Stephen Colbert, one of the most recognizable faces in late-night television, introduced himself for the first time Tuesday night to a wide audience eager to meet him. Colbert's debut as the new host ofThe Late Show, replacing David Letterman after 33 years, was met with some apprehension by the Daily Show set who wondered if he would sink or swim without the conservative blowhard persona he adopted for his decade-long stint as the host of The Colbert Report.
It was clear from the start the Colbert is positioning himself as far away from dogmatic politics as late-night television will allow: Not by embracing or promoting progressive views (Colbert is a Democrat as well as a practicing Catholic) but by rejecting the rigid partisanship that characterizes so much of the political media landscape. This intent was most clear in his choice of first guests: the famously left-leaning George Clooney and the GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush (they sadly never shared a couch).
Of course, The Late Show is not a political talk show, but Colbert might be more comfortable if it were. While he always seemed at ease, not every bit or joke flew. The show's opener — Colbert singing the National Anthem along with an assortment of civilian duet partners at various locations throughout the U.S. — was warm and earnest and well-produced, but it wasn't funny.
And Colbert's seemingly pointless interview with Clooney probably put some viewers at home to sleep. Still, to both of their credit, their discussion was upfront about the fact that Clooney didn't have any good reason to be there (other than, presumably, appealing to a certain demographic).
But with Bush, Colbert really came alive, diving right in to what appears to be a passionate concern about the increasingly combative nature of political campaigning.
“Everybody says they want to bring people together, but when you get down to the campaigning, when you get down to what passes for governing now, it often ends up being just a game of bloodsport,” Colbert said during a question of whether or not Bush could truly bring the country closer together.
Bush soon interjected to say what he thought some would view as heretic: “I don't think Barack Obama has bad motives...I just think he's wrong on a lot of issues.”
The audience had begun to clap after the first part of this statement, but the applause abruptly died down once Bush criticized the president.
“You were so close to getting them to clap,” Colbert joked. “You've got to pause until they clap and then hit them with what they don't want to hear.”
Colbert later referred to his own brother, sitting in the audience, in his question to Bush about he reconciles familial love with his brother George W.'s administrative mistakes. Colbert pointed out that the and his brother are on opposite sides of the political spectrum but nonetheless maintain a close relationship.
At the close of the show, Colbert joined the band onstage and danced along to Sly and The Family' Stone's “Everyday People,” a song selection that didn't feel like a coincidence.
It is to be expected that Colbert's interview with Bush was the highlight of the show, and if Colbert's The Late Show is indeed attempting to become the CNN of variety talk shows, there's certainly an audience for that. But in order to keep them all tuned in, Colbert will have to choose more engaging, diverse guests outside of the political arena who still have something to say.