We know his voice. We know his face. But we don’t know him, and that’s what makes Stephen Colbert’s new gig on The Late Show so weird and exciting. Who the hell is this guy? He’s been in the public eye all these years, playing America’s favorite right-wing blowhard asshole on The Colbert Report. But without his character to hide behind, this is a Stephen Colbert we’ve never met. It’s like if Jim Henson quit The Muppet Show at its peak so he could host his own talk show without using his Kermit voice. We haven’t seen the mask behind the mask, so this is the extremely strange case of a network handing off a high-profile franchise to a complete unknown. Colbert’s Late Show is bumpy, eccentric, unpredictable — everything late shows are designed not to be.
“This is network TV — the big leagues,” Colbert announced in his first week as the official replacement for David Letterman. “Some of you fear that I’ll be corrupted by my newfound authority. So let me assure you: You will never be able to prove it.” Although his Late Show has had plenty of failed moments so far, it’s truly bold television, whether that means Kendrick Lamar doing a ferocious live “King Kunta” or Joe Biden quoting Kierkegaard, or Paul Simon playing a bitter dude in a Paul Simon tribute band, grousing, “Yeah, Paul Simon is a bit of a jerk.” Art Garfunkel, what’s good?