The most exciting part of the new fall TV season for me comes not in a couple of weeks, when the broadcast networks roll out their new shows, not in the new seasons for cable fare we hope will get better like “The Leftovers” and “The Affair.” It’s not even when Trevor Noah takes the seat for “The Daily Show.”
It is tonight, when Stephen Colbert takes the reins of David Letterman’s venerable “The Late Show” (CBS, 11:35 p.m.).
When he was first announced as the new heir, it seemed so odd at first. All we knew of him was the brilliantly conceived right wing character he portrayed on his sharp political satire “The Colbert Report.”
Picking this guy would be like picking Pee Wee Herman as host (a notion I could consider for a moment). But the point is: We’d never know how Paul Reubens, the guy beneath the bowtie, would be in the role.
Clearly, CBS executives who met with the real Colbert knew what we did not: How sharp he continued to be in his own personality and also how charming. Best of all, he’s a smart guy who is truly interested in the variety of people he’ll be able to meet on his show. Not just starlets (he never did have as many starlets on his show as Jon Stewart did), but authors, leaders, politicians, scientists, researchers. His natural interest in ideas and other people is matched by his ability to bring laughs at will with wit and rapier-like speed.
He was like that when he met with the press for the first time at the TV Critics Association summer press tour, where he was the agreed highlight.
Many a star settles down and comments on the oddness of the seemingly dead room and its silence caused by hacks tapping behind their laptops. But Colbert treated it thusly:
“This is a natural relationship,” he said. “This feels this feels right and intimate.”
After a while he wondered: “What audience could be better than someone who has been here for 15 days, on 4:30 on a Monday? Does anyone need clean underwear?”
His first question was about tonight’s first guest: George Clooney, which Colbert first announced on Twitter, adding “Could one of his people let him know?”
“I hope somebody has let him know,” Colbert said. “It’s going to be very awkward if he doesn’t show up on September 8th.”
“I wish I could have done better than George Clooney,” he kidded, “but he’ll do for the first guest.”
And why Clooney?
“He’s a brilliant actor, a great director, and he cares about the world,” Colbert said, adding, “How many celebrities have their own spy satellite? I’m going to ask him if I can have the keys.”
And yet celebrities won’t be his only guests. There will be big time politicians too, such as Jeb Bush who will be part of tonight’s show as well.
But he’s open to all kinds of people.
“Anybody who is interesting and has something to say, that’s what I’m interested in,” Colbert said. “I love artists, whether they’re actors or musicians. I want to have politicians of all stripes on the show. I like intellectuals, writers, people in sports. But if somebody is not famous and they’ve got something to say and they can present themselves on camera, I think that would be a perfect guest to have.
“Sometimes the people you don’t expect to impress you who can be your best guests,” he said. Naquasia LeGrand, who was the head of the fast food workers’ strike in New York, who worked, I think, two shifts at two different Burger Kings, she was one of my favorite guests of all time. She was fierce. She was funny. She was energetic. She didn’t back down at all.
“All I really want from a guest is somebody who has something to say so I can play with them. We have some common topic to be talking about. My character was actively ignorant about them. I think one of the reasons why I most wanted to drop the character is that I felt I had done everything I could with him or everything I could do with that show, other than have my honest interest in my guest, which is almost constant. And so now I feel actually more freed up.”
Colbert also showed his stripes when he announced his band leader, New Orleans jazz man Jon Batiste, whom he once had on “The Colbert Report.”
“His music is all rooted in jazz,” Colbert said, “but he can play anything and with equal joy and facility.”
On the cable show, “the minute he sat down across from me and challenged me on whether I could improvise,” Colbert said, “I threw away my cards and pulled my chair right up to his so we were knee to knee and he didn’t back away at all and kept playing with me, I thought, ‘I could spend a few years on stage with this guy.’”
Batiste showed up on the final “Colbert Report” last December and the two men continued to meet.
“It turned out he was interested in the idea,” Colbert said. “We had a couple long conversations about connecting with audiences, and I I cannot wait to share the stage with him.
“I’m an improvisor,” Colbert said. “I can’t wait to play off his energy on stage.
“And as for musical guests,” he went on, “my last musical guest was Kendrick Lamar. And I would love him to be my first musical guest. And, in fact, he will be my first musical guest.”
That will be on Wednesday’s show, where his other guests, showing the coming diversity, will be Scarlett Johansson and Elon Musk.
An earlier story about Colbert at TCA can be found here.