Residents of the Colbert Nation took a trip last night, flocking over to NBC for the first Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Whether people were hoping to see the real Stephen – the smart, genial person we first met when Colbert was a Daily Show correspondent – or hoping for the return of Stephen Colbehr, political pundit, many viewers were probably left feeling half-satisfied, as Colbert is still unsure of who he is in this new format.
That’s to be expected, and no late-night show should be judged on its first day. It’s hard to even critique since there is great expectation Colbert will find his way to revive the spirit of The Late Show. Last night’s ratings were up 203 percent over the same date last year, when the show was hosted by David Letterman, and was the largest Tuesday audience for a Late Show since 1995. According to EW Colbert’s debut audience of 6.6 million viewers also trounced his late night peers, as expected for any new host. The Tonight Show brought in 2.9 million viewers last night while Jimmy Kimmel Live attracted 1.7 million. By contrast 11.3 million people watched Jimmy Fallon’s first episode of The Tonight Show, which got a boost as it followed that day’s broadcast of the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Late night TV has always been a game of keeping an audience as much as attracting one so the weeks and months to come will be the real test for Colbert and crew. He’s brought along many of the team who made him successful on Comedy Central, including Jon Stewart, who was credited as an Executive Producer on last night’s show.
The show itself was as raw and messy as any first show would be, capitalizing more on enthusiasm and novelty than edgy jokes or interviews. It was obvious they’ve been working months on this premiere, and perhaps packed in gags where substance would have worked better. Colbert lingered a tad long on a few jokes, and squandered George Clooney’s time in the chair, asking briefly about Darfur before hammering home a silly set-up about how George had nothing to promote. (For heaven’s sake just ask the man about his summer, or who he likes for the Super Bowl this year.) Colbert also high-centered on a repetitive segment meant to skewer Donald Trump – the low-hanging fruit of this campaign season.
That format worked well on Comedy Central, where people came to see him burn down political and cultural figures but the late-night crowd is cut from broader cloth. Here we have a spectrum of people looking to relax before bed which is why late-night hosts traditionally touch-and-go their jokes across many targets of opportunity.
But first dates are awkward and that’s exactly what this was. Remember how twitchy and nervous Jimmy Fallon was before he became a viral lipsync sensation and found his groove? Stephen will find his way because he is a comedian of the people. He genuinely seems to want people to enjoy themselves and doesn’t shy away from being spontaneously real regarding topics both humorous and thought-provoking. In the first few moments he quipped, “”I’m so excited to be here right now. I’m also so excited to be at home six hours from now watching this on TV. Hi Me!” There’s nothing about Stephen that wants to pull anything over on his audience.
There were really fun moments too. Check out this cameo right at the start:
His family – wife and children, along with his brother’s family – beamed from the front row last night. His Twitter account (@StephenAtHome) features a profile photo of him kissing his wife. I can only think of a handful of occasions when Letterman even mentioned his family, and they didn’t show up until his finale. For this late-night generation who are skeptical about manufactured personas, the real Stephen may be just who they’re looking for.