Stephen Colbert on the "The Colbert Report."

Stephen Colbert on the "The Colbert Report." Credit: Bloomberg / Andrew Harrer

First shows can be murder -- or, if you happen to be Stephen Colbert, maybe just a root canal procedure, performed in front of a camera with millions of viewers as witnesses.

So Colbert recently did what any other late night host who is averse to murder, or root canal, or highly anticipated premieres might also do. He got the first one out of the way over the summer.

The launch of "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" -- not of course counting the real first edition that will air Sept. 8 on CBS -- arrived unannounced on a public access channel in Monroe, Michigan, in late June.

Pretty much no one watched.

Specifics about this dry run aren't particularly important -- you can see the whole thing for yourself on YouTube -- but general impressions are.

A post-'Report' report

Despite a six-month layover after "The Colbert Report" ended mid-December, I can happily report that the guy who will shortly replace David Letterman is still funny, crackerjack smart, comically creative and an ironist's ironist who views this mad, mad world we all inhabit as something to be both cherished and mocked.

Insisting he had no idea who (or what) an Eminem is, he conducted a fake interview with the hip hop star that was either flaky or hilarious or simply odd. A baffled Eminem didn't know what to make of it either. ("I'm so confused right now.")

 Colbert painted his fingernails along with the regular hosts, Michelle Bowman and Kaye Lani Rae Rafko Wilson. ("I don't know how many people that is," quipped their stand-in when introducing them).

He also mediated a Yelp war between a local restaurant and an aggrieved Monroe resident who claims he was overcharged for an O'Doul's -- more than 20 years ago.

As faux launches go, it was all deliciously weird, vertiginous and probably nothing remotely like the genuine Sept. 8 show, which will include the national TV debut of his house band, led by Jon Batiste, along with guests George Clooney and Jeb Bush.

But his Monroe show at the very least did add to the puzzle, mystery and allure that is Stephen Colbert.

Or, when put as a question: Who exactly is this mysterious, alluring puzzle, Stephen Colbert?

Expect a change

We think we know him well, following a successful nine-year run on "The Colbert Report," where he appeared as the bumptious know-nothing boob and send-up of shouting heads, notably of the putative Fox News variety (one in particular). 

The actual details are a little less clear and often have been. (He even slipped into another character during the Monroe outing, as a clueless local public access host who didn't know who the local kid made good, Marshall Mathers, is. And thus, one mask was effectively replaced by another).

We tend to know our late-night hosts well, or know them before they get their promotion. Letterman essentially did a more grown-up version of "Late Night" for CBS, while Jimmy Fallon's "Tonight" is a shinier model than his own "Late Night" interpretation.

But as hosts, nothing much changed from show to show. Even Jimmy Kimmel remained Jimmy Kimmel when he moved up from midnight to 11:35.

Colbert will be a different Colbert.

Devoted and casual fans do think they know the real Colbert because he slipped in and out of character so often and effortlessly during the "Report" years. Now, the rest of the world is about to get to know the real him.

What these new viewers will learn just might surprise them.

Foremost, Colbert is a practicing Catholic. He might be the only late-night host who publicly self-identifies as a Christian, or -- as he elaborates -- a "humanist Christian." The "context of (my) existence," he said in a recent and obligatory GQ profile, "is that I am here to know God, love God, serve God."

You never heard Dave say that.

To point out an obvious fact, God is never discussed on late night TV. There's no particular evidence to indicate God will be discussed on "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert," although that would be interesting and potentially important.

Nevertheless, Colbert believes in God. And says so. That is unusual.

He is also the most intellectual late night talk show host you have ever seen -- vastly more so than the equally brainy Johnny Carson, who got his cerebral kicks by having Carl Sagan as a guest. A deep and serious reader, Colbert is believed to have actually read what his deep and serious literary guests on "The Colbert Report" wrote. Stephen King will be a guest during the first week. You can be reasonably certain that Colbert has read much of the King oeuvre -- probably not all of it, because that would involve a lifetime of reading.

Colbert is also a nerd, and gleefully embraces the designation. He is a Tolkienist who can -- literally -- quote passages from "The Lord of the Rings." (Dialogue from the movie trilogy? Don't get him started.)

His worldview -- possibly forged by the death of his father and two of his brothers in an airline crash when he was a youngster -- is that life is brief, and sacred, and it's best to find joy and laughter in every moment.

The real Stephen Colbert is serious, intense and thoughtful. So was David Letterman. He just never let you see that side of him. Colbert sometimes does, and likely will continue to do so.

From character to connection

So what other side will you see of the New Colbert?

This question has obsessed TV writers and apparently even Colbert for months. By way of a long answer, he produced seven podcasts over the summer. They are discursive, amusing, analytical and whimsical. The last, for example, was sponsored by "Möbius Hoagies, lovingly crafted in non-Euclidian space. . . . The party doesn't end until you finish the hoagie and the hoagie never ends."

In one podcast, Colbert said of the impending CBS show, "We're all happy to do this, but we're not entirely sure what it will be." He added, "I feel like we're pros who know how to do charts -- even these things (viral shorts) we're putting up on the Web. Yeah, I like 'em all. But theoretically, is that something the audience will laugh at?

"I don't necessarily know how to make the leap (until the Sept. 8 launch) and then connect to the person sitting there in the fifth row."

He also addressed the "Who is the Real Stephen Colbert?" question several times at the recent TV critic's tour.

"On the old show I wore the character as slightly as a cap, dependent upon who I was talking to. When I spoke to Cardinal Dolan or I would speak to a Medal of Honor winner, I would just dial it up and down as need be. I'm very interested in my guests, and I'm looking forward to being able to be sincerely interested in what they have to say without regard to having to translate it through an idiot's mouth."

So welcome to CBS, Mister Stephen Colbert -- the God-loving, cap-wearing, intense, smart, funny, introspective, Catholic, and whatever-else-you-are-or-will-be one.

We can hardly wait to meet the real you.

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