Stephen Colbert's 'Late Show': Joe Biden and Wonky Guests Are Great But Celebrity Chats Could Be Improved

The 'Colbert Report' alum can clearly own the "smart" end of the spectrum, but he'll need to do better at stargazing.
Stephen Colbert talks with Vice President Joe Biden in a powerful, moving interview

As far as too-early-to-cement evolutions go, Stephen Colbert has had quite a week. We could  and some of us have done just that  spend a lot of time talking about bits of The Late Show that work or don’t, what might be coming down the pike, what’s missing, what zigs he should correct because his zags are so much better, etc. But at least one thing seems clear  Colbert is trying to set himself apart from the pack with his interviews, stacking up big-name politicians and thinkers in an effort to be more than a shill for movies, TV shows and music.

Although that might be slightly risky now that the late night landscape thrives on loose, sugary-sweet “chats” and a plethora of taped comedy segments  throwing some broccoli into that mix could drive away potential new viewers  it could also be the X-factor that brands the latest (and, probably for a long time, last) new late night host.

On Thursday, Colbert proved just how effective this new strategy can be with a moving, smart and ultimately fascinating interview with Vice President Joe Biden, where the two talked in-depth and emotionally about loss (both men have tragically lost family members, most recently for Biden, his son Beau) and faith.

To put it bluntly and obviously (to anyone who watches late night television) – you just don’t see those kinds of interviews. You don’t see that level of sincerity, that depth and seriousness in the format.

In one very direct way, this approach will help set Colbert apart from NBC’s Jimmy Fallon, who excels at light pop culture but is extremely weak in the interview segments. The only host that can compete with Colbert in that arena is ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel, who routinely excels at interviews and has even done well with President Obama. But even though Kimmel can do it, there’s no indication that his show wants or needs to shift into a more serious direction  he’s already the standout late night host whether he tops Fallon or not.

Politicians going on Fallon know they have almost nothing to fear other than maybe looking a little too silly, but going on Kimmel or Colbert might prove a little more prickly. Since late night will be a recurring stop for presidential candidates (relax, it’s just the world we live in now), viewers can expect to see them all over the place. However, take the election out of the mix and it’s not like Kimmel would want or need to lean in that direction  no late night hosts probably will  so for now and in the future this might be Colbert’s bread and butter.

Colbert will have Donald Trump on The Late Show on Sept. 22 and that will be an absolute can’t-miss piece of television. But on the same night that Trump has his showdown with the man who has been dying to roast him on camera, the less-sexy “get” is United States Secretary of Energy Dr. Ernest Moniz, which is basically the exclamation point on the direction Colbert will be going with his show.

The strategy is both risky and interesting. It’s one thing to have Republican candidate Ted Cruz, who will pop by and visit Colbert a day earlier than Trump, but quite another to have the Secretary of Energy, which is the clearest example yet that Colbert and The Late Show will cling as close as possible to the wonky direction that The Colbert Report took.

Clearly there’s an opening to “own” the smart end of the spectrum in late night. The question will be whether the audience  a big, network audience  is actually seeking that kind of content before they go to bed.

One look at Colbert’s guests in the next two weeks emphatically proves that he  and CBS  are going all-in on this strategy: Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer on Monday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on Thursday, Sen. Bernie Sanders Friday, Global Poverty Project founder Hugh Evans and Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Sept. 23; Archbishop Thomas Wenski on Sept. 24 and Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai on Sept. 25.

That might be a fascinating line-up for PBS, but it’s not the kind of thing that’s going to unseat Fallon.

Granted, all of those nights are littered with celebrities as well, so it’s not like Colbert is going for an all-vegetable diet for America. But if this first week of shows has proven anything, it’s that Colbert has yet to find the right balance and a style to call his own while interviewing celebrities. They have been the weakest elements in his debut week; Though George Clooney and Scarlett Johansson were both game, neither had anything to plug and were clearly there as “A-list” invites meant to drive opening-week ratings.

On Friday’s show, Colbert will have Amy Schumer and Stephen King, two guests he might have better luck drawing out laughs with. But the Clooney and Johansson visits, in all their awkwardness, proved that maybe Colbert doesn’t know what to do with someone who is there only because they are a megawatt star. He’s particularly effective  excellent mostly  when doing interviews with anyone who’s not a star, able to either geek out on someone else’s smarts or, like with Biden, drop the wink-wink and go deep and get emotional.

The trouble is that shiny stars drive ratings and they rule the late night world. It’s both refreshing and welcome that Colbert wants to have a more serious list of guests, but realism suggests that’s a better ploy for a basic cable channel than for CBS and its glittering new late night offering.

One thing Colbert might do to help himself get better at celebrity interviews which are done in a way that will be palatable to him and not be reduced to the kind of giggle-and-josh fest that Fallon puts on, is to watch a lot of interviews conducted by his predecessor, David Letterman.

In his very early years, a lot of stars were afraid to sit down with Letterman because he had a palpable disdain for the whole talk show notion that stars must be trotted through, along with a not-hard-to-miss disinterest in many of the stars who sat down next to him. But Letterman honed that into something that worked very well for him for years  to joke and have fun with celebrities by asking them a mixture of serious and personal questions plus a bunch of self-deprecating and mocking ones that, for most of the stars, allowed them a fresh response that differed from the vapid (and rapid) predictability they were getting from Jay Leno at the time.

So a solution to mastering this mix is out there, but Colbert is not going to find that in one week, nor should we expect him to. He’s already predictably experimenting with new segments and a good many will come and go before they settle into permanent fixtures on The Late Show.

I like the potential that could come from “Big Questions With Even Bigger Stars” that he did with Johansson, because it combines silliness with faux philosophy and a chance for improvisational ingenuity from guests. But I’m also aware that the whole thing could implode and be stupid. Part of this early going will be finding out if guests can handle (or even want to participate) in such gimmicks. It’s a weeding out process. (I say keep doing “The Hat Has Spoken” bit because it’s also silly but funny and captures Colbert’s ability to register what people are thinking and turn it into humor.)

As the week closes on Colbert’s debut as host of The Late Show, it’s important to remember (yes, again) that these are very early days. He’s throwing stuff against the wall to see if it sticks. This miniscule sample size barely reveals anything about what we’ll see in the future, but I would imagine that Colbert’s apparent resistance to doing pre-taped segments, from skits to interviews to man-on-the-street bits, is a reaction to their prevalence elsewhere in the late night space. But he should realize that everybody does those because they are popular with viewers and, done well, they are often the best way to bring out a host’s personality. Being likable and real creates engagement with an audience. Done repeatedly it creates loyalty. Colbert is coming from a show that was meant to keep viewers at a distance, hyper-aware of conceit and emotionally detached about its irony. A late night host, even a prickly one like Letterman, only survives for decades because people like or love them in a way that brings closeness. It’s probably why Colbert is showing his more goofy side now and dancing and singing as well. But he should definitely laser-focus in on those traits with pre-taped bits. Nobody’s reinventing the wheel in late night, so not participating in a concept that predecessor Letterman honed into perfection would be a mistake.

Right now, in these early days, Colbert has more working than not. He’s got the best and most original opening sequence on late night television; he’s got a fabulously renovated set; he’s backed by a tremendous talent in band-leader Jon Batiste, and he’s got what he’s always had  a wickedly fast intellect and an even faster sense of comic timing. The Biden interview let out a bit of his other strong suit  empathy and compassion and a sense of how to handle emotional topics. And that resulted in one of the most fascinating and talked-about interviews in late night in some time.

So a lot is working. What needs fine tuning are his celebrity interviews because those  not witty asides with the secretary of energy or a thoughtful discussion with a Supreme Court justice  are what will determine if Colbert can keep robust ratings or not.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine

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