Historians may look back at this past week as one in which an American mainstay finally started living up to lofty expectations and jump-started his rise to victory.
Stephen Colbert was that good.
Perhaps no one should be surprised that “The Late Show” shined in its live episodes following each night of the Republican National Convention. After all, its host initially emerged from the clutter by portraying a clueless conservative pundit who introduced the term “truthiness” to the lexicon.
But the show has been so unfocused and desperate in tone since its debut last September that even die-hard fans had to wonder if Colbert was better equipped to play a fake character than himself. Perhaps CBS should lick its wounds and promote its rising star James Corden during the next commercial break.
Colbert’s performances the past few nights should quiet such talk, at least temporarily.
“This was your week,” said Thursday night’s guest, Billy Eichner, a comedian not known for dishing out compliments. “You killed it.”
He had some help. Jon Stewart, an executive producer for the series, popped up (literally, from beneath his buddy’s desk) to stick a stiletto into Fox News personality Sean Hannity.
Not as obvious, but just as important, was the recent acquisition of showrunner Chris Licht, who previously breathed new life into “CBS This Morning.” With a mighty assist from behind the scenes, the detail-oriented Colbert is now freed up to focus on comedy, a fact Colbert himself admitted during a recent cover story for the Hollywood Reporter.
For the past 10 months, a whiff of desperation had wafted through the Ed Sullivan Theater as its new proprietor tried to prove he was late night’s smartest, most versatile contender. The strain was palpable, from his eagerness to show he was just as learned as his Beltway elite that practically hijacked his couch to his habit of commandeering the mic anytime a musical performer took a breath.
Colbert hasn’t completely controlled that impulse. He showed off a bit too much Thursday during his interview with Elizabeth Warren.
But for the most part, he seems to be taking a page from Johnny Carson’s etiquette book: Let the guests shine. In the wake of the Melania Trump Misdemeanor, the old Colbert would have slipped into a dress and wig and played the potential First Lady himself. Instead, he relinquished the spotlight to Laura Benanti. And she killed.
Turning his desk over to Stewart might have seemed like a risk, but it was a calculated one. Hey, gang! You want your ol’ pal? Here you go — just don’t forget who made it possible.
Colbert also seemed re-energized by going live, which greatly reduces the amount of second-guessing and hand-wringing that can spoil fresh comedy. The strategy worked so well that I wondered if all the late-night shows should take the same tightrope walk — for good.
“Late Night With Seth Meyers” reminded me that it has its drawbacks. The former “Saturday Night Live” cast member continues to amaze with his opening monologue, nearly 15 minutes long some evenings with very little fluff.
But the show’s first-ever live edition — a cooking segment with an untethered Leslie Jones — felt like watching a soufflé collapse in slow motion. A more in-the-moment host, like David Letterman, would have pointed out his guest’s awkward behavior and had a ball. Meyers appeared to be praying for time to run out.
“The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” also went live Thursday — but you wouldn’t have known it. Although Noah did a nice job of reacting to Donald Trump’s speech just minutes after it had wrapped up, there was nothing special about the broadcast. In fact, it was almost impossible to tell that the show had set up shop in Cleveland, and his correspondents were underused. It was convention coverage that put Jon Stewart’s version of the show on the map and helped make stars out of Samantha Bee, Steve Carell and Colbert. It’s hard to imagine anyone is buzzing about the new team this weekend.
At least Noah made an effort. Other late-night contenders seem to be sitting this one out. “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon,” the undisputed king of late night right now, isn’t making much of an effort to cover the RNC or its Democratic counterpart next week.
The highlights on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” this past week included Aunt Chippy playing poker with Matt Damon in Las Vegas and the show’s annual belly-flopping contest. Corden was more interested in eulogizing Garry Marshall than picking apart Ted Cruz’s speech, but he did have the good sense to jam with an invigorated Michelle Obama during Wednesday’s edition of “Carpool Karaoke.”
“Conan” did go on the road — to San Diego’s Comic-Con. Hey, someone’s got to keep tabs on the country’s more civil “Game of Thrones.”