“With this show, I begin the search for the real Stephen Colbert,” said the former host of “The Colbert Report” as he welcomed the audience to his new show. “I just hope I don’t find him on Ashley Madison.”
He smiled and the audience laughed, but it became apparent that finding himself was more than an offhand joke.
On “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” he is becoming the man, and the entertainer, that he wants to be. Without the constraints of maintaining one constant character, his well-to-do conservative persona, Colbert is free to make the jokes he wants to make, interview people he wants to interview and say what he truly wants to say.
It’s apparent to anyone who watched the first episode Tuesday night on CBS that Colbert was genuinely having fun with his show. And why wouldn’t he have been? The audience chanted his name before he could even get started, and a couple more times throughout the episode as well. If Colbert was ever worried about the crowd not appreciating his change in style, he certainly shouldn’t be now.
What’s more, Colbert had the talented John Batiste and his band as the house musicians, all with grins to match Colbert’s.
But the excitement for the new show didn’t exactly lie in the crowd, or even in the music. It lay in Colbert’s freedom to reinvent himself. The exhaustion or boredom that may have overtaken him after nine years of doing the same act day after day — longer, if you count his beginnings on “The Daily Show” — lifted when the cameras started rolling to record the first episode of “The Late Show.”
Colbert’s new show is twice as long his previous one, which means twice as much time to do the absurd segments that make his sense of humor unique and refreshing.
For example, he took product endorsement, a dreaded necessity of modern television, and made it into one of the most memorable bits of the hour. Explaining that he sold his soul to an enchanted skull to get the new program, Colbert admitted that he had no choice but to endorse Sabra hummus. No one had ever been as happy or as willing to sit through a good bit of PR as his audience was.
Another aspect of the show that made it more than just another talk show was Colbert’s self-awareness. He compared discussing Donald Trump to gorging himself on Oreos. He knows he shouldn’t, but it’s just too good to stop. He then proceeded to dump a box of Oreos into his mouth.
Colbert’s willingness to sacrifice what journalistic integrity he has in order to pursue the art of satire has its own merit. By admitting that talking about Trump is giving into the mass sensationalism and then continuing to do it, Colbert took his first steps into new territory. He is by no means becoming a serious political talk show host. He is here to make people laugh, and anything else that may happen is, well, a side-effect.
For his first show, Colbert brought on 2016 presidential candidate Jeb Bush to have a light-hearted interview. Bush made a comment about how he agrees with Obama’s motives, just not his methods, which came off rather transparently as an attempt to appease the liberal audience. But that was the full extent to which the two discussed actual politics, and that’s okay, because it’s exactly as far as Colbert wanted to go.
Colbert’s meta-humor continued during his interview with actor George Clooney. In their conversation, the two agreed that it was harder to do an interview when Clooney had nothing to promote. As a solution, they made up an action flick that Clooney could talk about — “Decision Strike.” They even showed a couple clips for the nonexistent film, featuring Clooney over-dramatically defusing a nuclear bomb and making love to a woman.
By being so light-hearted and carefree, Colbert is already transforming late night television into something new. It may be too grandiose of a statement to declare after just one episode, but it feels as though Colbert might be making the first real postmodernist show of late night television.
“I used to play a narcissistic conservative pundit,” Colbert said to Bush. “Now, I’m just a narcissist.”
And he’s right. But it looks like we’re going to love him almost as much as he loves himself.