September 8, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Premiere Review: “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert”


The world of television may have undergone a revolution over the past decade, but it hasn’t hit the continent of late-night network talk shows, which have introduced variations from their 1950s-era formats, but little meaningful change.  There is, every time, the (middle-aged white) guy who does a topical monologue, the desk (or pre-taped) piece, a couple of interviews, a musical guest and good night, see ya tomorrow.  Even David Letterman’s subversions came mostly when he was in the later berth of 12:30AM; once he was sitting in the big pre-midnight chair, his brand became a more standardized version of his original radicalism.

There was a certain special fascination about what Letterman’s replacement, THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT, would look like, partly because of Letterman’s giant shoes, but also because in a sense we’ve barely seen Stephen Colbert before.  “Stephen Colbert,” sure, that putative right-wing blowhard whose every dunderheaded statement made the case for the other side, has been a familiar and multi-honored figure.  But Colbert made it clear that the Comedy Central version of his persona was going away for good, and his CBS form would be something different.

Something different turned out to be very much in the mold of the typical 11:30PM host.  Colbert was breezy, assured and likable.  He doesn’t have the irascible brilliance of Letterman, or the righteous comic fury of Jon Stewart (an Executive Producer of the new show, who blessed the premiere with a cameo), or the social media-driven gimmickry of Jimmy Fallon (also a cameo player), or the goofiness of Conan O’Brien, or the blue-collar jokery of Jimmy Kimmel.  Colbert’s premiere showcased him as smart and silly, combining the two in a desk bit where he equated a comic’s addiction to Donald Trump jokes to a compulsion to eat Oreos.  He was smoothly meta in an on-air commercial for a snack dip, preened at his snazzy set (a skyscraper compared to his Comedy Central digs) and Jon Batiste-led band, and was professionally unctuous in an interview with George Clooney.

The one place Colbert allowed himself to be distinctive, perhaps not so surprisingly, was in his interview of Jeb Bush.  The segment was choppy (tonight’s show ran 9 minutes over and still had to be edited down), but Colbert threw Bush a few sharp questions about political civility and his place on the conservative spectrum that seemed to catch the governor slightly off-guard.  Will politics with a touch of seriousness fit with the celebrity plugs and musical numbers?  It would be an achievement if Colbert can re-introduce meaningful talk into the late-night talk show, a welcome carryover from his cable days.

In any case, CBS seems to have little to worry about.  Colbert is unlikely to catch up to Fallon’s huge lead in the ratings, but the network was perfectly happy with Letterman being in 2d place for most of his run.  Like Letterman, Colbert may appeal to a higher-income (if older) crowd, and there’s value in that.  Colbert isn’t razing the real estate he’s inherited, but he seems like a caretaker who’ll make sure the property stays well in order during his stay.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."