That was the big question folks wanted answered by the premiere episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Although Colbert’s been a late-night fixture for over a decade, the guy who appeared on The Daily Show and then hosted The Colbert Report for ten seasons was “Stephen Colbert,” a fictional and wildly pompous conservative pundit designed to spoof the actual wildly pompous conservative pundits of Fox News. “Colbert” we know. But the “real” Colbert, he’s still a mystery.

Colbert even made the search for the “real” Colbert the subject of one of his opening monologue jokes, quipping that he’s looking for him, and sincerely hoping not to find him on Ashley Madison. (Later he told Jeb Bush “I used to play a narcissistic conservative pundit. Now I’m just a narcissist.”) The old Stephen did make a few cameos; Colbert welcomed his studio audience with his traditional “Hello nation!” greeting (and they welcomed him with their traditional “Stephen! Stephen!” chant). The Captain America shield made the transition from The Colbert Report to The Late Show, as did Colbert’s well-documented nerdiness; the end of the first segment was devoted to an awesomely dorky bit involving another prop from Colbert’s new set, his “ancient cursed amulet,” which supposedly symbolized the blood oath he swore to an Assyrian fire god in exchange for the hosting gig on The Late Show. Then, under orders from the amulet, he did an ad for Sabra hummus, the night’s “delicious sponsor.”

(Food was a bit of a theme for the first Late Show. In the next segment, Colbert gorged on Oreos [and dry heaved at the thought of Hydrox] as part of a monologue about Donald Trump.)


It’s probably not quite right to say the “real” Stephen Colbert is a kinder, gentler one, but the episode also saw him make nice with his competition over on NBC, when Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon popped up on one of Colbert’s giant video screens to say hi and plug his guests, and each wished the other well. (Fallon also made a cameo at the very end of the show; the days of the Letterman and Leno rivalry these are not.) The jabs at Trump and other political figures were pretty mild, at least in comparison to his Comedy Central material, and while “Stephen Colbert” was incapable of sincerity, this Colbert took time to bestow some heartfelt praise on his predecessor, David Letterman; vowing to “try to honor his achievement” and occasionally piss off his network bosses at CBS. And speaking of the bosses, CBS head honcho Les Moonves was actually in the studio audience for tonight’s Late Show, dutifully manning the Late Show/Mentalist Lever, a poke at the long-running drama series that filled Colbert’s time slot between his debut and Letterman’s farewell. His hand perched on the gadget, Moonves remained ready to replace Colbert with the adorably dimpled Simon Baker at a moment’s notice — and did on several occasions.

That was another funny gag (albeit one that seemed vaguely similar to the old Walker: Texas Ranger Lever from Late Night with Conan O’Brien), and generally Moonves had very little to worry about (although the fake movie that George Clooney and Colbert invented during their interview, Decision Strike, was lifeless enough to warrant a Mentalist cameo).

A few new ideas seemed dead on arrival. It’s wildly unlikely that Colbert will continue to introduce each of his guests with a joke (or if he does, they’re going to have to get a lot funnier than they were tonight). And poor Jon Batiste and his band, Stay Human, were comically crammed into a tiny stage on the side of a remodeled Ed Sullivan Theater (which also featured a faux stained-glass ceiling replete with Colbert heads). Either Stay Human has too many humans, or their bandstand has too little square footage. Something’s gotta give there.

For a first episode, Colbert mostly looked comfortable, if a little (and understandably) high-strung. On a couple of occasions he seemed unsure which camera to look at. And after years of using interviews as a platform for a series of ingenious (and often ruthlessly insulting) jokes, Colbert’s earnest interview technique needs some work; his chats with Clooney and Governor Jeb Bush were both heavily and noticeably edited.

The best moment in the Bush interview came when Stephen introduced his own brother Jay, who he does not agree with politically (a fact backed up by Jay’s solemn head-shake), as a segue to ask the governor about how he disagrees politically with his brother, George W. That short exchange between the Colberts — Stephen’s intro and Jay’s withering glare — suggested Colbert may have found the first potential member of his repertory cast. It also gave us a brief but undeniable glimpse of the “real” Stephen Colbert. Not enough to definitively get a handle on the guy, but plenty to confirm there are encouraging signs in the new Late Show.