Tim Goodman's First Take: Colbert's 'Late Show' Offers "Weird, Creative Zing"

Stephen Colbert Late Show Premiere - H
Courtesy CBS

There was a time when I thought noting up front that you can’t "review" — nor should you — the first night of anyone’s talk show was being too obvious. I mean, these things are beasts of a different kind, and they will most likely be entirely different in a few months or a few weeks even, and then something completely different from that in six months and definitely in a year.

So many current shows are evident of exactly that.

But early Twitter reaction to Stephen Colbert's first night as host of The Late Show on CBS, which ran from loyalist praise to mixed worriedness down to "this is terrible," proved to me that it’s an absolute necessity to remind people that this will be a quick take — a first impression — and not a review.

And that’s all it will be — you can’t judge what might end up being a 10-year run or more by the first night. That’s both stupid and amateur hour. In Colbert’s case, this debut was just a little more than an hour of what might or might not be duplicated tomorrow. In many ways, that’s the beauty of late night shows — they evolve with ferocious consistency.

As for his first impression, the thing that shot through with clarity is that Colbert is very likely not what you think he will be — he’s as ambitiously creative as anyone and not afraid to see if something will kill or die quietly. Meaning, if you thought Colbert would take over for David Letterman (whom he honored with great praise) and turn into Jay Leno, you were way off the mark. And maybe more important, if you thought Colbert was going to be 180 degrees different from what he was on The Colbert Report, that too is a mistaken assumption. So much of himself was in that caricature that anyone who couldn’t figure that out should have been watching someone different.

Not surprisingly, this first night seemed like an amalgamation of every piece of Colbert — from pre-Daily Show TV stuff all the way through post-Colbert Report weirdness that he exhibited online while touting his new CBS series over the summer. There were some nerves — how could there not be? — and there were plenty of flashes of the wickedly smart and super-fast comedic intellect he’s honed over the years. Did it all work? Of course not. But what I liked most was the feeling that Colbert was going to reveal a side of himself that he didn’t get to show much on the Colbert Report or even The Daily Show — a side that was much more reflective of his days on Strangers With Candy or even The Dana Carvey Show.

This guy has a lot of range, and he came out on this first night not afraid to essentially say, "Hey America, I’m a little weirder than you might have heard." Hell, he didn’t even have his first guest on — George Clooney — until 30 minutes in.

That is, his flair for the dramatic and the funny and the fearless was readily evident in that first night, sometimes spilling into bits (the taped opening with the National Anthem or the Sabra product placement thing) that either didn’t achieve lift-off or just outright crashed. But that’s what you want to see with Colbert — you want to see him unshackled from the faux character he played on the Report and the faux reporter he played on The Daily Show.  You want him, over the course of every night of the week and all the weeks in a month, to unfold into something at once familiar but also startlingly fresh.

And he’s got the chops and the acting/comedy history to infuse the show with that x-factor that might have been unexpected. It will be thrilling to see it get honed, though I imagine that some of the early negative tweeting from fans had a lot to do with them seeing that heretofore largely untapped part of his personality. I think what will serve the show in its longevity will be that weird, creative zing that he brings to the show — though for some, that might not be their favorite surprise element to his personality.

But at least he didn’t hide it until the second month.

Beyond some amped-up nerves, Colbert did a couple of things that were interesting and bear monitoring for the future: He wasn’t afraid to have a politician on the first night (Jeb Bush), which by all rights was the kind of divisive idea that maybe CBS flinched at (as anyone probably should have) — but it ended up being a strong part of the first show, despite the readily evident edits that had to be made. It was probably a win for Bush to go on there knowing it could have gone sideways in a real hurry. And for Colbert, who riffed on Donald Trump to mixed effect prior to Bush’s arrival on set (drowning himself in Oreos was the best part), having a political candidate on your first show when this country is so incredibly divided was daring (and again, a good sign that he wasn’t going to be tame). Both men acquitted themselves well there, as opposed to Clooney basically saving Colbert’s ass during the first awkward interview he did (it’s hard to go wrong with a Clooney or a Tom Hanks, for example; they’ve saved a lot of hosts from jittery missteps).

The second element that was interesting was not that he gave his wonderful band leader Jon Batiste (and the Stay Human band) plenty of love and space to play around — including a closing star-studded and eclectic jam that featured Mavis Staples, Alabama Shakes leader Brittany Howard and others — but that he joined in and sang as well.

Now, you could say this was maybe too much Colbert. After all, he’s got his picture everywhere in the theater (something that Bush riffed on successfully), and Colbert already does his own announcing and introductions, but the very act of getting out there and singing and dancing didn’t seem like ego overkill to me; it seemed like a statement that Colbert was going to have fun regardless of what anyone thought. And that’s the absolute best element to any late night talk show — a fearless, eff-it, let’s have fun approach.

Because as this very first show indicates — with its insta-pundit reactions and immediately vociferous Twitter takes — there is no lack of judgment out there, and you can't please all the people so you might as well please yourself and make the kind of show that best represents your whole personality, whether people embrace it immediately or not.

I liked the set, the desk, the knowing crowd and mostly Batiste. But you can bet that there will be so much that’s different in the coming weeks — the implementation of skits, recurring bits, special elements that Colbert feels comfortable with (or uncomfortable, as the case may be). Change will come because it always comes, no matter what you think of the first night. Hell, I’d vote right now to immediately change the unfortunate and dubious Twitter hashtag — #LSSC — to the far better and simpler #LateShow. Can that happen?

Beyond minor first-night quibbles, I have little doubt that Colbert will be absolutely essential viewing on a nightly basis and his show will be a success no matter what way he eventually settles in the chair. The key for him is to make it original, not imitative of what we’ve seen from the past or too safe and comfy — and I think he’s only just beginning on that original route.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine

5:56 a.m. An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed John Legend as one of the musicians who performed at the end of the show.