Jeb Bush only got seven minutes on Stephen Colbert’s inaugural Late Show, and they came nearly at the and of a slightly stretched program. But that proved to be all the time needed for the Republican presidential hopeful to become unstrung. And that was just one high point of a remarkable CBS debut for Colbert, who was faced with the double challenge of shedding his Comedy Central image as a blustering right-wing buffoon and taking the night-time mantel passed down from David Letterman. On both critical counts, Colbert was golden.
Sure there was a little base metal in the mix, but overall, Colbert deployed a demonic humor, a sense of barely controlled chaos and a take-no-prisoners attitude that occasionally turned savage. This was not your father’s late-night talk show (despite a weirdly funny nod to the Johnny Carson era, when the host also served as pitchman for the show’s sponsors).
When Bush finally did appear (at 12:24 AM New York time), Colbert already had spent nearly 20 minutes earlier riffing on the latest Trumpisms, including Donald’s attack on Nabisco for moving a factory to Mexico. This offered the host a chance to praise Trump for “taking on Big Cookie” and then possibly overdosing on Oreos as the Orange One proved too irresistible to let go after just one poke. In one clip, Trump was shown being questioned about his support from white supremacists, answering that, well, gosh, lots of people like him. “White supremacists like Trump,” Colbert quipped, “and he’s not even white.”
So pity poor Jeb, sitting in the Green Room, waiting for his time following George Clooney. The movie star, sporting a mephistophelian goatee, had no movie to hawk, as was pointed out several times, so Team Colbert hatched a few very low-tech clips from a nonexistent action-thriller-romance called Decision Strike. Colbert also hat-tipped Letterman’s late-night anti-style by giving Clooney the gift of a Tiffany paperweight engraved, “I don’t know you.”
And finally Jeb came out, looking game if supremely uncomfortable (were those beads of flop sweat on his brow?). Asked why he wants to be president, Bush responded, “Because Washington is a basket case,” stating the self-evidently preposterous notion that he could get both sides of the aisle to work together because that’s how it’s done in the states and cities. Colbert was having none of it. When Bush said “I don’t believe Barack Obama has bad motives,” and took a beat before adding “he’s just wrong,” Colbert looked across the audience in the Ed Sullivan Theater and snapped, “You were so close to getting them to clap!”
And when he asked what his brother George had done wrong as president, Jeb — who by the way mentioned that Jeb!-with-an-exclamation-point “connotes excitement … or deep anger” — Bush responded: “My brother didn’t control the Republican Congress. He didn’t veto things, bring order, fiscal restraint.” If that was all George did wrong, perhaps it’s no wonder Mom said on NBC’s Today that there’ve been enough Bushes in the White House.
“There is a non-zero possibility that I will vote for you,” Colbert admitted.
The show opened with “The Star-Spangled Banner” being sung by Colbert joined by just folks in various places around the country, beginning and ending on a baseball diamond in Central Park — where, in the closing shot, umpire Jon Stewart proclaimed, “Play ball!” There was a shot of the new, bolder, non-retro marquee on the Ed Sullivan Theater, with Colbert’s name big big big. The set itself is a bore, a standard-issue desk and couch with a Central Park backdrop. Colbert wore a light blue suit, white shirt and garnet tie with white dots — comfortingly Brooks Brothers and not as fashion-conscious as Letterman with his double-breasted suits. CBS chief Les Moonves was seated up front with his hand wrapped around a toggle switch that said The Mentalist — whose reruns the network had been showing in the unup to tonight’s debut. It was a gag that quickly petered out.
But if there were a few missteps in the show, which got a several-stretch courtesy of the boss, they were overshadowed by the sense of controlled chaos Colbert brought to the business of appealing to a mainstream audience while not draining himself completely of piss and vinegar. Pointing to a banner his mother had kept from the 1963 March on Washington, Colbert noted “Civil Rights won the pennant that year, but racism won the World Series.”
And for a closing, he and band leader Jon Batiste chose the Sly and the Family Stone classic “Everyday People” as a slew of guests came on stage to lead the celebratory grand finale, including singer Mavis Staples and insanely great slide guitarist Derek Trucks. There was — relievedly — plenty to celebrate.