In some ways, Stephen Colbert just made his mainstream comedy debut.
For nine years, as the host of the eponymous The Colbert Report on Comedy Central, he played the role of a well-meaning, imperious idiot whose name he just happened to share. Where Colbert the performer went, Colbert the character followed.
He brought his delightful riff on conservative media personalities to the Emmys, the White House Correspondents Dinner, Bill O’Reilly’s guest chair, and — in perhaps his oddest gig — testimony before a congressional subcommittee (that didn’t really seem to get the joke).
But on Tuesday night, Colbert the performer made his debut on primetime late-night comedy in his own voice — as the new host of CBS’ The Late Show, inheriting the mantle from David Letterman, for whom the show had been founded in 1993.
Colbert’s premiere opened with the singing of the national anthem all across the country — a parody of presidential campaign announcement videos — plus a special cameo by a certain friend of Stephen’s, revealing himself from under an umpire’s mask.
Sitting behind a new desk at the resplendent, recently renovated Ed Sullivan Theater — though with a few artifacts of the old “Stephen Colbert,” like the Captain America shield — Colbert signaled an intention to remain at the intersection of entertainment and politics, by welcoming as his first guests noted Hollywood lefty George Clooney and Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush.
But before he could do any of that, while giving a tour of his new digs, he also revealed that he had sold his soul to the dark lords — his sponsors.
As an act of meta-commentary, Stephen caught up with the major political news that he’d missed during his time preparing for this new show — the media junk food that is the Donald Trump campaign.
In his opening monologue, he made reference to the pressure to differentiate his new gig from his old role. And it’s not necessarily that there’s a lot of the familiar Colbert character in his new persona, it’s that the old gasbag had a lot of Colbert in him.
Or, as he said himself later on in an exchange with Jeb Bush: “I used to play a narcissistic conservative pundit; now I’m just a narcissist.”
But in the best way possible.
Colbert is a performer who can magnificently toe the line between pompous and goofy, raw and refined, smart and stupid, performing silly acts with obvious delight and unassailable confidence. His long history as a master ironist invites his audience to view, perhaps charitably, even the hammiest skits as arch meta-takes on the very nature of hammy late-night comedy.
In other words, the friction between being in on the joke and stuck in a bad one doesn’t exist with Colbert, which is perhaps why the debut episode of his new show was such a weird and wonderful hour, rough and rowdy and full of contradictions and promise.