Ever since Stephen Colbert was tapped to replace David Letterman as the host of Late Show in April 2014, he has insisted that he wasn’t bringing his blowhard faux-conservative character from The Colbert Report to his new gig — and that we wouldn’t miss him anyway. In countless interviews, Colbert would explain that what made his Comedy Central show (and its fictional host) so indelible was the real Stephen Colbert, whom we would soon get to see a lot more of.
Hammering home that message seemed to be one of the principal focuses of last night's premiere of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert — the other, naturally, was making people laugh. The new host succeeded on both fronts — maybe not as confidently as on his old show, but with enough consistency that even though "Stephen Colbert" is gone, Stephen Colbert is more than adequate compensation. After all, he's been there all along.
From the start, the premiere teased our expectations of which Colbert we'd get. The pre-taped opening found him singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" with different people around the country, the sort of patriotic gesture the Report prankster pundit-in-charge would have appreciated. (And my, doesn't that umpire look familiar.) But when he bounded onto the stage of the refurbished Ed Sullivan Theater, greeted by fans chanting "Stephen! Stephen!" like on the old show, his smile suggested an acknowledgment of this odd juxtaposition between his former show and this still-unformed new one. The line was only further blurred when he cheekily told the crowd, "Hello, Nation" in the same tone as in the Report days.
Soon, though, it became obvious that this was no character — partly because the blowhard conservative would never have been this nervous. A charming jitteriness was apparent from Colbert as he worked his way through his first monologue, some nerves showing when he fidgeted with his glasses or turned anxiously to his bandleader, jazz musician Jon Batiste, as if needing a little reassurance. "With this show, I begin the search for the real Stephen Colbert," he dutifully informed the audience, adding "I just hope I don’t find him on Ashley Madison," providing the sort of wan, vaguely topical late-night one-liner that any of his competitors could dole out just as easily. Colbert seemed sincere when he later made his way over to his desk and declared with relief, "I gotta say: It feels good to sit down. All that standing I just did over there? I don’t know how people do it."
But after shaking off some butterflies, the host settled into his rhythm by drawing on The Colbert Report's great strengths, none of which relied on his doppelganger. He deadpanned beautifully off supporting characters, like CBS head honcho Leslie Moonves, who was watching from the front row with a dial that would switch Late Show to reruns of The Mentalist if things weren't working. (Cue several snippets of the primetime detective in action.) After showing us around his stage — which included iconic Report mementos such as Captain America's shield and the sentimental keepsake of the pennant Colbert's recently deceased mother got when she attended Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963 — he casually mentioned his prized ancient cursed amulet, which soon formed the centerpiece of a perfectly absurd bit about product placement and Sabra hummus. Whether recapping Donald Trump's most ridiculous sound bites as he binged on Oros or shouting out longtime director "Jimmy" Hoskinson to cut to a particular shot (another Report callback), his version vibrated with the same giddy pleasure Letterman's old fans felt when that late-night icon seamlessly transitioned from NBC to CBS: Here we have an exciting, brand new show, which feels just like the old one we loved.
This Colbert was a warmer, friendlier M.C. — perhaps due to a self-conscious need to underline the dissimilarities between himself and his conservative character. When he was interacting with the crowd, wishing his friendly rival Jimmy Fallon good luck, and doing bits, the difference was surprisingly, pleasingly negligible. (And when Colbert launched into a heartfelt tribute to Letterman's comedic stature — "His creative legacy is a high pencil-mark on a door frame that we all have to measure ourselves against" — it was indistinguishable from the times in the past when Stephen's mask slipped.)
But a more jarring transition occurred while watching Colbert interview guests. No longer portraying an anti-intellectual boob in these playful interrogations, he didn't seem particularly smooth talking to George Clooney, although the host did get off a good gag when he gave the movie star a wedding present — a Tiffany paperweight that read, "I Don't Know You." (A scripted bit about Clooney not having a movie to hawk led to a phony trailer for an imaginary action-thriller called Decision Strike that felt like Late Show's sop to the going-viral obsession in contemporary late-night.)
As for presidential hopeful Jeb Bush, Colbert's chumminess no doubt prompted Report fans to wonder what hijinks might have occurred if the former Florida governor had stopped by the old Comedy Central gig. But the booking felt like an intentional indication his Late Show will be open to both political parties — and it didn't prevent Colbert from landing a nicely pointed question on his guest with an offhand grace. After seemingly innocently introducing Bush to his own brother sitting in the crowd, whom he loves but disagrees with plenty on politics, Colbert asked, "Without in any way diminishing your love for your brother, in what ways do you politically differ from your brother George?" Even better, Colbert wouldn't let Bush get away with just an innocuous "I'm much better-looking" answer.
Despite the inevitable rough spots and seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time misfires — Jon Batiste and his backing band Stay Human led a perfunctory, overlong jam on Sly and the Family Stone's "Everyday People," joined by everyone from Mavis Staples to Ben Folds to Brittany Howard to Colbert himself — this first Late Show was marked by relaxed good cheer and a real generosity of spirit. Opening with a cameo from Jon Stewart, the man who helped launch Colbert's career, the episode acknowledged from the start how CBS's new host had gotten to this place in his career. The new Late Show host honored his past, but he didn't seem chained down by it. When Bush sat down for his segment, the former governor commented that, although there were a lot of pictures of Colbert around the stage — especially on his faux-stained-glass dome — there weren’t nearly as many as he expected. Without missing a beat, Colbert responded, "I used to play a narcissistic conservative pundit — now I'm just a narcissist." It's great to have him back.