Stephen Colbert, on Tuesday (Sept. 8), will begin his tenure as the second host of CBS’ “The Late Show.” The debut will finally end more than a year of speculation about how he will handle the move from cable’s “The Colbert Report” to the big network. One thing we know is that he’ll bring on first-week guests including George Clooney, Jeb Bush and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. Also, thanks to Colbert, America will finally get to see Amy Schumer on a talk show! As viewers await 10:30 Central time, here are the Top 10 — or at least 10 of the top — things America wants to know.
1. Who is the real Stephen Colbert?
This question is top of mind because viewers have mostly seen the “high-status idiot” Colbert played for nine years on “The Colbert Report.” But especially as the “Report” aged, Colbert gave us enough glimpses of the man behind the mask to suggest who we’ll be getting: a well-read, fairly serious-minded Catholic father and family man who wants to have a say in national issues, although not as much as he wants to make people laugh.
2. What will happen to ‘Stephen Colbert’?
This is a corollary to Question 1. That idiot was a great character, and he will be missed. But he probably won’t go away completely. Interviewing Eminem as guest host this summer of “Only in Monroe,” a Monroe, Mich., cable-access show Colbert mostly kept on playing the fool, advising this Marshall Mathers person (Eminem’s real name) that he needed to have a fallback position, like carpentry, in case music didn’t work out.
3. Can America handle a thoughtful late-night host?
Colbert’s favorite guests include the astronomer Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Tesla chief Elon Musk, and he knows more about “The Lord of the Rings” than anybody since J.R.R. Tolkien. But he is also goofy enough to delight in a good butt joke or giggle at someone’s unusual name. Mentioning that the regular co-host of “Only in Monroe” is Kaye Lani Rae Rafko Wilson, Colbert says, “I don’t know how many people that is.” Given the increasingly obvious weightlessness of chief rival Jimmy Fallon, on NBC’s “Tonight Show,” it’s a good bet that a sizable chunk of America will prefer the impression Colbert conveys that gears are turning behind the grin.
4. How will Colbert remain subversive on the big stage?
When his predecessor at CBS, David Letterman, started at 10:30 p.m., America saw Letterman transform from the gleeful near-anarchist of later night to, for a time, big-top ringmaster, and it wasn't always pretty. Colbert, similar to early Letterman, has delighted in messing with people's heads on Comedy Central. All the interviews he's given about "Late Show" thus far suggest he's going to try to keep the freak flag flying. He told GQ this summer, in the most soulful celebrity profile you'll ever read, that he revels in creating uncomfortable moments. But the greater ratings demands at CBS can be a profoundly mainstreaming force.
5. How will Colbert remain meaningful on the big stage?
On Comedy Central, he aimed satire and plain outrage at such targets as Amazon's dominance of the book market, mistreatment of farm workers and loopholes that let rich folk dominate political campaign funding. Will CBS let him be so pointed? Will the American people? Colbert sounds like he wants to keep trying. Speaking to advertisers in the spring, he promised to "occasionally make the network very angry at us." And already he has engaged with first-night guest and Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush. Learning that Bush was raffling off a ticket the show as a campaign fundraiser, Colbert answered with his own raffle of a ticket, to benefit injured service members.
6. What's the show's humor going to be like?
For one thing, there'll be no more testicle jokes, he tells GQ. And Colbert offered a preview of one show aspect to television critics last month. A video parody of erectile dysfunction medication ads offered "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" as a remedy for people who can't "stay up" late, AV Club reported. Earlier in the year, during his inventive summer break (he also did a series of fascinating backstage podcasts), he felt moved to put out a video of himself imitating Donald Trump as he began "the finest, most luxurious, gold-plated, diamond-encrusted campaign."
7. How can Colbert make the bandleader genuinely part of the TV show?
He signed on a great musician and promising personality in New Orleans artist Jon Batiste. But inevitably the format reduces such people to a few quick answers of the host's questions and playing during the commercials for the studio audience. In favor of Batiste having a bigger role is that Colbert, like Fallon, is a pretty musical guy, always willing to sing or dance.
8. Will Colbert's 'Late Show' have a signature bit?
Letterman, of course, had his nightly Top 10 List, a comedy format so popular that he was stuck with it. If his "Late Show" takes after "The Colbert Report," Colbert might have a stable of regular segments but not one he rides every night. Most potent of those was "The Word," a sort of essay/rant on a topic of some significance, done in what felt close to Colbert's real persona. When Colbert offered a "Word," viewers knew they'd be getting a funny, sharp, well-crafted piece of writing unlike anything else in late night. May "The Word," or something like it, remain.
9. How will Colbert be as an interviewer?
We know he's pretty skilled at the comedy thing and at keeping a show together and on point over time ("intentionality" is the word he uses). And it was fascinating to watch him walk the tightrope of doing interviews in character on "The Report." But how will he do when he is talking to another human being as himself? The bet is, very well: His range of knowledge and interests prepares him to enrich interviews, and his improv training at Chicago's Second City teaches him to be in the moment reacting to the other person, rather than just reading from a question list. Colbert told TV critics last month that he is itching to have "honest interest in my guests."
10. Has the late-night format been so devalued that no amount of talent and smarts can save it?
If this turns out to be the case, Colbert will have only himself -- well, himself and Jon Stewart and now John Oliver -- to blame. Their shows on Comedy Central and HBO have made traditional late-night shows, by comparison, look anemic, formulaic and featherweight. The notion of whether it is simply too late for late shows, creatively, is probably the biggest question of all, and reinvigorating that format is Colbert's greatest challenge.