Inside the newly renovated Ed Sullivan Theater, Stephen Colbert is playing with his ear.
An audience member has just asked him during the pre-show Q&A about his love of Lord of the Rings, and Colbert has a special trick to show us, which he says will prove he is "part elf." "Bring the monitor in close," Colbert says, grinning. He moves his hand away from his head, revealing a folded ear that pops back into its normal human shape once he makes a grand gesture of release. It's a sweetly childish moment, especially coming from a 51-year-old television star in an impeccably tailored suit. The audience loves it.
Though it's the last day of test tapings before the Sept. 8 debut of the obsessively anticipated Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the vibe is less "frenzied do-or-die dress rehearsal" and more "last day of summer vacation." The string of test shows, which allowed the Late Show team to experiment with jokes and work out kinks in the show's format in front of a live audience, are run just like the real thing, though what transpired on these preparatory nights will never actually air. Adequate internet connection, fast fingers, and a bit of luck allowed me to snag a seat in Thursday's test audience, giving me (and now you!) an early taste of what viewers can expect when Stephen Colbert officially takes over for David Letterman on Tuesday, Sept. 8.
Unsurprisingly, fans of The Colbert Report will find much to like on Colbert's Late Show. There's a familiar focus on politics — Colbert's opening bit likened the addictive-then-sickening feeling of eating a box of Oreos to watching Donald Trump's campaign speeches — and little seems to separate his Late Show satirical news segments from those that made The Colbert Report so popular. And although Colbert has ditched his conservative blowhard character, don't expect to see a completely different Stephen in his place.
"At first, we said: 'Let's not take anything for granted. Let's be willing to throw out everything from the old show,'" Colbert recently told The New York Times. "And what we've discovered is, oh, our sense of humor is our sense of humor." Even without Colbert's raucous, bear-fearing Report persona, it's clear that the humor and playful spirit that Colbert has cultivated in his comedy remains intact. That's a good thing, and a relief.
But perhaps the most exciting part of Colbert's Late Show comes from the unpredictability of all of its moving parts. The longer airtime, extra guests, and addition of a house band allow Colbert even more opportunities to use his brilliant knack for improvisation to interact spontaneously with his guests, his band, and the audience. This is especially apparent in his promising chemistry with his band leader, Jon Batiste, a gifted young multi-instrumentalist who, like Colbert, thrives on the infectious energy that comes from improvisation. When not leading his immensely talented band, Stay Human, through the audience while playing New Orleans-tinged jazz and funk songs, Batiste remained an upbeat and confident presence onstage. He seems to have already earned Colbert's admiration and respect, so we're likely to see more of him in the future.
Of course, a large portion of The Late Show will also feature guests, and thankfully, Colbert so far appears to be steering clear of the silly celebrity stunt-specific interview style of some of his competitors. Interviews with actress and Broadway vet Laura Benanti, comedian Colin Quinn, and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar were entertaining, if slightly unpolished, as Colbert still finds his footing while toeing the line between being a sincere late-night interviewer and the Report's deliberately oblivious Colbert character. But Colbert's relatively straight interview style, which seemed to mimic the model of his idol and predecessor, David Letterman, was a welcome and still fun approach in a late-night field crowded with segments that seem aggressively designed to go viral.
That's not to say that The Late Show with Stephen Colbert is devoid of those YouTube-ready moments. They're present, but at least last night, they were executed with levity and excitement that felt organic. While an "impromptu" musical duet of My Fair Lady's "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" between Colbert and Benanti was certainly planned, the bit had a lighthearted, joyful, and unrehearsed energy that one can only hope doesn't dissipate as The Late Show gradually becomes a well-oiled machine.
The Late Show with Stephen Colbert isn't yet perfect, and it likely won't be once it begins airing next week. The test taping had its highs and lows, but all I could think about upon leaving the Ed Sullivan Theater was the genuinely playful spirit that Colbert and everyone involved in The Late Show with Stephen Colbert projected. Though late-night television has been shaken up by new hosts and new formats in recent years, it's always put a bit too much stock in manufacturing genuine-seeming moments. Here's hoping that Colbert will change that, one childish ear trick or imperfect duet at a time.