Critic's Notebook: Stephen Colbert's 'Colbert Report' Character Returns, But Will We Want Him Back Forever?

Comedy Central Colbert and Jon Stewart were highlights of a strong live 'Late Show.'
CBS

Stephen Colbert badly needed a win after last week, which saw CBS' The Late Show fall from a familiar Emmy nomination perch, saw the guy airing after him get a big nomination instead and saw the only substantive discussion of his show relate to his new glasses.

Actually, Colbert has needed a win for months. Reviews have generally been tepid. Ratings have generally been uninspired. Structural and creative shifts have already become a way of life. People talk about The Late Late Show's James Corden with a frequency and enthusiasm that Colbert only occasionally inspires and CBS brass can expect to hear many questions about swapping the two shows when they meet with reporters at the TCA press tour next month.

On Monday night, Colbert got his win, though whether it'll help him long-term (or whether it will actually hurt him) remains to be seen.

The first half-hour of Colbert's first live show tied to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland — not to be confused with a live show from the convention, since he remained at the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York — was probably his best half-hour since he took over for David Letterman in the fall.

Most of the attention will focus on the triumphant return of Colbert's Comedy Central character, a version of Stephen Colbert so beloved that he entirely upstaged the first of what will be several convention-themed appearances by Jon Stewart. Credit Stewart for, after a funny series of spit-takes, at least one unintentional, playing straight-man to "Comedy Central Colbert," who came equipped with a sword and a Captain America shield. He proceeded to the stage on a golden chariot tugged by buff, topless Uncle Sams and based in a collective audience glow the likes of which he hasn't received in 2016.

Colbert, eyebrow permanently cocked, got an American flag backdrop and the Colbert Report musical sting and introduced "Trumpiness" as the newest entry in his long-running "The Word" segment, paying homage to his all-time classic Word, Truthiness.

"Truthiness has to feel true. Trumpiness doesn't even have to do that," he explained.

As himself, Colbert has struggled to get any of his political observations to stick, and failed to really imprint his point-of-view in a memorable way. As Old Stephen Colbert, everything had a rejuvenated profundity.

"If you can feel the wall, you don't have to see the wall," he said of Trumpiness, adding that what presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's followers want is "a leader to feel things that feel feels," calling him "an emotional megaphone."

Colbert closed devastatingly: "If you don't share their feeling that you don't recognize your country anymore, trust me — if Trump wins, you will."

At the Television Critics Association's press tour last summer, I asked Colbert about the bizarre pressure he was under to "be himself," an act of expiation of self-exposure that we've never had to demand from any late-night host in the past. We just assume that Kimmel is Kimmel and Fallon is Fallon and Corden is Corden and nobody ever asks when we're going to see The Real Fallon or The Real Kimmel or The Real Corden, but that's what viewers wanted from Colbert and then we shrugged and said, "Meh." So what does that mean for Colbert when he wakes up tomorrow morning and looks at the clippings and tweets and sees how happy everybody seems to have been to be through with The Real Colbert and how happy we all were to have the other guy back again? Is his response, "Screw you, I pandered to you once and now I'm done"? Is it, "Hmmm ... maybe we can start bringing the other guy back for weekly segments"? Is the cheery response disheartening? Or is it proof that Colbert hasn't lost his touch, he just needs to find a balance between his old writing and his new voice? Because this guy just felt funnier. Or maybe he merely felt more familiar.

The night's win also isn't only attributable to Old Stephen Colbert. It was New Stephen Colbert who entered the theater singing and dancing along to a smart, funny convention-themed original, "It's Christmas in July." Many of us have wondered where this version of Colbert has been for so much of his CBS run.

Even if Comedy Central Colbert hadn't been back tonight, the song and the Stewart appearance would have made it a good show. Thanks to Comedy Central Colbert, it was easy to forgive the mark-missing "An Important Look Back," an unfunny clip package featuring Sam Waterson, and a spotty visit by Colbert's Caesar Flickerman to The Q in Cleveland where he offered behind-the-scenes access from the Hungry for Power Games convention and got escorted from the main stage with the very funny retort, "I know I'm not supposed to be up here, but let's be honest, neither is Donald Trump."

These are two big weeks of live convention-themed shows for Colbert. The nation's concentration will be on politics and this is something Colbert does far more comfortably than Corden or time-period rivals The Jimmys. He may not have the erudite, outraged edge of Seth Meyers or Samantha Bee, but Colbert can at least stake a two-week claim to being the most relevant host in his hour. By bringing back two old friends, Monday's episode was a good start.

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