It started, as just about anything in America does, with a performance of the national anthem.
Stephen Colbert kicked off his inaugural hosting appearance on “The Late Show” alongside members of his staff, as they performed a (mostly in-tune) rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” at the most American of locales—the top of a Manhattan skyscraper, the Fort Worth Stock Yards, a noisy factory, and a Central Park baseball game umpired by a certain familiar face (not spoiling it for the TiVo crowd).
And while Colbert did an admirable job with the anthem (he sang the bass harmonies), and his bandleader Jon Batiste brightened the mood with a sprightly new theme, it was the crowd who provided the most memorable soundtrack from Colbert’s debut:
“Stephen! Stephen! Stephen! Stephen!”
From a newly renovated Ed Sullivan theater overlooking Broadway in New York City, Colbert dedicated his first night in Dave Letterman’s old chair to Letterman himself, even as the new host promised to put his own distinctive stamp on an iconic part of American entertainment.
For one thing, Colbert embraced a refreshing spirit of candor. Colbert presented his first guest, George Clooney, with a silver Tiffany paperweight engraved with the phrase I DON’T KNOW YOU—“just because we’re celebrities, let’s not pretend we know each other,” Colbert half-joked—before discussing a faux movie of Clooney's to lampooon the movie-biz plugs that are so often a fixture of late night. (And in a friendly nod between rival networks, Jimmy Fallon also recorded a cameo.)
There was also some blunt political talk, as Colbert challenged former Florida governor Jeb Bush to articulate his political differences compared to his brother George. The younger Bush even uttered what he admitted was likely a “heresy” (and is sure to generate waves on conservative media): That Barack Obama “does not have bad motives,” even though he disagrees with most of the current president's decisions.
“You can be friends with people [with whom] you don’t agree with on everything,” the former Florida Gov. and Republican presidential aspirant told Colbert, who seemed to find his stride in the interview. “We have to restore a degree of civility.”
And Colbert being, well, Colbert, he wasn’t afraid to play it a little highbrow, launching into a bizarre extended metaphor about advertising involving a haunted amulet and Sabra Supremely Spicy Red Pepper Hummus. (“It’s actually pretty good,” he sighed.) Nor was he afraid to toe the Trump line, firing off clips of The Donald while simultaneously parodying the media’s fascination of him by literally choking back Oreos.
But when Colbert finally articulated a clear philosophy, it was set to a 4/4 backbeat and the chord changes of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People.” The “Late Show” Colbert, it seems, is a big tent, and everyone’s invited—as long as they like having fun.