“The Late Show with Stephen Colbert”: Shifting Sands

Biden

As I wrote when The Late Show with Stephen Colbert premiered last Tuesday — was it really such a short time ago? — late-night shows are evolving creatures. To judge them on their first episode is the equivalent of evaluating a new employee on his first day of work. To judge them after two weeks still isn’t entirely fair, but the nine Late Show episodes that have aired so far give a slightly more accurate picture of what the appeals and setbacks of this show are, might be and could become.

The standard caveat with the analysis that follows: The Late Show with Stephen Colbert will almost certainly look very different in six months’ time. Many of the people involved with making the show likely already have a sense of its flaws, even if they haven’t come up with practical fixes yet. These opinions are subject to change without warning.

First, five things I love about The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

It’s cautiously embraced format elasticity. Unlike every other host in the late-night landscape right now, Colbert doesn’t start with a traditional monologue. He does emerge from backstage and speak while standing onstage alone for five minutes or so, but he typically starts with a story, like the doozy about the legitimate possibility that the premiere was not going to air as scheduled, or makes a single joke that builds to a climax, like Thursday night’s mockery of CBS’ football affiliations and the artifice of late-night taping schedules. Eventually, Jon Batiste and Stay Human start tinkling away at their instruments, Colbert tells one more zinger and there’s a sharp cut to the (gorgeously designed) Late Show credits.

The atypical, a-topical monologue isn’t the only structural departure from the tried-and-true late-night format. On Wednesday’s show, Colbert welcomed second guest Carol Burnett on stage during the monologue and then wrapped up her appearance immediately after the credits, allowing for a sublime Jimmy Stewart impression from first-billed guest Kevin Spacey, who appeared for his full interview later. Instead of jamming the desk bits at the beginning and the interactions at the end, the show sometimes mixes the two together, sliding from an interview with Emily Blunt to a desk bit about the Supreme Court and then over to another interview with Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.

These format changes aren’t revolutionary, and it’s fine that they haven’t been heralded as such. But for all the hand-wringing about the staleness of the late-night format, it’s nice to see that Colbert and his team don’t feel entirely wedded to the rote rhythm of the late-night tradition. Mixing up the format in subtle ways also makes the experience of watching each episode more exciting, if only to observe when more changes happen. Colbert’s nowhere near the structural anarchy of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, but he hasn’t lacked for experimentation in his first two weeks.

2. The music selections have been on-point. Jon Batiste and Stay Human have mostly shied away from the kinds of goofy bits that would turn them into Roots-like personalities, but their playful jazz intros and outros differentiate the show from the more modern-infused music of its competitors. And the musical guests have been well-chosen, diverse and almost universally outstanding, from the “Everyday People” cameo-fest on the first night, Kendrick Lamar’s awe-inspiring medley on the second and the harmonious collaboration of Run the Jewels and TV on the Radio on the fifth.

3. When Colbert is paired with the right guest, the results are remarkable. I’m not the first, or the thousandth, to point to Colbert’s interview with Vice President Joe Biden as the highlight of his first two weeks of shows. But his talk with Tim Cook on night 5 was almost as incisive, revealing and emotionally open. And while some of his movie star one-on-ones have fallen flat (see below), his chat with Emily Blunt was substantive and charming. There’s hope yet that the “real” Stephen Colbert has as many interview tricks up his sleeve as his character did.

4. The first minute of the show is always a gleeful delight. I’m a sucker for some good old-fashioned high kicks.

5. It’s a work in progress. I might be in the minority, but I’m at peace with knowing that The Late Show with Stephen Colbert is still in the process of figuring itself out. There’s something fun about watching a creative team find its footing, particularly when the stakes are higher than they’ll likely ever be again.

Okay, no more Mr. Nice Guy. Here are five things that The Late Show with Stephen Colbert needs to work on:

Diversity and inclusiveness. The revelation that the show’s writers’ room is comprised of 17 men and two women does nothing to counteract the persistent narrative that late-night television is a man’s game in a way that it does not need to and should not be. This week’s Vanity Fair cover featuring all of the current late-night hosts put that reality in an even harsher perspective.

There’s nothing Stephen Colbert can do to solve this problem. But there are ways to address it: more women in the writers’ room, more women onscreen and more diverse guests in general. Colbert didn’t have a non-white interviewee until Wednesday night’s show featuring new Daily Show host Trevor Noah and United Nations general secretary Ban Ki-Moon. Those aren’t great optics for a man who should probably know be better, or at least visibly try harder to show that he does.

Non-marquee interviews. Biden and Stephen Colbert are ideally matched in terms of temperament, subject matter and interests. Many of Colbert’s guests won’t be, and some of them already haven’t been. Maybe it was first-night jitters, but there wasn’t a hint of rapport between Colbert and George Clooney on night one, and things got downright icy between the host and Tesla wizard Elon Musk for no apparent reason. The A-list will give way to the B-list as the months roll on. Colbert needs to find a way in to interviews he doesn’t care about…or he needs to pull a Letterman and just own up to not caring.

colbert_hunger_games

Variety of comedy sources. The overemphasis on Donald Trump in the current comedy landscape is a conversation for another time. But I almost wish Colbert and his team would skip past the obvious Trump jokes and talk about the 2016 election in slightly more substantive ways. Or better yet, don’t talk about the election. I don’t think there’s been a single Colbert Late Show yet that hasn’t had a segment involving the election. There are many other things going on in the world. Make fun of them!

Direction and camerawork. It’s improved since night one, but the show might need to undergo some visual tweaks in the months ahead. With his blue suits, Colbert doesn’t really pop out of the busy background during his opening monologue, the desk is pretty standard and the camerawork during the premiere’s musical performance and at scattered other times has been downright inept. It’s improved somewhat since then, but the show’s production team is still clearly figuring out how to keep up the pace.

Signature comedy bits. Most of Colbert’s solo bits have featured him seated at the desk riffing on current events, arguably presenting a watered-down version of his most acidic pieces of social commentary on The Colbert Report. There are aspects of the late-night tradition in which Colbert hasn’t dabbled so far: man-on-the-street segments, games, musical interludes. Those are Fallon’s territory and it seems like Colbert wants to steer clear of his friendly competitor, at least initially. But it wouldn’t hurt to take a few of these tricks, or other ones, for a spin.

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