Stephen Colbert Brings Showmanship — And Harmony — To His 'Late Show' Debut

Sep 9, 2015
Originally published on September 10, 2015 10:58 am

First nights on TV talk shows provide quick, and sometimes misleading, first impressions. As Stephen Colbert joked in his opening monologue, he had nine months to plan his first show. But first impressions do count for a lot, especially about the structure — and atmosphere — a new host brings to the job.

Colbert didn't mess with the existing structure of the Late Show itself — opening monologue, sit behind a desk, interview a few guests, showcase some music at the end. But the interior structure of the Ed Sullivan Theater was significantly different — so much so that one of the opening-night guests, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, took note.

Colbert opened the show with a film montage, showing him singing harmony on "The Star Spangled Banner" with various people across the country — and closed it by joining new Late Show bandleader Jon Batiste, and his band Stay Human and special guests, on a high-energy performance of Sly and the Family Stone's "Everyday People." As Colbert has proven by performing in a concert version of Stephen Sondheim's "Company," he really can sing.

Colbert acted as his own announcer, introducing the evening's talent — including himself. He did a solo comedy bit, gorging on Oreos in response to Donald Trump's recent rejection of them. He delivered a short but solid monologue, and — interviewing his guests as himself rather than the character he played on Comedy Central — played straight man to George Clooney and genial inquisitor to Bush.

Showmanship is something Stephen Colbert knows very, very well. That's why the choice of Batiste as bandleader is such a good move — as good as Jimmy Fallon's move to appoint The Roots as the house band for NBC's Tonight Show. Fallon, too, showed up in a friendly filmed cameo, so Colbert was acknowledging the present leader of late-night TV. But Colbert, whose sentimental but heartfelt salute to Jon Stewart was a highlight of Stewart's final Daily Show, also found time, on his first Late Show, to salute his predecessor David Letterman properly — and graciously.

On Colbert's opening Late Show, he made it a welcome sandbox, for Republicans as well as Democrats — an instant and important distinction from The Colbert Report. Bush, Clooney, Batiste, even Colbert — everyone seemed to enjoy himself. And that's an emotion that translates very well through the TV set. The inaugural Late Show with Stephen Colbert was so packed with comedy bits, special guests and music, it went several minutes overtime — but it didn't feel long. It felt good.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Last night, Stephen Colbert inherited David Letterman's program, time-slot and Ed Sullivan Theatre as the new "Late Show" host on CBS. The big question asked in advance was whether Colbert would be as funny and entertaining after shedding the fake conservative pundit he played for years on the "The Colbert Report." And according to our TV critic David Bianculli, the big answer is yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT")

STEPHEN COLBERT: Tonight, Stephen welcomes George Clooney, Governor Jeb Bush, musical guest Mavis Staples and friends, featuring Jon Batiste and Stay Human, come on. And now, it's time for "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.”

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: First nights on TV talk shows provide quick and sometimes misleading first impressions. As Stephen Colbert joked in his opening monologue, he had nine months to plan his first show. But these first impressions do count for a lot, especially about the structure and atmosphere a new host brings to the job. Colbert didn't mess with the existing structure of "The Late Show" itself. Opening monologue, sit behind a desk, interview a few guests, showcase some music at the end. But interior structure of the Ed Sullivan Theatre was significantly different. So much so that one of the opening night guests, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush took note.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT")

COLBERT: The White House is not nicer than this, I want you to know that.

JEB BUSH: You got more pictures of yourself than I thought you would've had.

COLBERT: There are a lot of pictures of me in here. I used to play a narcissistic-conservative pundit. Now, I'm just a narcissist.

BIANCULLI: Now, Stephen Colbert's a lot, lot more than that. He opened the show with a film montage showing him singing harmony on the Star-Spangled Banner with various people across the country and closed it by joining new late-show bandleader Jon Batiste and his Band Stay Human and special guests on a high-energy performance of Sly & the Family Stone's Everyday People. So as Colbert has proven by performing in a concert version of Stephen Sondheim's "Company," he really can sing. He acted as his own announcer, introducing the evening's talent, including himself. He did a solo comedy bit, gorging on Oreos in response to Donald Trump's recent rejection of them. He delivered a short but solid monologue and, interviewing his guests as himself rather than the character he played on Comedy Central, acted as straight man to George Clooney and genial inquisitor to Jeb Bush, whose stated desire to bring people together brought this response from the host.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT")

COLBERT: Do you think that you could bring people together because everybody says they want to bring together?

BUSH: Yeah.

COLBERT: But when you get down to the campaigning, or get down to what passes for governing now, it often ends up being just a game of blood sport.

BUSH: It is.

COLBERT: You attack the other person, and the other side can't possibly do, say or have planned for anything good.

BUSH: So I'm going to say something that's heretic I guess. I don't think Barack Obama has bad motives. I just think he's wrong on a lot of issues. I don't....

COLBERT: Oh you were so close to getting them to clap.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: You were so close - you were this close. You’ve got to pause. You’ve got to pause till they clap and then hit them what they don't want to hear.

BIANCULLI: Showmanship is something Stephen Colbert knows very, very well. That's why the choice of Jon Batiste as band leader is such a good move. As good as Jimmy Fallon's move to appoint The Roots as the house band for NBC's "Tonight Show." Fallon, too, showed up in a friendly filmed cameo, so Colbert was acknowledging the present leader of late night TV. But Colbert, who's sentimental but heartfelt salute to Jon Stewart was a highlight of Stewart's final "Daily Show," also found time on his first "Late Show" to salute his predecessor properly and graciously.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT")

COLBERT: I just want to say that it 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 doorframe that we all have to measure ourselves against.

BIANCULLI: On Colbert's opening "Late Show," he made it a welcome sandbox for Republicans as well as Democrats, an instant and important distinction from "The Colbert Report." Jeb Bush, George Clooney, Jon Batiste, even Colbert - everyone seemed to enjoy himself. And that's an emotion that translates very well through the TV set. The inaugural "Late Show" with Stephen Colbert was so packed with comedy bits, special guests and music, it went several minutes overtime. But it didn't feel long, it felt good.

GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches television and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, what does it really mean to conduct mass deportations? Donald Trump's immigration plan calls for the deportation of Mexicans who are in the U.S. illegally. The U.S. did deport an estimated 1 million Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in the 1930s during the Depression. We'll talk about this little known chapter of American history with Francisco Balderrama, the author of "Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation In The 1930s." I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.