Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Latest

Stephen Colbert's Late Show premiered Tuesday night on CBS. It's sort of ridiculous to review the first show, since the idea is it will run for years and thousands of episodes, changing along the way.  But Colbert is a seasoned entertainer who had plenty of time to prepare, so the show at least gives us an indication of where he wants to go.

I didn't regularly watch his previous show The Colbert Report. I thought he was a talented performer, but his egomaniacal conservative pundit seemed like a one-joke character.  On this new show, he's going naked--presumably we'll be seeing something a lot closer to the actual Colbert.

The show opened with a bit where Colbert sang the National Anthem in locations around the country, making us wait for the big reveal--the new set.  He's in the same Ed Sullivan Theater that housed David Letterman, but he's prettied it up.  It's a lot more bright and shiny, as well as multi-leveled and featuring huge video screens.  And then there's the big question all talk shows must answer: turns out the interviews are done stage right and the band is stage left.

Perhaps most notable was his huge, C-shaped desk, with him sitting in the middle, fairly removed from the guest.  I'm guessing he wants a lot of space underneath for props.  Following the Letterman tradition, there are also only two seats for guests.  Most talk shows have more, and it seems paltry compared to the grand desk.

He came out and did a monologue, but not an especially political one, or even a particularly jokey one.  It was more about his new show and how it's going to work.  Fine with me.  I would be happy if most talk shows dispensed with the monologue altogether, even if hosts seem to think it's important.  He also did a bit with CBS head Les Moonves in the audience, ready to switch to The Mentalist any time the show flagged.

One thing hard to miss--the audience was made up of fans.  They were, to put it nicely, highly demonstrative. No matter what the bit, they'd scream, once even starting a shout of "Stephen!, Stephen!." Hopefully they'll calm down by the end of the week.

Once he sat down, he did more bits.  Like most talk shows these days, it looks like there'll be a half hour of comedy followed by a half hour of guests.  One bit was with Jimmy Fallon--they're friends now, but will it last?  He also did a tribute to Letterman, which only seemed fair (though Leno famously didn't mention Johnny Carson in his debut).

Some of the stuff was showing off the new theatre, some of it was a little weird, such as a routine about a cursed amulet forcing him to do product placement. It was okay, but I wouldn't say he was hitting it out of the park (though based on audience reaction he was).  You might expect more from the first show, except it's hard to gauge how things will work till you've been at it a while.  In his old show he had down to a science, but this is a different scale and he can no longer rely on his old character.  He's certainly got plenty of energy. The question is will the content follow.

His best material was a run on Donald Trump when he came back from the first commercial break.  This is in his wheelhouse, and I expect his first few months to be filled with Trumpmania (and every now and then something about the other twenty people running).

George Clooney was his first guest.  Certainly an A-lister, but not exactly a Bill Murray.  Colbert's first question was about Clooney's activism.  Not a good move.  They eventually got to a bit based on Clooney having nothing to plug--he promoted a fake movie shot cheaply backstage.  Not bad, exactly, but it didn't compare to the stuff Letterman used to do with a Steve Martin or Tom Hanks.

Jeb Bush was his second and last guest. I believe in a separation of politics of entertainment.  Anyway, we get quite enough of politicians elsewhere--I don't need to see their "human" side.  Bush (or "Jeb!", as Colbert noted his campaign calls him) was as boring as you'd expect, and Colbert, in his new manner, wasn't particularly edgy.  That's fine with me, since I find political guests just as boring when talk show hosts try to challenge them. That the first show featured a political guest, and that Colbert is so famous for interviewing them, doesn't bode well.

The last major segment on most talks shows is a musical act, and Colbert followed suit, featuring his band, Jon Batiste and Stay Human.  They did Sly and the Family Stone's "Everyday People," joined by various singers including Mavis Staples and Colbert himself.  Nothing wrong with it, but not especially stirring.  The hour (which ran over a little) had next to no interplay between Colbert and Batiste--perhaps Colbert will use him (or someone else) as a second banana in the near future.

So overall, okay.  In a world of Jimmys, it promised to be a helpful alternative.  I'm sure there'll be plenty of viewers this week due to the curiosity factor.  The real question is how will it look in a few months after they've worked out the kinks.

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