The quandary hovering over Stephen Colbert’s new late night television show—one addressed at length by the host himself during the inaugural episode—is how he will be able to transition from the political satire that made him famous into the sort of generalist humor that might make him more palatable to a wider (i.e. older) audience.
Last night, at least, Colbert left himself a long runway. In his final pre-interview segment, Colbert sat at his desk and riffed on the media’s coverage of Donald Trump. Appearing to the left of the screen were news-style graphics, and the bit was intercut with footage from Trump speeches. If you were none the wiser about Colbert’s career, you could have easily mistaken it for a slice of his old show.
Later, Colbert interviewed Jeb Bush. Having the third-place candidate for the Republican nomination for president follow George Clooney on your first-ever show replacing David Letterman might feel a bit underwhelming, but, again, politics is Colbert’s arena. Nonetheless, it was here, in a weirdly toothless interview, that we saw Colbert’s personas separate like oil and vinegar.
Colbert began by asking Bush to “tell the American people why you want to be president of the United States”—a question that any candidate has answered several times over. Next, Colbert and Bush commiserated about partisanship in Washington, which ended in Colbert allowing Bush to confidently assert that he would fix this menacing problem. The interview carried on like this, with Colbert aiming for buttoned-up seriousness but landing on trite. He didn’t lob easy questions at Bush as a manner of setting up later punchlines—instead, he seemed to want to have a real Conversation About the Issues, which, given the forum, was effectively useless.
[There was a video here]
It was a dry and lifeless back-and-forth, which is no doubt a reflection on Bush, whose candidacy is coming to be defined by its lack of mirth. But it was also a reflection on Colbert, learning to play it straight. Colbert quickly honed the character of “Stephen Colbert, conservative pundit” and as a result most of his interviews crackled with a sort of energy, but last night’s dance with Bush had the stilted rhythm of two fifth-graders afraid to touch each other.
Colbert will find an equilibrium, but one moment in his interview with Bush suggested that he might view himself as a new steward of respectability. Midway through the discussion, Colbert asked Bush about his campaign slogan, which is just his name and an exclamation point: “Jeb!” Here, Colbert began to mock the phrase’s inherent ridiculousness, repeating the slogan—“Jeb!”—in an increasingly whiny voice. More importantly, he led an unwitting Bush into the biggest laugh line of the night: when the candidate droned that the slogan “connotes excitement,” the audience cackled in his face.
[There was a video here]
This should have been a perfect opportunity for Colbert to ask Bush about Donald Trump, who has been hounding Bush relentlessly as their poll numbers drive in opposite directions. Hours before the taping of last night’s episode, Trump released a mock infomercial that made fun of Bush for having an audience member fall asleep behind him during a recent campaign stop. If there’s a single thing interesting about the Jeb Bush campaign it’s this dynamic, but Colbert quickly shuffled off the subject for a rehearsed bit about Colbert’s family that culminated in him asking Bush how he was different from his brother.
(A video uploaded to YouTube later showed Bush, acting like a mannequin who was just suddenly gifted the ability to speak, reading cue cards written by Colbert’s staff in an impersonation of Trump’s voice.)
The thing that made Colbert’s old character work was that it was merely a shell that melted quickly to reveal the person underneath. That certain conservatives never understood this made their fussiness over his caricature even more ridiculous. Colbert’s humanity appropriately sanded down that show’s fangs, but The Colbert Report existed to tear flesh nonetheless. The brand of late night television he’s doing now is a different game, certainly, but the last thing it needs is less bite.