Early in the first episode of Late Show With Stephen Colbert, the new host paid tribute to David Letterman, his predecessor who had a major influence on Colbert and late-night television in general. “It’s possible to lose sight to how much Dave changed comedy. The comedy landscape is so thickly planted with the forest of Dave’s ideas that we sometimes need to remind ourselves just how tall he stands,” Colbert said.
Colbert opened his Letterman tribute by expressing his gratitude to a 22-year Late Show veteran – Letterman’s stage manager Biff Henderson – before honoring the comedy legend himself.
“I bow to no man, my fandom of David Letterman. I am first generation Letterman fan. I started college the same year Dave started Late Night, and not having the fullest social calendar, I was frequently available to Dave at 12:30,” Colbert said. “So just for the record, I am not replacing David Letterman. His creative legacy is a high pencil mark on a doorframe that we all have to measure ourselves against. But we will try to honor his achievement by doing the best show we can and, occasionally, making the network very mad at us.”
Late Show With Stephen Colbert was then momentarily pushed off the airwaves by a repeat of The Mentalist, as CBS honcho Leslie Moonves, who was sitting front row, didn’t quite agree with the last sentence of Colbert’s Letterman tribute.
In August, Colbert revealed that he spent one of Letterman’s final Late Show episodes tailing the longtime host and seeking his advice. “I asked him, ‘Do you mind me asking you these questions?’ He said ‘No. Nobody ever asked me these questions before,'” Colbert said of his talk with Letterman. “It was a very gracious way for him to say that only the person sitting in that chair would care about the answers.” Letterman also showed Colbert how to use the freight elevator that connects the host’s office to the stage floor, something Colbert viewed as a torch-passing moment.
It was on Letterman’s advice that Colbert also swapped where the house band performed; while Paul Shaffer was situated to the right of Letterman’s desk as the host faced the audience, Colbert has Jon Batiste and Stay Human to the left on the refurbished Ed Sullivan Theater stage.