Looking to erase over a year of speculation, questions and possibly even a concern or two on the part of the network that actually hired him, the real Stephen Colbert finally arrived Tuesday night, as the once and future host of the CBS franchise David Letterman launched just over 22 years ago.
With a blast of bravado, Americana and even a blast from the immediate past, too -- specifically a special guest appearance by one Jon Stewart -- Colbert joked that "with this show I begin to search for the real Stephen Colbert. I just hope I don't find him on Ashley Madison."
Opening Tuesday in a more expansive Ed Sullivan Theater -- remodeled with a big new desk, a larger stage and a vast dome overhead that fleetingly suggested a cathedral as much as late-night TV -- his "Late Show" began with a pretaped piece of Colbert singing "The Star Spangled Banner" from various locations. (Stewart appeared at the end.)StoryColbert's 'Late Show' debut rushed, but goodStoryHow Colbert's 'Late Show' will change late-night TV
His "Late Show" further answered one outstanding question: There will indeed be a monologue, a late-night rudiment going back to the days of Steve Allen. He used it to joke about "The Mentalist," which filled his time slot since May, and Jeb Bush, his second guest.
Of Bush, he said, "You would have expected that all that exposure to oranges and crazy people [in Florida] would have prepared him for Donald Trump."
He deployed another late-night rudiment: the host chat segment, which Tuesday night devolved into a loopy, offbeat segment that culminated with, of all things, a disembodied gorilla's paw.
First guest George Clooney didn't have a movie to promote (he and Colbert later used that as the basis for an extended bit). Instead, Clooney said, "I'm just here to see you, and I think that's what everybody else is doing."
To Bush, Colbert said, "I really appreciate you coming here tonight," adding that "the honor is all mine [because] you are, with one exception the frontrunner."
After all the preoccupation about "character," which Colbert activity morphed in and out of during nine years on "The Colbert Report" anyway, Tuesday's launch suggested the transition shouldn't be too jarring for longtime fans, or partisans of the so-called "Colbert Nation."
(Some were in attendance Tuesday night, too. "Stephen, Stephen, Stephen, Stephen," rose the chant from the theater.)
In fact, it's new viewers that Colbert needs to worry about going forward.
That's part of the intrigue here -- also the risk.
Will newcomers warm to this intense, funny, intellectual, sardonic and often serious comic who brings a self-described interest in the world and its manifold challenges? Or flip back to late-night leader Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel, both of whom embrace a less strenuous, or certainly less overtly political, brand of late-night TV?
Or another possibility: Is there plenty of room for all three? Tuesday, at long last, began the quest for answers.