewing options at their disposal.
So how did he do? If the Internet consensus is to be trusted: extraordinary, just fine, meh, disastrous. Point being: it’s far too early to make judgments about The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. We can look at the show in front of us and point to moments or choices that seem to point towards the future. But we’ll look awfully silly six months from now when half those choices have been rethought. Who knows if Jon Batiste and Stay Human are going to continue to play only jazz (extremely well)? Who knows if he’ll start every show with a monologue, then the main titles, then a desk bit? Who knows if he’ll learn to let his guests finish more than a sentence or two before cutting in? Who knows if the mysticism of last night’s amulet bit, and the accompanying product placement, are anomalies or representative of the show’s brand of humor?
What we do know is that first shows are hard. After all, Jimmy Fallon was a nervous wreck on his first Late Night, and not much better on his first Tonight Show, and he’s doing fine now (History of Rap 6 tonight!). We also know that Colbert is a comedy genius, an improv maestro and a fiercely intelligent observer of politics and culture. He showed flashes of all three last night, amid jangly first-night nerves and obvious editing to get the show down to an appropriate running time. (The Jeb Bush interview in particular felt like it could have been extraordinary with more room to breathe. Additional excerpts are available online.) Even if you wanted to love Colbert’s first night and hated it, a reversal might be just around the corner. Because tonight, for the second time, Stephen Colbert will host The Late Show. And again tomorrow night, for the third time. And on and on. Come back in six months, and maybe we’ll be able to see what that show really looks like under his tenure. For now, sit back and watch him figure it out.