Welcome Back, Stephen Colbert

The host embraced his warmer, more human side for his first Late Show episode.

Jeffrey R. Staab / CBS

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.

Since Colbert was announced as David Letterman’s successor at CBS, critics have wondered just how much Colbert might shake up the late-night format. The premiere offered some vestige of an answer: Colbert certainly seemed at his least comfortable standing in front of the audience telling jokes. Meanwhile, he’s proven to be commanding behind a desk—as the host of The Colbert Report, he was jokingly positioned as the head of a cult of maniacal viewers, but sometimes it was hard to distinguish between the joke and reality. Colbert’s fans have pulled off many a bizarre stunt at his command, including almost naming a bridge in Hungary after him. That kind of large-scale absurdism is perfect for late night, and echoes the innovation Letterman brought to the genre. Hopefully Colbert will retain that mischievousness, but without the mean-spiritedness of his competitor Jimmy Kimmel, or the celebrity focus of Jimmy Fallon (Colbert is certainly casting a wider net with his guest bookings).

On his first night, though, Colbert had two desk bits that both, dispiritingly, seemed tied to a form of product placement. The first was a strange pledge of fealty to a ram-skull god who was forcing the host to hawk hummus, a labored justification for a cheap plug that was funny enough to work. The second was a piece of Trump satire revolving around Oreos (and how making one joke, and eating one cookie, is never enough). It’s hard to guess whether Nabisco paid for that mention, and the bit was well-written, but it bumped uncomfortably against the hummus product placement it followed.

Still, these two segments hinted at how Colbert might make The Late Show his own in the future. Letterman would have turned the hummus plug into an opportunity for dripping cynicism, but this is a new TV landscape, where commercials matter less and less and shows need to find a way to cram opportunities for sponsorship into on-screen nooks and crannies. Colbert dove into everything with aplomb, echoing his timeslot rival Fallon, but without the jittery nerves that accompanied Fallon’s entry to the hosting gig.

Still, it’ll take weeks if not longer to get a fuller sense of what Colbert’s really going to do on CBS. The Colbert Report came out swinging on Comedy Central when it launched in 2005, with a clear mission statement about “truthiness” and the kind of punditry it wanted to savage. But The Late Show doesn’t need so straightforward a calling, and there’s plenty of time for Colbert to figure out what kind of mix of material he wants to feature. His interview with Clooney was perhaps too loose, hindered by the fact that they had nothing in particular to talk about, while his chat with Bush was choppily edited and lacking the aggressiveness of Colbert’s Comedy Central character. Those are kinks that will quickly get worked out—watch Fallon’s debut, or O’Brien’s, or even Stewart’s for a reminder of what a quantum leap in quality late-night shows make within their first few months.

The TV landscape is diffuse enough that Colbert’s The Late Show will never have the outsize impact of some of its predecessors, but this is nonetheless an era that places a lot of value on a celebrity’s authenticity. You can hawk hummus and pal around with a Republican frontrunner if it never feels like you’re lying to the audience, and Colbert looks ready to embrace that. When framing a question to Jeb Bush about his brother George, Colbert talked to his own brother Jay in the audience, asking if they agreed politically. Jay gave a slow shake of the head. “But I love you!” Colbert exclaimed, holding his arms out, and Jay returned the gesture with a heartfelt nod. It was brief, but genuine, and amid the jokes and the product placement, it made for the most memorable moment of the night.