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'Late Show' review: The real Stephen Colbert is finally here

George Clooney with host Stephen Colbert on the

George Clooney with host Stephen Colbert on the premiere episode of "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015. Credit: CBS / Jeffrey R. Staab

Well, at least Stephen Colbert got that one out of the way -- first show, first impressions, first look at the real YOU (or real him) and the first of what should be a long and prosperous run.

And first impressions were, for the most part, good: Colbert's "Late Show" and CBS managed to do what had to be done, which is to launch a complex enterprise fraught with perils and pitfalls but somehow still make it all look easy.

The concerns? There are a few: too much commercialism, and in-show plugs for products (Sabra, Oreos), which appears to establish that the long arm of the CBS marketing department will have a role in this new enterprise.

And this: A rushed, breathless gotta-get-through-this pace that left viewers as much as host and guests gasping for oxygen at moments. Colbert squeezed a three-hour production (yes, it went THAT long) into a 46-minute box, so a torrid pace was to be expected. Consider that a first night over-correction -- the three hours -- which won't likely be repeated in the future. If it is, the show, host and refrigerated studio audience will burn out in a month.

With this review, let's try something different. Late night shows are a compilation of elements, and so let's tackle each of those one by one, beginning with:

The opener: In principle, a fast-cut of Stephen Colbert singing the Star-Spangled Banner from locales around the city and country probably sounded appealing; in practice, this didn't quite work. The idea was good -- it's a ballgame! -- but the fine points were probably lost on viewers. The payoff -- Jon Stewart behind the ump's mask -- was terrific, but like so much else Tuesday night, a blur. It happened so quickly that most people probably didn't register who the graybeard behind the mask actually was.

Grade: C

The set: You don't leave a Broadway show humming the set, but dammit, you do want the set for a late night program to be perfect -- and hummable -- but this one leaves a lot to be desired. CBS and Colbert gutted the old David Letterman hangout, but to what end? For something even smaller and more cramped, and a physically larger desk that actually appeared more diminutive because of close proximity to the back of the set?

Then, the camera swoops out to pick up the requisite audience shot and -- suddenly -- there are wide open spaces out there beyond this closet. This camera angle was and is far superior to Dave's old audience camera angle (straight ahead, into the dark gloom of the Ed Sullivan). This one made the show look vast.

That's good.

The bad: a cramped little set, and a pair of loveseats next to the host's desk, plus a stairway to nowheresville -- a ridiculous accessory (unless it's used for "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise," from "An American in Paris," which arrives here Friday).

Best however, was the so-called "video-wall," allowing Colbert what I believe is the first honest-to-goodness real-time backdrop of New York City. Look closely and you could see little cars moving about the streets.

Meanwhile, there was that vaulted cathedral ceiling festooned with CBS logos and the name "Stephen Colbert," which yielded one of the best lines of the night: "I wanted Michelangelo to paint it, but it turns out Ninja Turtles aren't real."

Nice ceiling, very nice ceiling -- but won't the cameras usually be pointing away from it? Consider this, therefore, an expensive and possibly useless accessory (unless, as Colbert joked, it is in fact a digital re-creation.)

Grade: B-

The monologue: Ah, the monologue -- that pure two-minute element where all past artifice is stripped, and the real live Stephen Colbert steps forward into his glory to reveal the real live HIM.

And he did. Nicely done, and the pace was good for a change. There were a few good lines, none that were spectacular, but the task was accomplished efficiently and effectively.

A little less effective perhaps: The gag with CBS chief Leslie Moonves sitting in the front row with a "Mentalist" kill switch, which he was to pull in the event that this new "Late Show" was to be a bust. Clever enough, I suppose, but it also presumed that viewers even knew that "The Mentalist" repeats had aired in the "Late Show" time slot over the summer. Colbert did explain that, but when you have to explain a joke, is it actually worth doing? No.

Grade: B+

The brand new "Late Show" theme (and band): And herewith a crucial element -- the opening music sequence, along with a brand new theme song. Played by bandleader Jon Batiste and the Stay Human band, it's a bouncy number with a nice funky hook. It doesn't exactly promise a late night "party" so much as a late night game show -- but I still liked it.

Meanwhile the montage -- a "Late Show" standout, which forcibly reminded me of the opening sequence of "Game of Thrones," with a vast city reduced to tiny figures amid a miniature tangle of buildings and people, including an ant-size Colbert himself, tossing a football or spin-dancing.

Batiste -- as billed -- is terrific. A winner all around, as was the band (and closing minutes.) As I've long said, don't even bother to start a late night show without a great band. Colbert has the most important fundamental in place.

Grade: A

The host chat segment: This is the trusty crusty late night TV element that usually begins after the first commercial break, when the host settles in at his desk to explore What's On My Mind, usually via a cross-chat with a sidekick (missing by the way on "Colbert") or bandleader or even with the audience.

Last night there were in fact two parts to this -- occupying the single largest part of the new show.

Here's what I especially liked about it -- the real Colbert as revealed to be, once and for all, a smart Colbert, an easy-to-listen-to Colbert and a Colbert who has an interesting way with words. His brief tribute to Letterman -- and Biff Henderson -- was flawless and quirky: "His creative legacy is the high pencil mark on the door frame we all have to measure ourselves against."

Say ... what?! Late night hosts are all a bunch of toddlers, while Dave is the older teen who submitted to one last humiliating demand by mother to stand up against the closet door so his height could be measured? I guess that is what that means.  Funny and interesting.

There were a lot of nice touches designed to illuminate the real Steve -- that pennant, for example, that his mother got during the Aug. 28, 1963, march on Washington. ("Sadly, only civil rights won the pennant that year. Racism won the World Series.")

And the gracious, amusing remote that Jimmy Fallon participated in.

Here's where things got dicey: Colbert then noted the "cursed amulet' -- a pair of mountain goat antlers, I suppose -- which growl. "I must be forever enslaved to its hideous drone, and make regrettable compromises ... but not tonight! Tonight's too soon."

No, it ain't. Out came the tub of Sabra's hummus, which -- of course -- was a paid sponsor, secured by CBS. This whole bit rankled for any number of reasons -- foremost, Colbert's correct. It's too early in this run to begin the process of selling airtime to the highest bidder, WITHIN the show. It's a favored sales department tactic now, deployed widely on the other late night shows, whereby a product is mentioned, always couched in some sort of humorous sketch or bit.

And then, in the second part of the host chat -- out came the next in-show plug, for Oreos. You may reasonably ask -- a paid sponsor? My hunch: almost certainly. 

This sort of exposure doesn't come for free, even for a storied brand, which played directly in what otherwise was a funny routine tied to Donald Trump's own declaration that he would no longer eat Oreos, because of a factory move to Mexico.

My larger point: Too much commercialism and way too soon, especially for a self-styled iconoclast host who -- one assumes -- didn't replace David Letterman for a chance to sell hummus.

Grade: B+ (Or D, if you care to break out a separate grade for the Sabra segment.)

Guests: Let's start with George Clooney, because Colbert did. First guests are symbols -- people who almost subliminally mirror some core facet of the host himself. Bill Murray was the first guest on "Late Show With David Letterman," and was probably the most successful first-night guest in late show history because he so perfectly established what Dave was all about -- the guy who was going to spray-paint, so to speak, the whole idea of late night comedy TV establishment, just as Murray spray-painted his desk.

Clooney, instead, arrives as the perfectly well-behaved guest, who had next to nothing to say, nothing to shill. Colbert cooed at him -- I first learned about Darfur from you! Where did you learn about Darfur?

Clooney: I read Nick Kristof's articles in the Times.

Ba dum ... as did everyone else, Mr. Colbert.

Then the staged comedy bits, with Clooney starring in a fake action thriller. All utterly forgettable. A disappointment.

Then Jeb Bush, and here the show began to reach cruising altitude (with bumps). This is the sort of interview where Colbert will be expected to make his mark -- smart talk with an important politician or leader or writer or what-have-you that illuminates our world and the processes that threaten to destroy, while making it all just a little comprehensible, or at least funny.

Bush was good -- and had some prepared lines -- but Colbert tended to over-talk him; again, that rushed pace threatened to squash this interview at certain points. But host and subject gamely continued, and "Late Show" ended up with another winning moment, or two. So, on first-night guests, let's go with...

Grade: B-

Final thoughts: OK friends, there you have it -- some stray observations that doubtless will change after I watch Wednesday's episode (or "epishows," to use a Colbert creation from last night). But overall, this was a good start. Not spectacular, but nothing to indicate either that CBS had misplaced its trust, nor had fans. Newcomers to the Colbert Nation probably weren't sold, but that's going to take time anyway -- possibly months.

But Colbert fans had to be pleased: The man they knew, or thought they knew after nine seasons of "The Colbert Report," is -- after all -- the same guy they always thought they knew.

The show was rushed, the commercialism troubling, the interviews a mixed bag. But no one looks for perfection the first night -- just signs, and they were mostly positive Tuesday.

First show grade: B

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