Stephen Colbert is my spirit animal. He is a satirist without parallel. Like his mentor and forebear Jon Stewart, he presided over a double-whammy of political comedy for almost a decade at Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report. Both hosts finally ran out of gas in proximity to each other, with Colbert retiring in December and Stewart in August. However, unlike Stewart, Colbert happened to find a plum job waiting: successor to David Letterman at CBS’s The Late Show.
He would inevitably shed the eponymous mock-conservative pundit role he played on the Report. Would that leave him vulnerable or freed? Remorseless or contrite? Would being confined to network television soften his comic edges and weaken his his subversive charm?
The answers? First, latter, second, neither and third thank god, not entirely.
The opening monologue was a shaky start, not the least of which because of the emotion coursing through the buidling. Colbert was honestly overwhelmed by it and more power to him. The monologue had one or two decent jokes but a Mentalist/Les Moonves gag fell flat.
Thankfully, Colbert’s customary weirdness peaked through by the first commercial break when he started arguing with a possessed amulet to whom he had pledged himself in exchange for The Late Show. By the end, a monkey hand had crept in but alas, the first commercial break. Hopefully this is like a Lost situation and the weirdness explodes into time travel and smoke monsters in later episodes.
As promised from the Television Critics Association tour, Colbert couldn’t wait to go on his first Donald Trump tear In a blistering segment, Colbert consumes Oreo after Oreo while overdosing on Trump jokes and soundbites. It looks and feels like a necessary American ritual. I will honor it annually.
The inaugural interview, like the show opening, was classically original. You don’t get a more A-list movie star in name, looks and mystique than George Clooney. Since, as Colbert and Clooney referenced, he wasn’t there to advertise anything, it was essentially a warm-up act wherein he talked at Clooney for a bit before letting him explain why he cares about Darfur for a few seconds. Nonetheless, Colbert imagined for Clooney a movie he could be promoting titled Decision Strike and, like Machete before it, it begs to be rendered cinematically. All-in-all, not particularly exciting. Classy goatee, though.
In an interesting twist, Colbert’s second interview with Jeb Bush was by far the more dynamic of the evening. We saw shades of Colbert’s skill for give-and-take and barbs he can deploy with effortless precision. It was a glimpse into his potential role as a statesman of Letterman’s caliber who could size-up and cut down his guests when they were preening or pompous.
Bush kept up his part in an amiably way and didn’t lose balance. To Colbert’s credit, whenever he threaten to overwhelm Jeb’s Trump-derided “low energy,” he pulled back and let the former Floridian governor and Republican presidential candidate do what he came there to do and campaign. Colbert even got Jeb to level a shot at his brother W. though instead of the Iraq War, he said he disagreed with his spending his second term. Weak dodge, if you ask me.
Colbert is at the epicenter of the shifting sands of late night television. After The Tonight Show/Conan fiasco, Leno’s and Letterman’s retirements and now Stewart’s absence, he is the most interesting mainstream voice available. We’re a mere 19 days until Trevor Noah takes the reins of The Daily Show. Not to mention Fallon, Kimmel, Meyers and Corden on network channels, it’s an increasingly crowded field, with fellow Daily Show alum John Oliver, Larry Wilmore and Samantha Bee hosting shows of their own on HBO, Comedy Central and TBS respectively.
However, the increased volume only serves to heighten the Colbert singularity. His straight-faced satire and political humor are a change of pace from the blandness of his network counterparts. With CBS, he can reach more viewers than ever before with his gifted intellect. His genuineness reflects the wall coming down after years behind a veil of conservative buffoonery. It’s wrong to bet against Stephen Colbert. The competition serves to weed out the fakers and Colbert’s talent is for real. Rarely has his talent for satire been more needed – or appreciated.