9.14.2015

TV Review: The First Week of Late Show With Stephen Colbert

How did I do?
In my opinion there is not a smarter person on television than Stephen Colbert. Despite the comedic facade there also is not a more sincere person, a person who cares more about their craft, and about connecting with people through their craft. I am speaking in superlatives I know, but there does seem to be something about Colbert that differentiates him from all the others (and not just his late night competition) and there seems to be something different in how he is shaping the new Late Show.
Jerry: That's really pretentious.
Stephen: Maybe, but you sound really ignorant.
A clue as to what exactly sets Colbert apart from his peers came during an off-putting moment in his episode of Jerry Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee where they go into a book store together and Stephen tells Jerry when he was young and living in Chicago the one thing he wouldn't deny himself was books. Jerry, who is obviously making a joke but still manages to sounds like a dolt, stares at Stephen for a moment and says..."That's really pretentious."

The scene moves on from there, but I could not help but cry out "What's wrong with you Jerry!? You're missing the good life! How in the world could you think it's attractive to be smug about what you don't know?"

Thing is, my fear as Colbert starts his tenure on Late Show is the rest of America will approach Colbert just the way Seinfeld did: they will listen to him a little while but in the end they'll tune him out, calling him pretentious, and tune in to Kimmel or Fallon, the hosts with more mass appeal.

But here's the other thing: Colbert is more naturally funny than either of them. So while on one hand I fear Colbert will lose middle America, my hope is his raw energy and near matchless comedic talent will keep bringing the Nation back.

Not only is he funnier but I also think he is better at connecting with people. In some strange way I can tell he is there to spend time with us, that his comedy is actually geared toward bringing comfort to people and bringing us together, even as he makes us uncomfortable. I got this sense from him even before I read this quote from a forthcoming interview (a clip of which you can view below), which could be Colbert's performance manifesto:

“That sense of connection between the performer and the audience is the entire intention,” he said. “What does anybody want? Not to be alone, and I think when a performer gets onstage and says the things that are in his mind, in his own particular way, [it is] to make a connection with an audience so he doesn’t feel so alone... “That’s got to be the goal, that connection has got to be the goal, and the making somebody laugh has got to be the goal,” he said. “You can’t think that your satire is going to change things.”

Colbert seems to have a profound respect for that which he disagrees with. He is the type that constantly re-engages with someone on the opposite end of the spectrum from him, whether it be a high-profile politician like Jeb Bush or his own brother (who was in the audience on the first night). This sets him apart as an interviewer—he will continually listen to and probe his subjects in order to better understand.

I watched every episode of Colbert's first week with studied intention: How has his craft changed in his new setting and what expectations is he setting in these first batch of shows? 

So here now are my wandering thoubservations on the first week of Late Show With Stephen Colbert:

I love the theme song—It is smart and energetic and funny. Before Monday I had no idea who Jonathan Batiste is. I wonder if he'll ever get to talk on the show.

Literally bursting with material—The first show ran far longer than the allotted hour and almost did not make it to air, the nerve-wracking story of which Colbert relayed to the audience the second night. Let me just say I am so thankful he is on network TV now, since I don't have cable. The first show ran long, but he could have kept doing that Donald Trump Oreo bit for another ten minutes as far as I'm concerned.

Living into the legacy—It definitely feels like he is paying homage to both Johnny Carson (with his Ghengis Khan hat routine) as well as to David Letterman (with the stage noises ["Hoopa! Yapow!"] and the cursed mask/hummus bit). In fact, his homage to Letterman almost seemed intentional where, right after explaining how Letterman changed everything for comics he went right into his absurdist and subversive cursed pagan mask, product placement bit with the hummus. 

Interviews: In interviews Colbert constantly dances back and forth from absurdism (George Clooney's fake movie), to utter sincerity (George Clooney's activism in Sudan and pretty much all of Joe Biden's interview), to subversively respecting his guests through playful mockery (Jeb Bush, Elon Musk, and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick). He seems seriously inquisitive and from what I can tell the interviews are not entirely fabricated (except when intentionally so). He is asking genuine questions the interviewee is honestly not expecting. Never was this more the case than in his interview with Vice President Joe Biden, which is getting quite a lot of attention. It is certainly the rawest interview I have ever seen on a mainstream late night talk show. It was full of silent pauses and included many references to suffering and faith in the midst of adversity and entirely un-ironic accounts of human bravery, humility, perseverance, and integrity. The stuff of Oprah and Charlie Rose has come to late night by way of one of the greatest comedic minds of our generation. Is anyone listening?

A faith based show?—To my mind never have so many committed Christian people appeared on such a prominent show in so short amount of time: from Jeb Bush, Mavis Staples, Kendrick Lamar, and Joe Biden. I am not positing these were calculated moves on the show's part, but it does seem significant, most notably in the inclusion of Christian artists and public figures who make cultural impactful are and have great influence in the political sphere.

Getting political?—So far Colbert has featured a short political segment each night reminiscent of the Colbert Report but as the more straightforward and thus "real" Stephen Colbert. Is he continuing to do the political stuff to assure his carryover audience from the Report that he has not changed all that much or is he doing it simply because it is what he is best at? Whatever the case, these have been my favorite moments of the show so far, so I hope he keeps doing them.

On the fringes?—Speaking of politics, Colbert has continued to venture into uncomfortable or fringe subject matter, which is strange for an entertainer with as mainstream platform as he has. He goes for the gullet with Jeb Bush asking how he is different from his older brother, he ask Clooney a legitimate question about his activism, he throws in a dark joke about a cursed pagan mask, he makes political jokes with real weight to them, he hounds the Uber about loss of taxi-driver jobs, and he straight up discusses religion with Joe Biden. People don't even talk about religion at Thanksgiving in their own families. In other words, he is not doing middle of the road material meant to fluff our pillows before we go to bed. He is wanting to venture into the looked over places of people's lives and the issues that affect our world. I can only hope he continues to do this and does not feel the pressure to be a normal Joe and please the masses. To me, what sets Colbert apart and what makes him so appealing is he stands above us. He is funnier, quickier on his (mental and physical) feet, and more able to connect with people than we will ever be. As far as I am concerned sticking to his comedic, cultural, and social instincts and not to what network executives want is how the show will endure for years to come.

Pretty fly for a white guy?—Colbert's greatest trick is to be the most subversive mind on television while coming in an outward package that is entirely vanilla. Colbert actually looks like a nightly news anchor, but it's the little twinkle in his eye after he says an acerbic joke that gives him away. America is going to trust Colbert because he looks so trustworthy. He looks like a local city councilman. He looks middle America. He looks like (and is) a Sunday School teacher. But he is going to get us every time. His jokes will get inside us and rough us up. "But that's OK," we'll say, "that guy just looks so nice. He wouldn't hurt a fly..."

Ho-hum, just another talk show?—As last Friday's show demonstrates (Late Show's first Friday) not everything Colbert does is going to be comedic gold. Sometimes, we are just going to get a run-of-the-mill show, with decent to sub-decent material. In the case of Friday's show, I did not find his interviews with Amy Schumer and Stephen King all that interesting (they came a little too close to feeling fake), his opening political material on Hilary Clinton did not have much bite to it (but was decent enough), and I really wish he had not ruined a great Paul Simon song with his whistling even if it had fulfilled his childhood dreams (Side note: It should be said that if Colbert does start regularly integrating himself into the songs of his musical guests he will be very much in line with classic variety shows like Dean Martin, Johnny Cash, and Hee Haw, even if I do find it pretty annoying.) And guess what? Sub-par material is fine. Colbert himself said, in the run up to the show's debut, that they don't have one chance to get the show right, they have 250 chances the first year, so talk to him in a year to see how it is going then. Even so, I am nervously watching what Colbert will do with his political material now that the "Colbert" conservative pundit persona has been put to rest. The conceit of the idiot blowhard allowed Colbert to make gloriously incisive and inciting satire; that is, the facade let him be more dangerous. We will have to wait and see how the dangerous the "real" Colbert allows himself to be.

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