It was 11:35pm on a Monday, and I sat on the edge of my couch like a child on Christmas morning. Stephen Colbert was about to take the reins of “The Late Show” on CBS, one of the more established talk shows still on-air. I rarely watch TV but have been a fan of “The Colbert Report” for many years, much like every twenty-something. And like many, I had no idea what to expect.
I thought of all the crazy things Colbert might do. Maybe he’d have a boxing match with a rooster. Maybe he’d travel to TD Garden to take on the Boston Bruins. Or maybe he’d demolish a sleeve of Oreo’s while talking about Donald Trump (he did do that). So when he ran out on stage to the bellowing chant of “Ste-phen, Ste-phen,” my eyes lit up with expectation. But as the show hit the halfway mark, I became disappointed in how familiar this premiere felt. All of Colbert’s jokes felt like another episode of “The Colbert Report.”
This contrasted what Colbert said in an interview with TIME Magazine. He wanted this new role to introduce “the real Stephen Colbert,” and break away from the character he’s famous for. It’s not secret that CBS has a more generalized demographic than Comedy Central, so Colbert would in turn have to generalize his jokes. Transitioning away from his character basically meant filtering for the general masses, and he seemed unsure of how to do that successfully.
“There’s a level of this,” he told his producers in TIME, “where it’s addressing a question without an answer, that can’t be answered.”
“The Late Show’s” premiere garnered mixed opinions for doing the opposite. Many estranged viewers watched Colbert become possessed by an amulet and some Sabra hummus in a skit that went five minutes longer than it probably should have. I think it would have brought viewers on Comedy Central to tears, but it left those on basic cable confused. Colbert then welcomed his first-ever guest, actor George Clooney. But Clooney didn’t actually have anything to promote or plug, so the next few minutes became awkward small-talk with some fake movie clips. It seemed like Colbert either slipped back into his comfortable persona, or would go overboard trying to rebrand himself.
Despite the above, I don’t have a problem with Colbert retaining his old style of humor. And a lot of great humor did come from his debut this week. But I can’t be alone in wondering when we’ll see the real Stephen Colbert, and what that man will do to leave his mark. Colbert’s own curiosity about the “real” him sparked my interest in the first place. I know you can’t force these transitions, but I felt entitled — I wanted that human to reveal himself.
Finally, we saw a glimpse of the real Colbert when Joe Biden stopped by on Sept. 10.
Joe Biden’s 20 minute interview could occupy its own news story with all the content covered, and many publications went that route. Colbert started the interview by asking Biden about his son, Beau, then about a possible 2016 presidential campaign. Things quickly became touching when Biden was on the verge of tears, and the audience saw a different side of Colbert. We began to see the man behind the mask. He wasn’t parading around stage or cracking jokes, he was empathizing. He was listening and letting Biden speak his mind. Colbert wasn’t afraid to go off-script and bring a genuine and raw reaction out of Biden.
Earlier in that same episode, Colbert said, “I can’t imagine what it would be like to spend nine years pretending to be somebody that you’re not.” Little moments like his interview with Biden show that he is learning to be himself. To be fair, many other talk show hosts don’t hit their stride for months, even years. And while Colbert’s first week felt all too familiar, I’m confident that he will quickly grow into the television host he aspires to be.