I will spoil a few things here for you--the Late Show With Stephen Colbert premiered tonight and it starts off strong. It's worth watching if you're thinking about looking at what's on your DVR or online. This is the debut of one of the most important cultural programs this year and I'm just as excited as anyone else. The long wait for this show was difficult, to say the least, but there was no point in putting it out there until now. The audience for this show is going to skew a lot younger than people realize, and I feel like it's going to be difficult to keep up.
Having said that, I will note that the cold open was nicely done. The ideas that flow out of this show are going to challenge people to keep up, and there are visual cues that will keep you from missing The Colbert Report. The first bit Colbert did hearkened back to the visual format of the old show and played to a strength he has with the language. This is important because Colbert has not abandoned the skills or abilities that got him the job in the first place.
The Ed Sullivan Theater looks amazing. The set was flipped around specifically to avoid comparisons to the Letterman version. There is an awkwardness, though, when guests appear center stage and cross in front of Colbert to get to their seat--you'll see this and it will throw you off because you have long been accustomed to an entrance from left to right.
Visually, though, this is a show that celebrates the past of the host and the power of New York City. Colbert doesn't make the "Leno mistake" of failing to acknowledge the previous host of the show he inherits. Jay Leno debuted his own show with a screaming harpy (look it up) as a producer who refused to allow him to pay tribute to Johnny Carson. This is one of the greatest gaffes in late night television history, and Colbert is too smart to do it. Think also of how Jimmy Fallon had Joan Rivers on his show--all the curses are going away with style.
Colbert gets weird, and for that you will have to ride it out. If weird humor isn't your thing, you're going to make comparisons in your sleep to Conan O'Brien. And then you're going to wake up with the fossil of an extinct species of bird hanging out of your mouth--don't say I didn't warn you.
Clooney was good, and Jeb Bush was able to speak once Colbert realized that he was really giving the guy a hard time--you could really see the fear Bush had when it was apparent that no one is ever going to forget the family name. What you'll see in the Clooney part was inspired fun; what you'll see when Colbert gives Bush the full force of his intellect will give every politician in this country pause. If you're not fast, Colbert will bury you. Consultants everywhere who have some measure of control over their candidates will not let them do Colbert, no matter what. And it was no wonder that Hillary Clinton wasn't there tonight--far too risky. She'll have to do this show and she'll have to be absolutely perfect.
Musically, John Batiste is the anti-Paul Shaffer. Here's an actual jazz musician on an American stage for what seems to be the first time in ages. He doesn't have a pop or rock sensibility--he is an entertainer with a strong musical vocabulary and a great band behind him, bringing the sound of New Orleans with them. They have him untethered and wandering the stage--a great visual to begin with as he settles in and starts to really find the music this show needs to present.
Will it last? Will CBS support this show if there is a struggle for ratings? I can't imagine a scenario where they wouldn't, but this is the unforgiving world of late night television. Nobody phones it in anymore, and this is the beginning of a new era. Who will fall? Will they finally pull the plug on Conan? Will ABC realize that Jimmy Kimmel can't compete? Will Jimmy Fallon hold on and find a place once Colbert starts to eat into everyone's ratings?
Why am I hungry for Sabra hummus?