I'm, old enough, of course, to remember Johnny Carson and Jack Parr and all the other late night talk-show hosts whose shows have made their mark on American TV and, thanks to TV's unique power in our society, have likewise made a lasting mark on American culture. But I have generally been an outsider to the late-night TV experience, having watched such shows only on the rarest occasions. Any number of times, I have walked past the Ed Sullivan Theater in Manhattan, past the lines of those waiting to get in to see David Letterman, and I have obviously seen clips of Letterman on the news and elsewhere, but (for whatever reason) I have never felt drawn to watch the actual show. The same has been true of the more modern late-night stars so favored by younger viewers - e.g., Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. But with colbert's ascension to the Late Show with as David Letterman' heir, I thought it time to join the party - not, of course, at the absurdly late hour (11:30 p.m.) when the show is actually aired, but recorded and watched later the next day at my own convenience. What could be more modern than that?
The Late Show with Stephen Colbert premiered on CBS on Tuesday, September 8, in the redecorated Ed Sullivan Theater. While Colbert is the star and carries the show, the show's band Stay Human led by Jon Batiste is integral to the overall feel of the performance, as is the youngish audience's on-cue thunderous chanting of "Stephen, Stephen ..."
Unlike their earlier incarnations, all modern talk shows - even the staid Sunday morning variants - conform to the requirement of our Attention Deficit Disorder culture and move from quickly back and forth from one act to another. Not only is Colbert a bright and quick comedian, he seems to display all the other talents needed to hold an audience's attention - whether interviewing a politician or tech entrepreneur, or doing the traditional monologue, or clowning around with the band, or dancing, or even just jumping around. In short, he does all things well, which, with good looks and abundant energy, should guarantee great success.
Clearly Colbert is also quite a star conversationalist, and can conduct non-trivial exchanges with the politicians who cannot resist free exposure to his enormous audience. His first-week interviews with Jeb Bush and with Vice President Joe Biden were superb, the latter especially getting widespread coverage because of the high quality of the conversation. Politicians doing late-night entertainment has become a staple of American politics, and has long since replaced Meet the Press as a prime media venue for reaching an audience.
The degeneration of politics into entertainment may well be lamented, but it was already a an established and entrenched fact well before Colbert inherited The Late Show. Because Colbert is so good at the showmanship part, his brilliance shows through that much more. If, as Dick Cavett has suggested (on Sunday morning's Reliable Sources show), Colbert will likely feature and highlight genuinely serious conversations, he may make some significant contribution to putting the politics back in at least some of our country's political discourse.