Ranking Stephen Colbert’s first Late Show interviews: Which were best and worst?

15 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

On ‘The Late Show,’ Stephen Colbert seems trapped by his own niceness.

Last week, before Stephen Colbert’s debut as the host of “The Late Show,” I reported on how the Comedy Central veteran planned to re-calibrate his interview style as he moved away from his hyper-confident idiot person and the freedom of cable to a job where he’d be more of himself, but for a network audience. “All I really want from a guest is somebody who has something to say so I can play with them,” he’d told me in August. “I had to put everything through, like, an occipital [central processing unit] up here to live render what my character would think about what the person just said, but still have my intention behind it.So now, acknowledging that judging a new TV enterprise after four shows is like assessing a meal after the server delivers the basket of bread, here’s the first Colbert Report (Card): Interviews: D.Stephen Colbert brought a mix of politics, patriotism and Hollywood glamour to his debut hosting the Late Show early this week, opening with the national anthem and bantering with George Clooney and Republican White House contender Jeb Bush.

Now I can just talk.” But while there have been high points during Colbert’s first week, including some inspired physical comedy and strong musical performances, when I appeared on “On Point With Tom Ashbrook” to talk about Colbert’s start with Ashbrook and New York Times television critic James Poniewozik, our conversation came back again and again to Colbert’s interviews. Having gotten those guests, he too often wasted them with disjointed questions and forced pre-recorded bits that made the whole interview feel like an awkward setup. But in the last few days before the new fall season comes flooding in, there’s a lot happening: entertaining one-off specials, a fun crop of streaming shows, a farewell to an all-time great sketch comedy series, and a too-long-delayed breakthrough in sports broadcasting.

Nine months after his final sign-off from The Colbert Report on cable television’s Comedy Central channel, Colbert launched his first major network broadcast as the late-night heir to David Letterman, taking a moment to pay tribute to his predecessor. And I couldn’t help but feeling that, even including Vice President Joe Biden’s extraordinary candor about his son’s death, Colbert has yet to meet the standard he’d set for himself.

But as Colbert finds his footing, his efforts should be a reminder that it’s possible to be entertaining while still being substantive, and to bring a light touch to tough questions. The first season of this crass, cringe-comic sitcom started out shaky, only to pull a 180-degree turn once creator Stephen Falk started balancing the romantic angst and mutual misbehavior of the show’s resident misanthropes. Instead, CBS viewers and his live audience inside the newly remodeled Ed Sullivan Theater in Manhattan, were treated to an extended glimpse of the “real” Colbert. You didn’t just get the misadventures of asshole novelist Jimmy (Chris Geere) and hedonistic publicist Gretchen (Aya Cash); the show started including the shenanigans of their even-more damaged best friends, the shellshocked veteran Edgar (Desmin Borges) and the reluctantly reformed party girl Lindsay (Kether Donohue). He jokingly explained the difference during an interview with Bush, when the former Florida governor made mention of the numerous images of Colbert gracing the stage.

Not surprisingly, the best scenes in the Season Two premiere — “The Sweater People” — involve the sidekicks, with a smitten Edgar following Lindsay around while she’s trying to bang her way back into the heart of the husband who left her unexpectedly at the end of last year’s finale. In an earlier interview with Clooney, Colbert presented the actor-director with a belated wedding gift for his marriage last year to human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin, acknowledging that he was not invited to the nuptials because the two men are not well acquainted personally. His night-two introduction of Elon Musk as a real-life Tony Stark may have been apropos, given that Robert Downey Jr.’s Marvel co-star Scarlett Johansson preceded Musk in the line-up. But Colbert’s invocation of a superhero was also cliche and a little credulous; it’s very nice that Musk makes extremely expensive, attractive cars and that he’s pushing forward advances in battery technology. But that’s not to knock our newly cohabitating heroes, who spend the episode nearly killing themselves to prove that they can be a couple and still live like rock stars.

These things don’t, however, make him a saint, and as Dana Goodyear has pointed out in the New Yorker, Musk is a perfect example of “how deeply we’d prefer to spend our way out of the problem than to change our behavior significantly.” It was a little odd to watch Colbert play a video of one of Musk’s rockets explode on landing, and then gawk, excited at Musk’s assertion that Colbert could be headed into space in two or three years. Even as these two try desperately not to be ordinary, they’re still ashamed by each other’s lapses in basic civility. (Gretchen: “Who knows their address?” Jimmy: “People. After his opening standup monologue, Colbert segued into a lengthy routine in which he simultaneously binged on a bag of Oreo cookies and on video clips of Trump, who has vowed never to eat Oreos again after snack-maker Nabisco Inc said it was opening a new plant in Mexico. Watching it, I felt like Colbert had switched places with one of his guests on “The Colbert Report” and was playing the sincere role against a slightly ridiculous interlocutor.

This dog I saw on Dateline who rides the bus to the park.”) Adults who proudly behave like irresponsible teens are as common on TV as houseflies, and twice as pesky. Fallon made his own brief Late Show cameo by video feed as the two hosts compared guest lists and Fallon wished Colbert “a great show,” adding, “See you in the locker room.” But funny is funny, and so far this show has found something new — not to mention hilarious, and oddly touching — in the whole concept of dangerously arrested adolescence.

Even then, though, Colbert used a tactic that sounds aggressive but is actually the equivalent of tipping your pitch: he laid out the worst charges against Uber’s labor practices, setting up ninepins for Kalanick to set down with a neat strike, a canned answer about the cost of renting cabs and the value of flexible work schedules. (None of this is to mention Colbert’s repeated mentions of the Tesla he owns, a bit of trivia that doesn’t do much to enhance his all-American, everyguy appeal.) And for all Colbert’s interview with Biden has been hailed as an extraordinary television moment, I’m afraid that my takeaway was that much of that was due to Biden’s answers rather than Colbert’s questions. Back in the spring, Will Ferrell livened up an otherwise dull day of exhibition baseball—and raised money for the scholarship fund Cancer For College — by attempting to play 10 different positions for 10 different major league teams. The resulting HBO documentary offers a behind-the-scenes look at how he pulled that off, woven through an hour-long collection of the day’s best gags, from the comedian yelling at Oakland A’s general manager Billy Bean for “trading” him to his tenure as a third-base coach, holding up a sign that reads, “Remember These Games Don’t Count.” More than anything, this special is a celebration of the star’s infectious goofiness, which can make even a routine grounder into something sublime.

Biden hit a series of grand slams by being far more detailed and personal than politicians normally are, and speaking with more grace than almost anyone in public life manages to muster. Elsewhere in the world of sports, ESPN is shaking up its flagship show SportsCenter by remaking it into a nightly solo showcase for one of the network’s brightest talents, anchor Scott Van Pelt. He seems to be skipping the traditional monologue in favor of talking about the show, then sitting down and doing a longer, more narrowly focused riff.

But the best move the network has made this year is promoting baseball analyst Jessica Mendoza to the Sunday Night Baseball broadcast booth, to replace suspended color commentator Curt Schilling. That’s more Fallon-and-Kimmel than Carson-and-Letterman, which is OK, except without a monologue you lose your best chance to chat with the audience, letting them know you and they have been thinking about the same things today. In addition to being insightful and enjoyably conversational, Mendoza is the first woman to call a major league game for “The Worldwide Leader In Sports” — which is crazy, given the huge number of female athletes and fans. Both on Twitter and in the calls to “On Point,” my dissatisfaction with Colbert’s interviews to date elicited a common, but disappointing, response: you’re asking too much of him, it’s entertainment, not journalism, lower your standards. Then you’ll be pleased to know than in advance of the September 26th debut of Disney XD’s new Guardians of the Galaxy cartoon, the network aired a promising-looking sneak preview of the first episode, and released a slew of promotional clips on-line.

Let Paul Simon sing, which he doesn’t do on TV all that often, without standing next to him and making your reaction — and your vocals — the camera’s focal point. And by that measure — playing with his interlocutors, improvising based on their answers and letting himself be led by sincere interest — Colbert hasn’t quite found his groove. You don’t have to be an investigative journalist to ask follow-up questions, and being direct or pressing for a follow-up is not necessarily the same thing as being mean. Then here’s more good news: The producers of the CW’s excellent The Flash and Arrow have created an animated adjunct, Vixen, which is being posted weekly on the CW Seed site in five-minute chunks.

This past week’s third episode was the best yet, bringing in Oliver Queen, Barry Allen, and Cisco Ramon — all voiced by their TV actors — to help a frightened young woman named Mari McCabe as she struggles to control the magic totem that gives her animal powers. The animated format allows for wilder action than the live-action DC series can muster, plus the online show features the inimitable voice of Scrubs janitor Neil Flynn as the heroine’s foster father. Seth Meyers’ and Mike Shoemaker’s animated super-team satire kicked off its third season on Hulu last week with the episode “Seaman’s Revenge,” featuring Andy Samberg as the voice of an Aquaman/Sub-Mariner type who means to liberate all forms of fish — even the rock band Phish — from human oppression.

As always, the plot is just an excuse to load up on goofy and/or raunchy jokes, which were mostly Seaman-related this time out. (Gadget Gal admits that she’s always found Seaman “very distasteful,” because when he not “on my back, he’s in my face.”) Share Guardians and Vixen with the kids; keep The Awesomes to yourself. Watch the final episode’s “Negrotown” sketch: an homage to colorful, corny old Hollywood musicals and a fiercely angry critique of the state of contemporary race relations. Framed as the delirious fantasy of a black man who’s been slammed into a car by a cop — who stopped him just for walking down a street — the number imagines a wonderland where African-Americans can do what they want without worrying about being arrested or treated as fascinatingly exotic by white folks.

Tuesday’s first episode showed some opening-night jitters, as Colbert tried to figure out how to adjust his odder ideas (like taking product-placement commands from a cursed amulet) to fit the expectations of the bigger venue. Letterman’s “cut the crap” attitude had its own humanizing effect on public figures, but Colbert’s taking a different tack, actively letting his guard down to get his guests to do the same. He may be following the same late-night talk show format as everyone else, but if he keeps producing Biden-quality moments, his Late Show is going to be the only one right now that’s a must-see. 2015 may not bring everything that Back to the Future II promised it would: flying cars, self-lacing shoes, we don’t see ’em happening over the next 12 months. (Then again, don’t bet against Nike.) But this year will definitely pack plenty of punch when it comes to cultural happenings.

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