Finding Stephen: The Colbert Nation Sweeps

  • by September 9, 2015
It was hardly a perfect 60-something minutes, but I mostly loved Colbert’s “Late Show” debut.

I know that not everyone did, and some even found it boring and predictable.

Certainly, the show suffered from being cut down from two hours, with herky-jerky pacing and bits that went on for too long.

But I think some of the tension came from the fact that it was a new, post-cable Colbert, on an old, old network, and he and his writers couldn’t decide whether to serve or slay (or just lightly satirize) the network beast.

This was made transparently clear with the ostensible joke of seating CBS President  and CEO Les Moonves right up front as judge and executioner, with a red buzzer that allowed him to switch, as he saw fit, to “The Mentalist”  (the summer replacement for the Late Show.)

Right away, we got the essential difference between Colbert and his predecessor, Letterman. Dave was aloof and almost condescending, and tended to show embarrassing clips of Moonves during his acting career, (when Les had a lot more hair, which sat on his head like a big black hat.) Whereas Colbert was as manic as Ed Grimly, trying too hard to please his now silver-haired master. 



On the other hand, dig a little deeper in analyzing the same bit, and what could better reveal CBS for the old media dinosaur that it is than constant references to a throwback drama like “The Mentalist”?  (Or, as our host described it, the show about an “Australian guy who solves crimes using only the power of his dimples.”)

And some of what was perceived as boring was, to my mind, just a mite too meta. Take the George Clooney segment. (Please.) Colbert should have pushed it further. The concept — that the gray-haired heartthrob wasn’t there to promote any project, and that these two fawning chums didn’t actually even know each other — was really smart, and blew the lid off every standard, vapid, celebrity talk-show interview. But sadly, it never achieved lift-off.

The point was supposed to be that without the traditional go-to clip, the interview fizzles. George played his fizzler part to a T, so much so that he seemed to be suffering from low-T, the brother ailment to having “low energy.” (Low energy is the killer phrase with which Trump continually zings Jeb.)

So, given the sudden energy declines of the two, the joke is that they had to go to a made-up clip for a made-up movie, to save the interview. That’s conceptually smart. But the execution just fell flat. We got three different fake clips of the fake movie (“Decision Strike,” a blend of every schlocky action-disaster film ever made)  when I’m not sure we even needed one.

Whereas it would have taken some steel cojones (on his old show, Stephen talked about “balls” very often)  to devote, say, six solid minutes to a serious conversation with Clooney about his humanitarian work in Darfur.  Were they too worried it would be a ratings loser?  (Again, the Moonves visual  with the red buzzer looms a little too literally.)

At the same time, Colbert established himself as a host with a much younger demographic right away, giving props to Dave for paving the way, but talking about how he watched him in college. Some of the pop cultural references were extremely un-Letterman-like, such as showing off the Ed Sullivan theater’s newly created digital dome (very cool, actually) while making a reference to Michelangelo — not the Sistine Chapel artist, but rather the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.

Still, some of the late-night staples were surprisingly weak: the monologue was filled with warmed-over references that anyone could have made (Ashley Madison, really?)

And aside from the dome, I was disappointed with the new set. I remember when Letterman’s mini-train and other iconic stuff was so publicly carried out and rudely dumped in a trash bin. (Wasn’t there a museum to give it to? ) I figured that was the price to pay for establishing a revolutionary replacement on the same hallowed grounds.

Instead, it looked like every other talk show set since the 1950s with the exception of the video screens, the explanation for which came off as awkwardly as when CNN’s Wolf Blitzer proudly shows off his new tech toys on an election night.

Although the tour did allow for Colbert to make the joke that the desk was “carved out of a single piece of desk,” which I found funny. It also allowed him to patch in Jimmy Fallon on one of his big screens, demonstrating that unlike the Letterman-Leno Cold War years, this late-night crew was celebrating glasnost.

In fact, Colbert tried to weave the theme of inclusiveness all through the show, most obviously with the exuberant performance at the very end of Sly and the Family Stone’s chestnut “Everyday People.”

One area of diversity that was sadly missing, however, were de womenfolk. There were some female singers in the opening and closing numbers, and I think one female band member, but otherwise, nada. And that’s terrible. No wonder Colbert even referred to the late-night locker room as smelling bad.  

So what did I like?  Well, I was glad to see the return of Colbert’s vaunted “eater-tainment “ skills that he employed so often on “The Report.” (Fans of the blowhard persona will remember the way he wholeheartedly ripped into a bag of Doritos, or spooned up his Ben & Jerry’s AmeriCone Dream as part of a bit. )

The brilliantly layered riff deconstructing Trump’s rant against Nabisco, and his pledge to never eat another Oreo, was meta comic gold. It allowed the writers to show all of the usual Trump clips, yes, but the point was that Colbert wasn’t satirizing Trump himself, but the way the media (and even Colbert himself) shamelessly gorges on Trump while claiming it can stop any time.

Right before the Oreo number however, came an odd and annoying paid “native” ad for Sabra Hummus. This was something that Colbert did all the time on Comedy Central (with aforementioned Doritos, etc.) But it seemed profane to appear this early -- or even at all -- on the new show. (Which was also overstuffed with loud, annoying commercials, I might add.)

As if to overcompensate, Colbert  introduced the Sabra product integration with a hyperactive bit about an amulet, which seemed really juvenile and went on way too long.

Then there was Bush. Colbert, who joked that he was now stripped of his “narcissist blowhard pundit” persona and was now merely a “narcissist,” tried to be respectful and even-handed. And Jeb tried, too. He didn’t do any damage, but he largely came off as charisma-free.  

In fact, Colbert tried to school him in correct comic timing when Jeb made the “heretic” announcement that he didn’t think Obama had bad intentions (and almost had the audience in the palm of his hand) but then rushed the part that the president had “bad ideas.” And lost the applause. 

Colbert tried to help Bush later on, too, when he came out with his “Veto Corleone” line, a bit he uses on the stump all the time. Colbert countered, “You know that he was an antihero in that movie, right?”  

This is the Colbert (with Jon Stewart inflections) that all the Comedy Central viewers love: the guy with cultural smarts and a real understanding of music, movies, politics, literature — who gets a level deeper into an interview.  I’m hoping that as the show develops, he’ll keep delivering this more sophisticated take.

He's now being compared to Letterman, to the Jimmies -- and, most importantly, to his previous self. But as an entertainer, he has the gifts and talents of about five people. He can sing and dance with dorky joy, do great physical comedy, make snarky jokes, and really be brainy.  I’m willing to give him any amount of time to find his “Late Night” network equilibrium.

29 comments about "Finding Stephen: The Colbert Nation Sweeps".
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  1. david marks from self, September 9, 2015 at 11:02 p.m.

    That's just it, Barbara....the show was doomed by pure convention, the product of network formula. Colbert is genius, better and brighter, and yes, funnier than any of the others, but under the umbrella of network parameters, he suffers. He will need to defy the maintsream, bust free from the mold, the laws of what makes late night TV so dull and otherwise noisy, and when he does, all bets are off, because no one else is Stephen Colbert.

  2. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, September 9, 2015 at 11:11 p.m.

    Dear Barbara,

    Your "stuff" is usually good.  That's high praise.

    But your attempt to ride the (Late Show with Stephen) Colbert Bandwagon Post Premiere
    was trying, tedious and tendentious without reason.

    Although you confess the truth in the end, you waste the readers time getting there.

    You did not have to write your version of "Crime & Punishment" about late night television.  
    Find a more sutable topic for your writing skills.  

    • I can't remember whether you addressed the compelling advertising and sponsorship issues.  Regrets if I missed it.  On the whole, this MAD Blog was a HARD Slog.  Not an easy read, at best!

    And that you still observe a distinction between Cable and Broadcast in your writing suggests that you and not CBS, or Les Moonves, is vying for the title of "old media dinosaur."

    If your real problem was other critics and criticism and not the reincarnation of Stephen Colbert, then read your own column a dozen times and you'll know how didactic and dreary critics can be.  Knowing everything and nothing at the same time.  No fun.

    In sum, stop writing and watch the second episode of "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" for fun.  I'll form my own judgements.  No more critiques necessary.  You've exhausted me and the topic.  Thank you.


  3. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, September 9, 2015 at 11:18 p.m.

    PS Did you and David Marks check the widely available National Tv Ratings to see what a representative sample of US TV Households thought.  Behaviour is a good indication of current attitude and future intent.

    I am not known for carrying a brief for Nielsen, but some sometimes the data can be helpful ... at least before Nielsen self-destructs by modeling TV Viewing data (i.e., Guessing) instead of tabulating viewing data as it has done for 50 years.  If you want to criticize something meaningful why not investigate Nielsen's plans to destroy good audience measurment.

    You're welcome.

  4. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, September 9, 2015 at 11:19 p.m.

    I would like to see the first Leno, Letterman, Carson, Fallon, Kimmel, Conan shows. Colbert expends too much energy and may be hard to take five days a week for an hour. May be hard for him too. Oddly I liked both him and Stewart when they interviewed people they didn't agree with, but had some kind of intellectual respect for (Bolton, Kristol, Brookhiser come to mind).

  5. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, September 9, 2015 at 11:19 p.m.

    But I did like the review

  6. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, September 10, 2015 at 12:24 a.m.

    The 'Late Show with Stephen Colbert" Premiere Ratings Are Out

    Viewers were very curious to see how Stephen Colbert would do in his new gig hosting the "Late Show" -- 6.6 million viewers, to be precise.
    Colbert's first show, which included guests  George Clooney and Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush, trounced the competition, beating out the likes of Seth Meyers, Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon, and was Tuesday's most-watched late night program. 
    Viewership soared 206 percent compared to the same night's "Late Show" last year, with David Letterman. Even the season premiere from the last season of the "Late Show" didn't stack up in terms of numbers: The show was up 131 percent in viewers.
    The "Late Show" not only dominated the small screen, it also generated tons of buzz on social media. Nielsen Social Guide reported that it was "the most social entertainment show" on TV on Tuesday and streams of the full episode are up triple-digits compared to last year to date.
    By ANDREA PARK CBS NEWS September 9, 2015 


  7. Ruth Ayres from Harte-Hanks, September 10, 2015 at 1:02 a.m.

    My husband Eddie summed it up brilliantly "Colbert and his writers did everything right but I didn't laugh"  And like you, Barbara, he's willing to give Colbert the time he needs to put the funny back in. 

  8. Susan Klein from Oculus Marketing, September 10, 2015 at 1:12 a.m.

    If I remember correctly, Colbert was exceedingly stiff and many soon-to-be-recurring-bits very glitchy on his first few months of the Colbert Report, so much so that I stopped watching. When I returned a few months later, Colbert had found his footing, and I'm rooting for him (and what must surely be cadre of his favorite writers) to do the same at his new address. But yes, more wommins! I notice the lack of a sidekick. Maybe a clever goil could make the perfect foil?

  9. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, September 10, 2015 at 2:46 a.m.

    Ms. Lippert
    Please check with your colleague, Wayne Friedman,
    about Colbert's performance and appeal.


    Best Of Show: 'Late Show With Stephen Colbert' Grabs 6.6M Viewers
    by Wayne Friedman, September 9, 2015


    CBS’ “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” premiere delivered pretty much what was expected -- dominating higher ratings versus the competition and against year-ago show results.

    Pulling in a Nielsen preliminary 6.6 million viewers, “Late Show” scored nearly triple the level of the 2.16 million viewers on the same night a year ago.

    The same levels were achieved in other key viewing demographics: a 1.4 rating among adults 18-49, up from a 0.4 the year before. Younger viewers 18-34 earned a 1.0 rating, versus a 0.3.


    CBS said the results were the best -- excluding David Letterman’s final episodes earlier this year -- since July 1995.

    • Broadcast network competitors were well behind: NBC’s “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” had 2.9 million viewers, and ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” had 1.75 million viewers.

    • Behind “Late Show”’s 1.4 rating among 18-49 viewers, “Tonight” was at a 0.88 rating; and “Kimmel” had a 0.35.

    • A stronger lead-in helped “Late Late Show with James Corden” raise viewership to 1.85 million; “Late Night with Seth Meyers” got to 1.3 million viewers.

    NBC says “Tonight Show” did well considering the big Colbert debut. The show earned virtually its season average viewing metric among key 18-49 viewers on the night -- with a 0.89 rating.



  10. Ruth Thomas from Second helping, September 10, 2015 at 6:51 a.m.

    I tried to like it...I wanted to like it, but it was for me, a tepid slightly reheated leftover ....I know he has talent, but as he said, he had 9months to pull this show off, and it was will it be night after night? I like him enough to watch again and pull for his success ...if he gets his funny back, then we all win

  11. Don Perman from self, September 10, 2015 at 7:54 a.m.

    Thanks for a smart, thoughtful review. Colbert seems to be trying to knit together diverse styles and impulses.  Some are working, some aren't there yet.  Your take on it shows the big picture for him. Yes, it's worth giving him time to stake out his turf.

  12. Jeff Sawyer from GH, September 10, 2015 at 8:30 a.m.

    He was the life of a party I couldn't wait to leave. 

    As Letterman got closer to retirement, the enhanced applause breaks got longer and louder whenever he or a guest arrived. Competing shows picked up on that mock-energy technique, and now, all late-night audiences scream and all late-night hosts yell. Colbert's ADD Late Show fit the mold in that way, regrettably. You need a Charlie Rose enema just to get to sleep after. 

    The interviews weren't tight, performers missed cues during the music – making it look like a high school production at times – the bits ran SNL long. But I agree that the guy is so talented, he's bound to hone and improve and succeed. And he's so likable, you want him to.  

  13. Ruth Thomas from Second helping, September 10, 2015 at 8:49 a.m.

    one more thing....what's up with the band? the Roots are the epitome of cool..Steven's band are the rejects from bandcamp....i dont know who the audience they are aiming for....they have a lot of work to do...

  14. Ruth Thomas from Second helping, September 10, 2015 at 8:52 a.m.

    STEPHEN....i am already getting his name wrong

  15. Susan Patton from Susan Patton, September 10, 2015 at 9:36 a.m.

    As ever, thoughtful and brilliant analysis, Barbara.  And by the way...HAPPY ♪♫•*¨ BIRTHDAY *•.¸¸

  16. Barry Abrams from M. Shanken Communications, September 10, 2015 at 9:54 a.m.

    Colbert is gifted with abundant talent, intellect, razor-sharp wit and a one-on-one rapport with his audience that was the foundation of the Colbert Nation.  He was always in the moment and made 11:30-midnight the best 30 minutes on television hands-down.  Now he has to play to a much larger and different crowd, it's going to be watered-down fun and he's on a tight leash.  Last night he had to retract (soften) his comment that he would never vote for Jeb Bush.  The show will require big name guests to compete and they will not tolerate the skewering that was his hallmark on the Report.

  17. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, September 10, 2015 at 9:58 a.m.

    I didn't stay up late. And I had to look up "tendentious."

  18. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, September 10, 2015 at 10 a.m.

    Colbert has to shake out the rug to get out the bugs and dust. Bush came off as having to have strings to make him move and Clooney's interview had more air in it than Clooney had when he was up in it. The Fallon thing kept your eyes open. What Colbert can do and what strings were pulling him in this spot was like trying to rub green sticks to gether to make fire. Yes, I was disappointed and Colbert needs to take more control and find his rythm.

  19. Alan Wasserstrom from None replied, September 10, 2015 at 10:19 a.m.

    Fair and balanced in my opinion at this very early stage.In 35 years of practicing law the courts,particularly the federal courts, required that one spell judgment without the e as in judgements. nice job. No one is perfect.

  20. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC replied, September 10, 2015 at 11:10 a.m.

    Ignorance is not a sin, unless it is feigned stupidity.  
    Then, it's a lie.  And that would make you a ... Silly!

    PS That could have been my best comment on a comment yet.
    I could not write more because the apology letter and gift
    that arrived first thing this AM from Ruth Ayres.
    Her missive is the length of " War and Peace."  
    and the crate of delicious lemons are being squeezed
    in to the finest, all-natural lemonade.  Delicious!

    Cheer up!  You'll find tendentious with all the T words
    like Trump and 'tupid.

  21. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC replied, September 10, 2015 at noon

    Dear Alan,

    I am not sure whether you thought my comments or Barbara's were fair and balanced...not to mention unafraid.

    With respect to my spelling of your "legal" judgment, Grammerist says: 
    "In American English, judgement is generally considered a misspelling of judgment for all uses of the word, notwithstanding individual preferences.
    In British popular usage, 
    judgment was traditionally the preferred form, but judgement has gained ground over the last couple of centuries
    and is now nearly as common as 

    So call me commom, Common Miranda.  Don't you love the hat?  
    To understanding my writing, which is alot like Hemingway's,
    you must understand I write to music, preferably Portegeuse Brazilian samba.

    If you were writing to criticize my comment(s) by being indirect, ironic and picayune, 
    then I know a group developing a startup in West Palm Beach
    that specializes in the detection of fly feces on digital this.

    Enjoy the day!

  22. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, September 10, 2015 at 2:46 p.m.

    What happened to your online copy of the "Times" yesterday?
    This might help.  And I can also share my print version with you.

    The New York Times




    Stephen Colbert’s Debut Tops Late-Night Ratings


    By JOHN KOBLIN SEPT. 9, 2015


    Stephen Colbert won his first outing as CBS’s new late-night host, as 6.6 million viewers tuned in late Tuesday night to watch “The Late Show.”


    Mr. Colbert’s debut had about 3.6 million more viewers than Jimmy Fallon’s “The Tonight Show” and about 4.8 million more viewers than ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”


    Mr. Colbert also led in the 18-to-49-year-old demographic key to advertisers, drawing 1.4 million viewers compared with Mr. Fallon’s 900,000 and Mr. Kimmel’s 400,000. CBS hopes that he can retain many of the younger viewers who watched his Comedy Central political satire show, “The Colbert Report.”


    Still, Mr. Colbert’s first episode did not do nearly as well as Mr. Fallon’s February 2014 debut, which drew 11.3 million viewers, benefiting partly from following NBC’s Winter Olympics coverage.


    Mr. Colbert has gone to great lengths in the past few weeks to prove that he is friendly with his competitors, and Mr. Fallon made a cameo Tuesday night. It was a strong contrast from David Letterman’s first episode on CBS in 1993, when he spent a good portion of his monologue bashing NBC, his former network. (The landscape has changed significantly since Mr. Letterman’s debut, which had 15.2 million viewers.)


    Mr. Fallon has dominated the ratings since he took over as host 18 months ago, and he was rewarded last month when NBC announced that it had extended his contract through 2021.


    Early guest bookings suggest an inspired fall season for Mr. Fallon and Mr. Colbert. Over the next two weeks, Mr. Fallon will have Hillary Rodham Clinton, Donald Trump and Robert De Niro, while Mr. Colbert will have guests like Lupita Nyong’o, Bernie Sanders and Scarlett Johansson.


    A version of this article appears in print on September 10, 2015, on page C5 of the New York edition with the headline: Colbert’s Debut Tops Ratings. 

  23. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, September 10, 2015 at 2:48 p.m.

    Having Jeb Bush on seemed to be a belated apology for Colbert's embarrassing routine in front of Washington Press Corps. Colbert is tuff to take for an hour, but guests will help. But better than Conan and Jerry Lester

  24. Steve Rotterdam from Bonfire Agency, September 10, 2015 at 4:46 p.m.

    Good insights, Barbara!  Though I welcomed the debut of "The Late Show With" (love that they include "with" in the logo) as an oasis to a person dying of thirst in the desert, I, too, was a little surprised by the "pay for play" Sabra stunt appearing in the first show. What's the rush?  

    However, now two shows in, something's really bugging me and it has to do with the way Colbert is depicted interacting with his guests while seated at his desk.  My (very possibly faulty) recollection of Dave's show was that during an interview, what you saw on the screen was either a close-in shot of the guest or a shot of Dave and the guest. Not a lot of shots of just Dave (during the interview).  That hasn't been the case with Stephen's interviews so far.  Lot of cuts to just Stephen yammering.  You don't have the chance to see (and sometimes hear) the reaction of the guest.  When Dave conducted an interview, he gave you the impression (real or imagined) that he really wanted to hear what the guest had to say.  So far, Stephen comes across as more interested in Stephen.  I hope this changes.  Fast.

  25. Alan Wasserstrom from None replied, September 10, 2015 at 5:58 p.m.

    Well, this is not britain,but if that is your preference,that's fine.
    As for fair and balanced I was commenting on Ms. lippert's blog,not your reply.

    Many thanks for the tip on the WPB startup, very kind of you but not necessary.

    Enjoy your day, as well.


  26. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, September 10, 2015 at 9:11 p.m.

    Deadline Hollywood
    September 10. 2015

    On his second night hosting CBS’s 
    The Late Show, Stephen Colbert slid to a metered market 3.2/8 household rating, while NBC’s Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon bounced back to  3.1/8. ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live followed with 1.5/4 in the timeslot according to Nielsen stats. 

    Res ipsa loquitur

  27. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC replied, September 10, 2015 at 9:37 p.m.


    Get a grip.

    The only "Bonfire of the Vanities" that is burning is at your Agency or in your Office.
    Call the Fire Department and stop writing collaborative, co-dependent comments
    for the benefit of Barbara Lippert and the Pop "Goes the Weasel" Culture Dish.

    The Advertising Business should have stuck with David Ogilvy and Millburn's Martini Bistro.

    You are hardly a match for Tom Wolfe.  Were you born after 1987?  No wonder.

    Up and down the City RoadIn and out the EagleThat’s the way the money goesPop! goes the weasel.
    Stay safe as you navigate the "geek-infested waters that make up our universe."  
    (That copy is Pure Ingenuousness.)

    The only water I know of in East Rutherford is the Hackensack River.

    I may (just may) be polutted, but geek-infested?  I want to see that Vine.

    Cheerio at the Rodeo,
    Nicholas P. Schiavone with all due respect... .  Just tell me how much, once you dry off from your swim in the geek-infested waters you know so well.

  28. Alan Wasserstrom from None replied, September 11, 2015 at 6:47 p.m.

    To me res ipsa always applies to Jimmy Fallon.



  29. Jim English from The Met Museum, September 13, 2015 at 12:56 p.m.

    Always great analysis,  Barbara.

    Believe Adland can take a little credit for Colbert's ascent.   Loved Stephen's Goodwrench and Wonderful Pistachios ads.   Even like his FirsTier Bank (of Nebraska) ads from long ago.

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