'The Late Show With Stephen Colbert' is smart and unafraid

Sunday, September 13, 2015 - 4:48pm

NOSELL

CBS

 

In recent years, late night TV has undergone a paradigm shift, with longtime hosts departing and new blood livening up the landscape.

NBC has seen Jimmy Fallon, with his open demeanor and viral-friendly segments, successfully reinvigorate “The Tonight Show” after taking the reins from Jay Leno in 2014, and Fallon’s replacement, Seth Meyers, has experienced growing pains with a more traditional “Late Night” format.

“The Late Show With Stephen Colbert”

B+

Series Premiere

Weeknights at 11:30 p.m.

CBS

Meanwhile, Meyer’s 12:30 p.m. rival, “The Late Late Show” ’s James Corden, only took over for Craig Ferguson six months ago. Taking a page out of Fallon’s playbook, Corden has adjusted well to the position with a laid-back persona and atmosphere.

Now with David Letterman’s exit from “The Late Show,” the world of late night variety has been altered yet again with the debut of Stephen Colbert as the show’s new host.

Colbert is himself a part of another late night exodus  this time at Comedy Central — that saw the departure of “The Daily Show” ’s Jon Stewart and the subsequent rise of Larry Wilmore and Trevor Noah, replacing Colbert and Stewart, respectively.

Known for his satirical skewering of Republican pundits on “The Colbert Report,” there’s been speculation about how Colbert will adjust his acerbic personality to fit “The Late Show.” While Colbert has removed some of the more extreme elements of his former shtick, he maintains the personality that endeared him to so many on his former show. The man’s played-up egomania is readily apparent in the renovated Ed Sullivan Theater with Colbert’s face enshrined in a faux-stained glass ceiling. In addition, Colbert still isn’t afraid to throw punches on political targets, jabbing Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, in his first week on the job.

Sketches and a surreally comedic tone round out the hour. In the first episode, Colbert argues with a cursed amulet over product placement. While some of these segments work and are mostly enjoyable, there’s also timing issues with some bits going far too long, notably when Colbert makes dictatorial declaration while wearing a Genghis Khan-esque hat. More successful was the shorter pre-filmed, advertisement for “Yesterday’s Coffee,” featuring Colbert and Laura Linney ("The Truman Show").

Musically, Colbert’s house band, Stay Human, led by Jon Batiste, brings a dancing-on-the-piano energy to the early episodes. The big-name musical acts have brought a usual variety including Toby Keith, Paul Simon and Kendrick Lamar (the week’s highlight performance).timing issues with some bits going far too long, notably when Colbert makes dictatorial declaration while wearing a Genghis Khan-esque hat. More successful was the shorter pre-filmed, advertisement for “Yesterday’s Coffee,” featuring Colbert and Laura Linney ("The Truman Show").

At the core of most late night programs are guest interviews, and glimmers of higher ambition mark these segments. While there are the usual celebrities (George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson and Amy Schumer), Colbert’s opening week was marked by the addition of writer Stephen King, CEO’s Elon Musk and Travis Kalanick, Presidential candidate Jeb Bush and Vice President Joe Biden. These guests bring a new spectrum of opportunity for Colbert, a chance to become the thinking man’s Late Night talk show.

Guests like these are rare on other shows but Colbert is making a point to have these types of guests become regulars as his show goes forward. But the content of these interviews are just as important as who Colbert brings. Questions on Bush’s political stances and the effect Kalanick’s Uber has on the taxi industry are necessary inquiries that won’t necessarily be asked by other network hosts. This isn’t criticism of the rest of late night television, but rather an observed need that Colbert can potentially fill.

Nowhere is this more apparent than Colbert’s must-see interview with Biden. Touching on the tragedy of the death of Biden’s son, Beau, in June of this year, Colbert exemplifies how to handle a sensitive interview. As Biden talks about his son, there are a few moments when it looks like Colbert is ready to comment, holds back and let’s the Biden continue, improving the interview by, in a sense, doing nothing. Colbert, who lost his father and two brothers in a plane crash at age 10, is an empathetic host who still injects humor into the conversation when he asking Biden about his future plans.

Late night television is changing, and mostly improving — and Colbert’s new approach will hopefully continue to grow as the years go on.