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?
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!