In April of 2014, right after it was announced that Stephen Colbert would be taking over CBS’s Late Show from retiring David Letterman, I made a few predictions. So far, five of the six have come true. I didn’t correctly pick the band leader, however Ben Folds did appear on the first episode.
Now that I’ve seen the first episode, I thought I’d make a few new observations…
1. This was the best first episode of a late night talk show since Letterman’s first episode of The Late Show. His only awkwardness seemed to be during the opening monologue and once he transitioned to behind the desk, he was much more comfortable. He even mentioned that was a lot of standing and he didn’t know how people did that. While he was no longer playing “the character,” the style of humor was very much the same as from The Colbert Report. If any regular bits are going to make the move over from The Report (such as The Word), I think they were wise to hold off on that for this episode.
2. The set is beautiful and feels more intimate than Letterman’s use of that space. With any late night show, there are three areas: desk, stage, band. Carson had the stage laid out in the order from left to right. For Late Night, Letterman switched the band and desk and kept that layout for the Late Show when they moved over. Colbert consulted Letterman before taking over and apparently one of the suggestions made was to have a different desk placement. It really seems to work better. The set as a whole looks great. A wonderful combination of old and new styles. Also, the band doesn’t seem so tethered to their area which I like.
3. Speaking of the band, John Batiste and Stay Human fits in with Colbert’s fun, jazzy style nicely. I liked Batiste and Colbert dancing around together as commercial breaks were ending. They seem to really be having fun together already. I don’t have much more to say about Batiste at this point, but I am anxious to see him do more as the show progresses.
4. As is typical at this point when a talk show host takes over from another talk show host, Colbert referenced David Letterman and acknowledged that he wasn’t replacing him. Colbert’s style of delivery comes off in an insincere sounding manner but this was the time on the show when he sounded the most sincere. It was one of the better tributes I’ve seen to “the previous guy.”
5. Right after tipping his hat to Letterman, he did something Letterman would never do…talk to the host of The Tonight Show. Letterman and Leno never made any sort of amends on either show. Colbert and Fallon clearly have no issues with one another as Fallon appears in two different spots in the episode. It was very well done and I hope the two do more crossovers like that.
6. Colbert has mentioned in podcasts and interviews that he’s going from making a half hour show to an hour show. And going from making fewer episodes in a year to more. Well, factor out all the commercials and I’m not sure they’ll have to write much more material. The worst part about this show were the excessive commercials. On The Report, the show had longer, uninterrupted comedy bits where Colbert could start out at point A, take you to point W and then march all the way to the point B he was originally aiming for. He could get into a rhythm and let a piece breathe. Last night, his comedy bits felt too short. The Oreo gag was hilarious, but would have been ten times funnier on The Report with more time.
This isn’t a problem unique to Colbert. When I watched the final days of Letterman, I realized these long blocks of commercials now appeared at the cost of more comedy. We used to have long chunks of time for the show opening. Dave or Conan or anyone else with a show would come out, do a monologue and still have time for an extended (sometimes up to 10 minutes) comedy bit. There’s no getting out of it now. Networks are greedy and the clips shared the next day by people who don’t watch the full shows need to be short.
So it’s up to Colbert and his team how to figure out how to navigate this. Does this mean dropping a guest? Maybe. Is it rush through monologue and give ‘desk comedy’ more time? Possibly. But something needs to happen or else Colbert will lose what makes him special. He’ll just be another late night host and John Oliver will be our primary source for next-day, sarcastic, contemplative commentary on current events.