Thursday, September 10, 2015

My take on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

I didn't see either episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in full, but I saw large segments of both and liked what I saw. Frankly, I didn't expect to. 

Picturing Colbert as David Letterman — and having nine months to do so — didn't appeal to me at all. Nothing against Letterman, whose work I've admired since I was too young to get most of it; but I thought Colbert would be wasting his talent becoming a network successor. Like many fans, I was crushed when I heard Stephen was giving up The Colbert Report, which I think was one of the best shows of its era. After that, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show quickly packed up his tent as well, with both shows' stars repeatedly saying how tired they were. Which, no matter how much you understand that from a human perspective, is heartbreaking from a fan's.

This massive late-night shift leaves fans of satire facing an election year with several young shows still trying to find their rhythm. We've gotten spoiled, I suppose; I first started watching The Daily Show around 2002 or 2003, when Stewart had been there for a few years. Colbert Report sprung seemingly fully formed in 2005, as Colbert had been practicing his faux-blowhard character on TDS for years. No matter how good Trevor Noah and Larry Wilmore are, it'll take them years to catch up to those institutions.

So too is the case with Late Show. Colbert has huge shoes to fill in catching up to Letterman's 30-plus-year legacy. His early episodes will no doubt look like the Simpsons on The Tracey Ullman Show compared to later shows. Now is the time to experiment, work out the kinks and make a splash, so the show by definition will be uneven for the time being.

That said, however, I'm encouraged that Colbert subverted my expectations. My early impression was that we were being primed for a more straight-man Colbert, more of a showrunner than a beacon. But so far, his personality, humor and snark still show through, all of which I was concerned would die with his alter ego. He still jokes about being a narcissist, and there are still silly sketches with celebrities (actually a growing conceit), overly celebrity-studded musical numbers and political energy. It's possible that all could die down in favor of more pedestrian fare down the road; but for now, I like what I see. It's heartening to see that there's still some fire in the real Colbert.

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