I have really missed Stephen Colbert while he's been off the air. It certainly didn't help that John Stewart also recently retired from his stint, leaving me without the Daily Show as well. So without any humorous political punditry, I've been stuck having to get all my news regarding politics from - ugh - the news. But fortunately, Stephen Colbert is back on the air after taking over the Late Show from David Letterman earlier this month.
Stephen Colbert introduces the newly-renovated Ed Sullivan Theater.
I was actually really surprised at just how similar the first episode of the Late Show felt to the Colbert Report, right down to the audience chanting "Stephen, Stephen" to open the show. After the opening monologue, one could easily confuse the show for an episode of the Comedy Central series that preceded it, only with a cooler color palette and jazzier soundtrack (thanks to Jon Batiste and Stay Human being the on-stage band). Stephen even put himself back into character as a narcissistic ego-maniac. This was possibly an attempt to pander to his old audience, or at least to ease them into the new show.
Fortunately, he's toned down the narcissism (while retaining his charming confidence) in the past couple week's worth of shows. I'm glad he did too. It worked very well on the Colbert Report as part of an obviously satirical, over the top character. It doesn't work so well in a non-satirical talk show, and might even have been off-putting to viewers who weren't familiar with Colbert's old character.
But hammed-up, satirical personality flaws aside, much of the structure of the Late Show in these first few weeks has been more similar to Comedy Central's Colbert Report than to CBS' Late Show with David Letterman. It's broken up into clearly-delineated segments (some even coming with their own title and intro graphics), the joke delivery is very similar, and the preferred subject matter so far has been politics (along with plenty of digs at the NFL), and there's plenty of clip montages from CNN and Fox News. In his first three weeks, he's already hosted political figures such as Jeb Bush, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump. Familiar segments from the Colbert Report, such as "Threat Down" or "The Word" wouldn't feel very out of place at all, and I wouldn't be surprised if they do return in some form (assuming that Comedy Central doesn't have some kind of trademark on them). Viewers expecting Colbert to read off Top 10 Lists and judge stupid pet tricks might be disappointed, but viewers of The Colbert Report should be getting more or less what they expect.
Politics still seems to be Colbert's favored topic. We'll see if that holds up after the election is over -
or at least once Donald Trump is out of it.
But even though Stephen is back behind a desk in front of a camera, and he's making roughly the same jokes, on roughly the same subject matter, with roughly the same delivery, it still just isn't the same. The genius of the Colbert Report was the character. It was the way that Colbert used his own satirical conservative strawman to cleverly expose the hippocracy, corruption, and insanity of the increasingly-radicalized right. Without the faux conservative character, the Late Show's jokes just don't have the subtle subversiveness or impact of the Colbert Report's jokes, and the unfortunate truth is that Colbert shouldn't be trying to replicate the old show. There's nothing inherently wrong with trying to replicate what made Colbert so successful, as doing so will only serve to hold The Late Show back. The Late Show has been moderately funny and entertaining so far due to Stephen's excellent delivery and his way of pointing out the absurd in everything. But so far, the Late Show hasn't found its own identity yet; as it still feels like "Colbert Report Lite".
Don't get me wrong: I like what I've seen from the Late Show so far, and I'll continue to stream it during my lunch breaks at work or while my code is compiling. But I couldn't help but feel like it suffers from a bit of an uncomfortable identity crisis. There's going to be growing pains, and I trust that Colbert will find what works fairly quickly. Will it turn out to be better than Colbert Report? Will it be an easier adjustment than the Daily Show that's being taken over by Trevor Noah? Time will tell.
I hope that Colbert is able to use the Late Show as a social platform that's as meaningful as the Colbert Report was. I don't know if he'll be doing bits similar to his incredible mockery of the inner workings of Super PACs that were so effective at educating the public. I'd love to see stories as insightful as that. I don't know if he'll continue to promote Donors Chose and similar calls to action. He will likely be much more restrained by what the network is willing to let him do. But I hope that he can still find a way to make himself a voice of grass-roots political change, because he has established himself as a powerful voice.
In any cast, Colbert is going to need to find a new voice and style to be successful on this new show. He needs to free himself from the shackles of the Report and be completely willing to be himself and to explore new avenues of comedy. I think he knows that, as evidenced by the way he's already reigned in the narcissism that I mentioned earlier. But do the fans that chant "Stephen, Stephen, Stephen" from the balcony of the renovated Ed Sullivan Theater understand that? Do they realize that the Colbert Nation ended with the Report? If not, then they may force the Late Show to remain forever in the shadow of the Colbert Report.