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Stephen Colbert Pays Tribute To Letterman, Makes 'Late Show' His Own

Stephen Colbert talks with Jeb Bush during Colbert's debut as <em>Late Show</em> host. The Republican presidential candidate and actor George Clooney were guests on the show.
Jeffrey R. Staab
Stephen Colbert talks with Jeb Bush during Colbert's debut as Late Show host. The Republican presidential candidate and actor George Clooney were guests on the show.

If there was a moment that best summed up the inspired, surprising and sometimes uneven nature of Stephen Colbert's debut as host of CBS' Late Show last night, it came toward the program's end.

That's when Colbert, known for his willingness to croon a tune or two, jumped on stage to belt out a version of Sly and the Family Stone's Everyday People with an all-star band that included bluesman Buddy Guy, gospel legend Mavis Staples and Alabama Shakes singer Brittany Howard.

It was a fiery, sprawling performance in which the participants sometimes didn't seem quite sure what was coming next or how to deal with all the other folks on stage at the same time.

That's the feeling viewers could get at times during Colbert's long-awaited debut. The excitement and enthusiasm for the comic's return to television helped paper over more than a few awkward moments.

The first of those came early on, in the show's pre-taped opening, which edited together clips of Colbert singing The Star-Spangled Banner with a collection of mostly random people — including a guy standing in a machine shop.

What saved that bit was a cameo from Colbert's former boss, ex-Daily Show host Jon Stewart, who was disguised behind an umpire's mask until he ripped off the headgear and bellowed, "Play ball!"

Reminders Of Comedy Central

Other parts of the show likely felt familiar to fans of Colbert's Comedy Central show, The Colbert Report. After jumping onstage and delivering the requisite stand-up monologue, the host sat behind his desk and fired off political jokes as if he were leading a new, network TV version of his old series.

"I promise you, just like the rest of the media, I will be covering all of the presidential candidates," he smirked, "who are Donald Trump."

Parts of the show's set — nestled in a renovated Ed Sullivan Theater in Manhattan — came from his old show as well, including his trusty replica of Captain America's shield and the pennant his mother got when she attended Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, D.C.

(Colbert pointed out these items before plunging into a bit about a cursed amulet that forced him to endorse a brand of hummus that was another strange moment reminiscent of material from his former show.).

Trump surfaced again in a sidesplitting bit where Colbert compared the media's addiction to airing clips of the flaxen-haired candidate to gorging on Oreo cookies. And even when talk turned to Colbert's first political guest, Jeb Bush, the host couldn't stop talking about Trump.

"As many of you know, of course, Gov. Bush was the governor of Florida for eight years," Colbert said. "And you would think that much exposure to oranges and crazy people would have prepared him for Donald Trump."

Colbert Welcomes Jeb Bush

When Bush finally did get onstage with Colbert, the host tried hard to show he could be even-handed with a Republican guest, even after years of lampooning conservative pundits on Comedy Central. But Colbert was undercut a bit by his own audience, who groaned when Bush said he thought Obama was a good man with bad ideas.

"You gotta pause when they clap, and then hit 'em with what they don't want to hear," Colbert joked.

Toward the beginning of the show, Colbert paid tribute to his predecessor, founding Late Show host David Letterman. But the new Late Show host's style was much sunnier than Letterman's often-sarcastic approach.

Letterman could be prickly with CBS executives. But Colbert had a good-natured bit last night featuring CBS President and CEO Leslie Moonves, in which the honcho held a lever enabling him to switch the broadcast to clips of The Mentalist whenever he didn't like what his new host was saying.

And while Letterman maintained a long-running feud with The Tonight Show host Jay Leno over on NBC, Colbert actually featured The Tonight Show's current host, Jimmy Fallon, twice on his own debut.

Last night, Colbert seemed uncharacteristically nervous, brimming with a little too much energy. But viewers quickly realized there wasn't a drastic difference between the conservative pundit character Colbert played on his Comedy Central show and his current persona.

"There are a lot of pictures of me in here," he quipped to Bush during their interview. "I used to play a narcissistic conservative pundit. Now I'm just a narcissist."

Last night's show stretched well past an hour, packed with a little too much material by an eager host who has waited nine months to take the spotlight. But much of it did work, including charismatic bandleader Jon Batiste and his skin-tight group Stay Human.

There was just enough brilliance on hand to show that CBS chose the right guy to succeed Letterman.

Now we're left to wonder just how good this guy will be when he really settles into the job.

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Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
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