Colbert Isn’t Letterman and He Helped Jeb Bush Not Be George, Too
It’s rare that a politician’s appearance on a late-night talk show is fused with something resembling mystery and even tension, but Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush’s appearance on the first episode of the Late Show with Stephen Colbert on Tuesday was wrought with peril thanks to one central question: Is Jeb gonna get bumped?
Even as you knew it couldn’t possibly happen, you couldn’t help but be nervous about it. Colbert, after nine months of being off television, crammed as much as he could into the show’s first 45 minutes, introducing the new set and the new band, paying tribute to David Letterman, creating a brilliant extended metaphor between eating too many Oreos and talking about Donald Trump, and interviewing an oddly orange George Clooney about a fake movie the two men made up. As the time clicked closer to 12:35, and you knew that Mavis Staples had a surprise musical appearance coming, you worried: Was there going to be any time for Bush at all?
There was, in fact, time, but just barely. Six minutes, 42 seconds, to be exact. Apparently the interview went longer—a chyron encouraged viewers to go to CBS.com to see the full interview—and you could tell. It was disjointed and awkward, which was as much Colbert’s fault as it was Bush's. Colbert was actively excited to have a Republican candidate on his show, famously a problem when he played a character that openly mocked many of their core beliefs on his old stomping grounds, and he actually looked a little nervous talking to Bush at first, like he was auditioning for other candidates.
Colbert specializes in getting stuffy politicians to let their hair down, but Bush wasn’t quite up for it, answering Colbert’s first question with standard stump boilerplate and bringing the otherwise lively show to a grinding halt. He also didn’t show much affinity for reading his audience. He said that it was heretic to say it, but “I don’t think Barack Obama has bad motives,” which is only heretic to Republican primary audiences, not studio audiences in New York City. (The audience seemed confused by the whole construction. Were we supposed to assume that Obama did? This is a concession?)
Bush even echoed an old gaffe of his father’s when, after Colbert brought up his “Jeb!” logo, he got strangely literal and buzzwordy, saying “it connotes excitement.” It felt like a minor version of Papa Bush’s “the vision thing.” It was Jeb taking subtext and making it text. It didn’t help that, as Trump famously needles him, Bush was pretty low-energy on Tuesday night. Not that trying to match Colbert’s energy, on his first night, would have done him any good either.
Fortunately, Colbert found his sea legs and helped Bush out a bit with an extremely clever bit in which he pointed out his brother in the audience, there to celebrate his little brother’s big first night of television. “You and I don’t agree with everything politically, do we?” Colbert asked his brother, who nodded knowingly, almost gravely. Colbert then turned to Bush and said, triumphantly, “So, then, you love your brother, but where do you differ with him politically?” Bush was both a little taken aback and also a little impressed by the wit of the construction, and he even made a little news, saying that he thought Dubya did a poor job of reining in spending from a Republican Congress in his last term. It won’t move the needle much, but it was a human moment, Bush disagreeing with the brother he still loves, regardless.
The shortened timespan meant Colbert didn’t get to ask what most people wanted to hear about: Trump, and specifically Bush’s increased attacks on him. (Trump did come up in the bonus clip.) Just like that, Bush was out, waving goodbye, off to Mavis Staples, off to the next show and the next appearance. Bush didn’t help himself much, but he didn’t hurt anything either. Whether that’s a victory or a defeat depends on your perspective.
The show itself was fun and relentlessly positive and energetic. Colbert is doing everything in his power to show that he’s not only not his former character, he’s not David Letterman either. (He clearly adores Letterman, but Colbert was so abuzz with the vigor of performance it was like someone sent a shock through him. He was bouncing around the stage. Low-energy Bush never had a chance in that regard.) But the major takeaway from the first night is just how much of the show is going to revolve around Colbert’s singular talents. The band almost felt part of the periphery, the guests obligatory, the monologue truncated and beside the point. The show came alive when Colbert sat down at his desk and began to entertain, most notably with his inspired Trump bit.
As anyone who writes about this year’s election for a living can tell you, writing about Trump is so easy, so addictive, so irresistible that it is almost exactly like trying not to eat one more Oreo. OK, OK, that’s enough, I need some broccoli, or to drink some water … oh, man, is he talking about the big, beautiful door again? Fine, another cookie. Trump is famously a gift for late-night comedians, but Colbert, in the way that only he can, wanted to remind us just how malnutritious he really is, and how we can’t help but eat up anyway. His challenge, in many ways the same as Bush’s, is to make sure he finds a way to make broccoli appealing while understanding the fundamental appeal of the cookie. Colbert pulled it off on his first night, but he, like Bush, has many, many more nights to come.