This week it became clear: Stephen Colbert isn’t out to transform late-night television. He just wants to make it smarter.
And so far, so good.
Much of what Colbert is offering on CBS’ revamped “The Late Show” is thoroughly familiar. He’s got a house band, he starts off — after a bit of dancing and the familiar audience chant of “Stephen! Stephen! Stephen!” (a holdover from “The Colbert Report”) — with a standing monologue. Then he moves behind the desk for some more comedy bits.
All standard stuff, although for now Colbert seems a lot more comfortable behind the desk, which is where he spent nine years on the “Report.”
It’s what comes next that sets Colbert apart. He started out Tuesday night with George Clooney as his first guest and it was the usual series of softball lobs to a mega-celebrity. But his second guest was Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, and while Colbert was hardly set on attack mode, he did ask more substantial questions than we’re used to on late-night talk shows.
And that was just the warm-up. Wednesday night saw the same celebrity/substance balance with Scarlet Johansson being followed by Tesla founder and space travel advocate Elon Musk. Colbert showed a clip of a rocket ship almost successfully landing on a drone ship at sea. How many people knew Musk was that close to being able to land rocket ships? A whole lot more knew after the clip, and Musk’s hopeful vision of the future — electric cars, sustainable solar energy, migration to other planets — was given a major platform.
Thursday night, though, is when Colbert really hit it out of the park with Vice President Joe Biden. In a long, emotional and obviously affectionate interview, Colbert talked with Biden about the recent death of his over-achieving son, Beau, about weathering life’s tragedies, about Biden’s Catholic faith and whether he would/should run for president (Biden told Colbert to run and said he’d serve as vice president).
It was both moving and revealing. Colbert threw non-partisanship out the door, but he also led the vice president through a series of serious questions that transcended the late-night genre. As a result Biden came across as the most sincere, human politician on television in memory. If he does decide to run, the interview could serve as a cornerstone for his campaign.
This is not what you expect to see on a late-night talk show. And it remains to be seen whether the television audience will respond to something beyond celebrity glad-handing. Colbert’s opening show on Tuesday night trounced NBC’s “Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” and ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” drawing more than 6 million viewers, but Fallon was back on top by Wednesday night. And there is always going to be an audience for Kimmel’s smirk and Fallon’s exhaustingly upbeat vibe.
Still, for those who wouldn’t mind some serious discourse, information and sincerity mixed in with the humor, this version of “The Late Show” is heartening. Colbert can be as silly and funny as anyone; that he can also be human and smart just makes him that much more appealing.