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.