NEVER FAILS. The rise of a new late-night star is always accompanied by the first-night postmortem — who was on, what he did, how badly he screwed up or deftly avoided screwing up. But the first show isn’t the best way to get a handle on a show’s real emotional temperature. You can’t judge a pitcher by the jitters on Opening Day. Not accurately, anyway.
“The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” is a great example. After months of buildup, the replacement program for David Letterman’s long run got off to a bright, zany, somewhat unpredictable start with Colbert, his conservative all-beef high-fructose kingmaker persona retired, took over the “Late Show” franchise on Tuesday night.
And in interviews that moved from the star-struck to the cerebral to the deeply emotional, Colbert’s already shown himself to be more than equal to the challenge of carving out his own identity in a new forum.
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On the second show, on Wednesday, we got an idea of the Colbert intellectual range. The first guest was Scarlett Johanssen, always a good late-night get. The actress, maybe a tad jet-lagged having just arrived from Paris, did her part as one-half of the mutual admiration society that developed between her and Colbert.
In “Big Questions With Even Bigger Stars,” what we're led to believe will be an ongoing segment, the two of them lay on a makeshift blanket and gazed up at the “stars” and pondered the Meaning of Life. You know, the serious stuff, like, is it better to have feet for hands or hands for feet? And, “What do you think Oprah’s doing right now?”
But at one point before this serene foolishness, Colbert was firing questions at her so relentlessly, Johanssen had to say “Stop it!” — which seemed to settle Colbert down. From then on, things got better, the tone more like a conversation and less like a prosecutor’s inquiry. Which is what you want.
With his next guest, billionaire tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, Colbert kept his promise to bring more unconventional guests to his show. Musk (whom Colbert called “the real-life Tony Stark”) wasn’t exactly the most scintillating guest, sometimes impassively answering Colbert’s questions with replies way too brief to make for satisfying television.
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THURSDAY NIGHT showed us what’s really possible. Colbert brought on a major talk-show get: Vice President Joe Biden, who is thought to be weighing a run for the presidency in 2016. He’s undecided largely because he is still emotionally navigating the loss of his son, Beau, who died May 30 of brain cancer, at the age of 46.
Gently steered toward the topic by Colbert, Biden, in a few short and touching moments, laid bare the breaking heart that is still his.
“My father had an expression and he said, ‘You know your success is apparent when you look at your child and realize that they turned out better than you.' I was a hell of a success, and my son was better than me. He was better than me in almost every way.
“So many people have losses as severe or maybe worse than mine and didn't have the incredible support I have," he said. “I feel self-conscious. The loss is serious and it's consequential, but there are so many other people going through this. For me, my wife when she wants to leave me messages, she literally tapes them on my mirror when I'm shaving ..." One of them was by the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. “'Faith sees best in the dark.' For me, my religion is an enormous sense of solace."
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And when Biden made common cause with Colbert, who lost his father and his two older brothers in a plane crash — on Sept. 11, 1974 — it solidified Colbert’s position at the top of the late-night leaderboard. “You're one of them, ol’ buddy,” Biden told Colbert, turning the tables for a moment. “Your mom, your family, losing your dad when you're a kid. Three brothers. What made your mother do it every day?”
“She had to take care of me,” Colbert replied. “And I had to take care of her... I would say that I raised my mom from that in a few years.” The back-and-forth between them was heartfelt and real as it gets. If your waterworks didn’t turn on after the Biden segment, for at least a moment, odds are you’re already dead.
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ON FRIDAY, ending the first week on a high note, Colbert brought in comedian and “Trainwreck” star Amy Schumer and nonstop novelist Stephen King. Colbert and Schumer found common ground in their having both been on the cover of GQ magazine. And Schumer, still not a household comedy name, went into details about staying at Jake Gyllenhaal’s house once and eating the actor’s cake.
For his part, King showed up wearing the National Medal of Arts he recently received from President Obama, saying that putting the thing around his neck made him feel like Flavor Flav. Colbert also suggested altering the award to better suit the author’s writing style. “You can sharpen the edge of that and it would make a nice murder weapon,” he told King.
This wasn’t the usual parade of guests tirelessly plugging their latest movie, book or TV show. And there’s more of this to come; Apple CEO Tim Cook, Pearl Jam, actress Kerry Washington and billionaire attention addict Donald Trump are among those slated for “Late Show” appearances. Novel choices all around.
The novelty of the new thing is hard to resist, and that’s what Stephen Colbert is enjoying right now. But his “Late Show” premiere week tells us that, once the new-car smell fades, we’ll be left with a show that won’t embarrass us (even as it routinely surprises us), a late-night host who’s not afraid to break the boundaries — the boundaries that we as viewers didn’t know were there, until he pushed past them.
Image credits: Biden and Colbert, “Late Show With Stephen Colbert” logo: © 2015 Spartina Productions/CBS.