DRESS REHEARSAL

04.23.14

Stephen Colbert’s Groveling ‘Late Show’ Debut

Stephen Colbert tested out the new digs and his role as David Letterman's successor.

Giddy as a Girl Scout whose cookies went viral, David Letterman welcomed his successor, Stephen Colbert, to the CBS Late Show last night. Letterman is vacating the show “sometime next year,” ending a spectacular and hilarious 30-year run in late-night television.

“Stephen Colbert is here, ladies and gentlemen,” Letterman said during his monologue. “He just dropped by to sign the lease.”  Actually, he continued, all Colbert needs to do now before taking over is “pass the physical.”

Before Colbert could come out to the crowd’s roar, however, he was seen by us folks at home pitching pistachio nuts during a commercial break. Loyal fans of Dave can remember way back in time when a dog food company offered Letterman a reported $10 million to do a commercial or two, Dave having talked on-air about his own dog and having shown “dog-cam” footage on his NBC “Late Night” show. But Letterman turned it down. Turned down 10 million bucks—and he couldn’t have been making much more than that a year back then.

His decision reflected a quality—largely extinct in show business now—called integrity. Colbert probably isn’t much worried about it.

All was jolly and genial between the king of late night and the pretender to the throne. Dave even posed for a selfie with Colbert, although viewers didn’t get to see the result until the picture (or a video still) showed up in a “bumper” prior to yet another commercial break (they have a lot of those).

“Obviously, I’m thrilled,” Colbert told Letterman as he contemplated his new job. “I’m thrilled as well,” Letterman told Colbert. “They could have hired another boob like me,” said Letterman in his usual self-deprecatory (or faux self-deprecatory) way. Whether he’s been ingenuous or disingenuous all these years, Letterman has been inventively, disarmingly charming.  He brought a sensibility to late-night TV that nobody else had anywhere in the broadcast day. And from the looks of things, no one will have it in the foreseeable future, either—that future including “sometime next year.”

But Colbert has built up a solid fan base as the star of his own cable show and his appointment—“hiring” sounds too trivial for such a pivotal position—seems commercially sound. Not exciting, but sound.

Colbert was properly, perhaps pitifully, deferential to Letterman. “I’m going to do whatever you have done,” he told Letterman, with Letterman predictably responding that no, no, Colbert should do anything but that. Colbert also told a story about accompanying his girlfriend to the offices of Dave’s NBC show in 1986 so she could apply to be an intern. She didn’t get the gig, and it was offered to Colbert instead.  He turned it down because of “no pay.” Even then he knew what television was all about.

When Letterman casually mentioned he might be leaving in less than a year, Colbert looked eager and Letterman asked him, “What’s it worth to you, Steve?” Colbert offered his own version of a Top Ten List—written by him, he claimed, 17 years ago—but Dave feigned apoplexy when it was preceded by the taped, animated introduction used for Letterman’s nightly lists. “He doesn’t get that yet,” Letterman protested.  Colbert’s list was “the top ten cocktails for Santa” and it was wordy rather than funny.  Instead of just listing funny cocktail names, Colbert included the ingredients.  Has he ever seen a real top-ten list?

Colbert was properly, perhaps pitifully, deferential to Letterman.

Earlier, Letterman’s top-ten (now a sponsored segment, incidentally— not pistachio nuts or dog food but Intel) was “top ten things overheard at Jesus’s wedding.”  No. 10: “On his wedding day, you’d think he’d shave.” No. 8: “Lookout—here come the lepers.”  No. 3: “This wine tastes watery.”  No. 1:  “I give it a month.”  Paul Shaffer and the band played the Doobie Brothers’ “Jesus Is Just Alright with Me.”

Ushering Colbert off at 12:10 a.m., Letterman exulted, “Here he is, it’s the new kid.” He’s being so damned ebullient about this, maybe he will have a continuing financial interest in the show he is leaving. The title will apparently remain “Late Show” and the program will still originate from The Ed Sullivan Theater.  Expect a movement pressuring CBS to rename it “The David Letterman Theater,” but then, that would be mean to Ed. And probably quite unpleasant for Colbert. 

The show was heavily booked. After Colbert, Robin Roberts of ABC’s Good Morning, America came out. Her new book is Everybody’s Got Something, but the title could have been, Everybody’s Got Something to Plug. She certainly did, but Letterman made it a memorable interview by asking very straightforward questions about Roberts’ battle with cancer and with the treatments she underwent to cure it. 

Yes, Johnny Carson was great, great, great, but he was never as brilliant a serious interviewer as Letterman can be. Letterman gives every appearance of asking questions out of a genuine curiosity and desire to learn more, and viewers can hardly help but learn something from his approach.  When Roberts said her sister’s stem cells played a role in her recovery, Letterman asked about the meaning of the term stem cells: “Stemming from what?” Roberts didn’t know and indicated she’d rather talk about Good Morning, America, and what would have been duller than that?

Announcer Alan Kalter, always funny when called upon to do a “bit,” delivered a mock spiel on behalf of Earth Day and his own “Alan Kalter Environmental Fund.”  Turns out he was just trying to raise funds to purchase a cover for his backyard swimming pool. A little earlier, discussing Earth Day, Letterman said that when it started in 1970, people still entertained a hope that something could be done to save the planet. “Now, of course, we realize that no one cares,” he said. “It’s a lost cause.”  He delivered those words jokingly and got big laughs—but as you can see for yourself, in print they are not all that funny.

Prediction: There will never, ever, ever be another David Letterman. And if there somehow is, it won’t be Stephen Colbert.