Colbert's Late Show Guests Are Surprisingly Highbrow

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The lineup for his opening two weeks feature everything from interviews with the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to performances from the choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and the cast of An American in Paris. It’s hard to judge a show before it airs, but if nothing else, Colbert is very clearly veering away from the celebrity-friendly territory of Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show.

To be fair, Colbert’s debut week has the kind of big names a late-night show wants for its premiere (George Clooney and Scarlett Johansson), but also less predictable fare, including Jeb Bush, Elon Musk and Travis Kalanick, and Stephen King. The second week, announced today, is even more eclectic, welcoming Justice Stephen Breyer, Bernie Sanders, and a pairing of legendary TV comedian Carol Burnett with two of her spiritual successors, Broad City’s Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson.

Since getting the Late Show gig at CBS, Colbert has talked about trying to change the late-night format to suit his sensibility, and while he won’t be playing his bloviating pundit character from The Colbert Report, he clearly wants to keep one foot in the political arena. Perhaps even more exciting is the mix of performances on deck: the rapper Kendrick Lamar, a collaboration from Run the Jewels and TV on the Radio, and an interview and performance from Willie Nelson.

The comedian Andy Kindler always delivers an annual “state of the comedy industry” address at the Montreal Just for Laughs festival, and this year he bemoaned the cheery, promotional quality of most late night shows. “You’ve gotta be able to do a potato sack race with Cameron Diaz,” he joked. Perhaps Colbert, too, will challenge Ban Ki-Moon to a sack race, but the tenor of his bookings suggests something a little more thoughtful.