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Last night Stephen Colbert came back to late night television, making his debut as the new host of The Late Show. So how did it go? How was the first night of the “real” Stephen Colbert on TV? Pretty good. It was a solid first show, given that this is more like a hyper school recital than an actual reflection of what The Late Show with Stephen Colbert will be day in, day out over the next few months. We won’t really be able to judge Colbert and his show until, say, three months out, when he’s settled into a rhythm and the looky-loo ratings bonanza has levelled off. He needs time to establish a new audience rapport, to wear in some running gags and bits—the Mentalist switch has potential, but it does remind me of Conan’s most excellent Walker, Texas Ranger gag—before we really make a pronouncement about his reign as the host of The Late Show.
But he did do a very good job with his first night. Divorced from his Report persona, Colbert is open and friendly and high energy, like Jimmy Fallon without the smarm. His interviews were good, and he still has a political bent that serves to separate him from the other late night hosts. At least, he had it last night, but given that we’re headed into an election year in the US and it’s already a complete f*cking trainwreck, I think Colbert will play to his strength and use political fodder to his advantage. Certainly, the stand-out bit last night was his summary of Donald Trump’s fiery car wreck of a campaign.
His interview with Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush was less combative than it would have been on The Colbert Report, but he still landed a couple solid zingers, and his interview with George Clooney was good, but then, Clooney is always game. The real measure of Colbert’s quality as an interviewer will be what happens when he has a guest who doesn’t want to play, or one that he just doesn’t care about. On The Report, whenever an interview wasn’t going well, he could fall back on his blustery persona, pick a fight, and make something happen. But he can’t do that anymore, and it will take some time spent interviewing the fourth lead on The Big Bang Theory for the nth time to see how Colbert will handle bad interviews without a safety net. It was a promising start, though, confident and well-executed, and Colbert is genuinely fun and entertaining as a host. There’s no reason to think he won’t succeed in making Letterman’s desk his own.