Colbert’s Biden interview was fearless shit — one of the most intense moments seen on TV all year, with two maudlin Irishmen talking about death and grief for 20 minutes. It could have been sappy: a Very Special Episode in the first week? But both the host and the Vice President rose to the occasion, upping each others’ emotional ante in ways neither could have fully seen coming, discussing the deaths in their families, sometimes starting sentences they couldn’t finish. It would have been rare to see a conversation like this anywhere on TV — as if it wouldn’t be rare in real life. And this was a late-night corporate chat show, with a politician talking to a comedian. It’s hard to imagine Letterman holding up either half of this discussion, or wanting to.
Colbert might be the new guy in town, but he’s a decade older than Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers. At 51, he’s also older than Jay Leno, Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel were when they took over. Those hosts had spent years on high-profile comedy shows honing the personas they’d bring to late night. When Fallon and Meyers took their seats behind the desk, they turned their opening nights into mission statements, so the audience would know what to expect. But Colbert, almost on principle, didn’t. His first night had his fiasco of an interview with Jeb Bush, proving that Colbert is not only new to this whole “sucking up” thing, he’s inept at it. Even Leno would have done an edgier job.
The chat-show format might look old-fashioned, but it’s also unkillable. These franchises are the cruise ships of network TV. Colbert is already joking about what a stagnant enterprise he’s locked himself into. “I’m sitting now,” he declared from behind his desk. “Before I was standing. That’s why it’s called a variety show.” Yet he’s getting off to an impressive start, mostly because he resists settling on any consistent tone or style. He might have retired his old character, but he’s still puzzling out his new characters, seeing which ones work for him and which ones fail. And CBS is clearly giving him time to develop an audience with his own eccentric style. He’s doing something different with the formula, and we really don’t know where he’s going with this, and that’s what makes his Late Show fascinating so far. Viva variety!