Nation, it’s official. Stephen Colbert has transitioned from his narcissistic conservative pundit character to classy late night host. The transition has by no means been smooth and is not yet complete, but he’s well on his way.
Here’s a look back at some of the best and worst moments from his first week.
BEST: The Jeb Bush side-eye
In the Late Show‘s premiere episode, Colbert showed that he has brought his signature interview style to the new stage: lampooning people to their faces. In his interview with Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush, Colbert managed to strike a smart balance between challenging the Florida governor and giving him a chance to be a little bit human. After pointing out his own brother in the audience, and expressing love for him despite differences of opinion, Colbert rounded on Bush, asking him, “Without in any way diminishing your brother, in what ways do you politically differ from your brother, George?” Cue the Bush side-eye, and a hearty audience laugh.
BEST: Tribute to David Letterman
Colbert began his tenure at the Late Show desk with an eloquent tribute to David Letterman.
“It’s possible to lose sight of 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. So just for the record, I’m not replacing David Letterman. His creative legacy is a high pencil mark on a door frame that we all have to measure ourselves against.”
WORST: Both Episode 2 Interviews
Scarlett Johansson is a charming lady. She flew in from Paris to greet Stephen on the second night of his show, and he proceeded to make awkward French accent jokes, awkwardly flirt with her, awkwardly tell her she’s a fashionista, and mega-awkwardly lay on his back under the “stars” with her in a segment called “Big Questions with Even Bigger Stars.” She seemed uncomfortable and unamused, and he seemed nervous and unprepared. She didn’t say much at all.
Next, he interviewed Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who he dubbed a Supervillain and proceeded to offend numerous times by screwing up the CEO’s job title and the facts, and reacting to Musk’s corrections with a nervous, prickly sarcasm. There are still some kinks to work out in the move from punny caricature interviewer to serious interviewer. His segues are clunky and his questions seem highly scripted. He lacks the easy comfort and rapport that Jimmy Fallon establishes with all of his guests. HOWEVER…
BEST: Joe! Joe! Joe! Joe!
When Vice President Joe Biden visited on night number three, serious interviewer Stephen Colbert asked him about the recent death of his son Beau. With grace and more empathy than anyone else could have displayed, Colbert in effect asked Biden how he was doing with all of the tragedy that has plagued his life. Remember, Biden also lost his first wife and daughter in a car crash in 1972, just weeks after he was first elected to the U.S. Senate. Colbert also lost his father and two brothers in a plane crash in 1974. Their conversation about family, grief and moving through tragedy was as captivating as anything late night television has ever brought us. If you watch only 20 minutes of this show, let it be this 20 minutes.
WORST: Trying to make “Network” a buzzword, and other stale popcorn
Several times in the first few episodes, CBS’s status as titan of capital-N Network TV was worked laboriously into Colbert’s monologues and sketches. He is now in the “big leagues,” he said, called in from the bench of basic cable. But do most of us even think of our favorite TV shows in terms of the channel on which it airs anymore? Maybe for some prestige networks, like HBO or AMC, but it’s not enough to attach yourself to the establishment. Content truly is king. It has to be good.
CBS bets big on its live programming: sports, the Late Show, and event programming, like the Grammys and the Emmys. Like its “big three” network brothers, CBS emphasizes the value of watching together. The networks have been the last to accept that many of us have entered an age of delayed viewing. We don’t schedule our lives around TV like we did the days of I Love Lucy or even the first few seasons of Survivor. As I wrote in one of my first pieces on this blog, the best new late night programs have found success through viral content. Almost two years later, Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show lip sync battles still draw millions of views on YouTube in the days after they air. Colbert, by sticking to the old structure and pace set by Letterman (so far, at least), has failed to penetrate the morning-after content wars — or, for the record, the Late Night Wars.
The traditional late night variety format has never appealed to me — nor, I imagine, to most millenials. Without biting political commentary and up-to-the-minute pop cultural relevance, it feels like a relic. Like the pillars in Rome, it’s beautiful, historically important, but not all that entertaining by itself. A little stale. A little decayed. Even the gimmicks Colbert did trot out during his first week — like having U.S. Open champ Novak Djokovic serve a single tennis ball at him while he defended himself with his Captain America shield — felt a little slow, not designed to stick or draw any attention beyond the live late night audience. Almost all of the news commentary Colbert has offered has been about Trump, and good grief, I am so sick of Trump, and it’s not even 2016.
BEST OF ALL: Jon Batiste and Stay Human
By far the highlight of every episode so far has been the music. The new house band Stay Human is lead by Jon Batiste. TV fans will recognize Batiste from HBO’s Treme, in which he played himself, a young prodigy from the Batiste dynasty of New Orleans jazz musicians. With two degrees from Juilliard and a philosophy of performance he calls “social music,” Batiste is bursting with talent. It’s almost a disappointment to seem him and his immensely talented band relegated to the sidelines for most of the episode. For more Jon Batiste — which, if I’m being honest, is probably more worth your time than the Late Show at this point — click here, here, here and here. Go down the YouTube rabbit hole; I give you permission. Other musical guests so far have included Mavis Staples, with special guests Aloe Blacc, Ben Folds, Buddy Guy, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi and others. Kendrick Lamar; Paul Simon and Troubled Waters; Run the Jewels and TV on the Radio are also included.
The Late Show with Stephen Colbert airs weeknights on CBS at 11:35 p.m., and is only available to stream on CBS All Access.