Stephen Colbert is about as winning a television personality as American comedy has right now, which makes him an ideal fit for late-night TV. A format this staid, after all, needs a salesman as vibrant as Colbert. In the new host’s first night on The Late Show, Colbert did everything you’d expect a late-night host to do: delivered some stand-up jokes, did a topical bit (Donald Trump), talked to an actor (George Clooney) and a politician (Jeb Bush), and danced onstage with his musical guests. But he delivered the entire package with a feeling of genuine delight, which was enough to carry the audience through all the first-show jitters—an achievement none of Colbert’s competitors could claim.
The new theme song on The Late Show, composed by the bandleader Jon Batiste, is called “Humanism,” which underlined what felt like the most notable aspect of The Late Show—seeing Colbert get the chance to exercise his expansive spirit for the first time. From the opening video, which saw him singing the national anthem with people around the country (featuring a brief Jon Stewart cameo), to his conversation with his brother (who was sitting in the Ed Sullivan Theater audience) about their differing political beliefs, Colbert’s warmth was clearly The Late Show’s biggest asset. As has been widely discussed, the performer spent 15 years in character as a narcissistic buffoon of a cable personality; first on The Daily Show, then on The Colbert Report. So the main incentive to tune in to the first episode of The Late Show was the chance to see the human being behind the overblown pundit—by itself, must-see TV—but what Colbert ultimately delivered was something more promising.