The Late Show
On September 7th 2015, Stephen Colbert became just the second host of the venerable Late Show on CBS, replacing talk show veteran David Letterman. It’s one of the final moves in the current round of talk show musical chairs that has seen industry stalwarts Jay Leno, David Letterman and Jon Stewart all retire from decades-long hosting gigs opening the door for newer stars in Jimmy Fallon, Trevor Noah and John Oliver.
Colbert’s move to the Late Show has easily been the most anticipated move of the lot. Whilst Jon Stewart’s influence and ability to generate pop culture talking points on The Daily Show somewhat diminished in the last couple of years, Colbert’s star has continued to shine bright. There is also an element of intrigue about his on-air persona. Colbert’s entire run on The Colbert Report was playing a spoof of Fox News pundits like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. With his move to The Late Show, it was announced that Colbert would be ditching the conservative blow-hard routine and would be himself.
How would Colbert find a niche for himself in the new talk show landscape? Since he made his name lampooning politics, would that still be the key focus of his show or would he follow the Letterman template more closely and stick with celebrities plugging their latest movie or show?
The first week of The Late Show under Colbert has now come and gone and now I think we have an idea of what Colbert is hoping for and whats to come.
As expected, a galaxy of stars were booked on the show ranging from George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Schumer to political giants Jeb Bush and Joe Biden.
If Colbert was striving to deliver a show that was anchored by his ‘authentic self’ then he appeared to look to get the same out of his guests. The very first interview he conducted on his show was with Clooney who was billed as having absolutely nothing to spruik. There wasn’t a movie to plug, a book launch to talk about or even a social cause that he came to promote. Instead it was framed as two friends just shooting the breeze about whatever came to mind.
Whilst it was a passable interview, it didn’t particularly generate any noteworthy moment although that wasn’t from a lack of effort from Colbert who probed about Darfur and the accomplishments of Amal Clooney amongst other things. Colbert’s first interview with a politician – Jeb Bush – wasn’t much better. Bush – a career politician and increasingly looking like a lame duck in the Republican primaries – tried his utmost to exude charm and avoid any clangers but he had all the personality of a plank of wood. “This might shock you,” said Bush setting up what appeared to be a moment of candid disclosure, “but I don’t think Obama is purposefully trying to ruin this country.” Really? What an insight!
But Colbert’s persistence in this new direction paid off at the end of the week when he interviewed Vice President Joe Biden. Ostensibly the interview appeared to be a platform for Biden to announce his presidential candidacy but instead the interview went down a different path as Biden shared in a disarmingly sincere fashion how much he was still grieving over the loss of his son Beau Biden to brain cancer earlier this year. Biden showed a humility and vulnerability that is exceptionally rare in talk show television (and rarer still in American federal political) and he finished not by announcing his candidacy but merely his uncertainty. Could he give it his all to run for president in 2016? He did not know.
It was a memorable moment for Colbert’s first week on The Late Show. It was refreshingly sincere and free of the phoney mateship and canned nature that typifies most talk shows. Clearly the format of the late night talk show is inherently geared towards celebrities lining up to shill their wares but I hope Colbert persists with his new direction. Even if he is only sporadically successful in getting his guests to open up in a way that they didn’t do in the previous two dozen interviews they just finished on the media circuit then the show will be a success.