The reviews of Stephen Colbert’s first episode of Late Show With Stephen Colbert are in. The verdict is: sure, this will do. But the future of the show will rest on how well Colbert can blend surrealism with affability, a formula perfected by his predecessor David Letterman from just about opening night 22 years ago.
Letterman, of course, had just a liiiiiiitle bit experience as the host of a late night talk show, having guest hosted Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show for years before spending a decade following Carson in the NBC’s late night slot.
The first episode at CBS was on August 30, 1993, and Letterman’s new show debuted fully-formed. There was the acidic wit that influenced an entire generation of comics, but also the charming absurdism that endeared him to the sort of Midwest yokels he grew up with.
Striding onto the stage of a handsomely refurbished Ed Sullivan Theater, to an introduction wittily patched together from old Ed Sullivan clips (Mr. Letterman was variously “a fabulous boy prodigy,” “my handsome Italian paisano” and “the most amazing of all the chimp acts ever to come on the show”), CBS’s new star wickedly took aim at his old employers. “Legally, I can continue to call myself Dave,” he explained, while also claiming to have found a peacock’s head in his bed.
In a taped bit, Letterman went to a small town in New Jersey whose residents had never heard of him:
He also made good use of the television verite techniques that have kept him on the cutting edge, and that now make him an ever-greater force to be reckoned with. One cleverly edited sequence took Mr. Letterman to an apparently hype-proof town in New Jersey, where he found people who had honestly never heard of him. He was able to introduce himself as Bryant Gumbel, sincerely insist that the average person watched 22 1/2 hours of television a day, jump into strangers’ swimming pools with his clothes on, and otherwise demonstrate that the Letterman brand of performance art is truly formidable and constantly surprising.
Later, he surprised construction workers refurbishing his studio to make a joke about street harassment:
Mr. Letterman’s much-discussed liability, his tendency to cross the line from supremely dry wit to real cruelty, was also on display. One early segment presented a slow-motion montage about the workers who renovated the Ed Sullivan Theater, turning it into an airier, roomier version of his NBC set. Then out came the construction workers themselves, as a titled flashed “Construction Workers!” and the workers squirmed uneasily and gaped at the star. “You folks did a wonderful job,” he told them. “You have my undying gratitude. Now get back on the streets and start hollering at girls.”
Then Bill Murray came on to do the Bill Murray thing:
Bill Murray, who was Mr. Letterman’s first guest on his previous show and was back last night for sentimental reasons, presented a rambling psychodrama involving spray paint, a somersault and a quick clip of himself impersonating a construction worker. He sobbed about being a fraud, and Mr. Letterman played straight man.
Maslin concludes that Letterman’s new show will be a success if “he keeps up the wit and energy of his auspicious opening show,” a correct assessment, if not exactly a difficult prediction to make.
Colbert’s first episode was less bold. His best bit involved a god that made him shill for a specific hummus brand—a riff on corporate product placement that was also effective as corporate product placement. Of course, every new late night host seems to be boxed in by the structure of the form before figuring out how to bend it the way they want. Letterman just happened to figure it out from the jump.