Stephen Colbert doesn’t make his official CBS debut until tomorrow, but the host ran a number of test shows in New York leading up to his revamped "Late Show" premiere. Despite guests being sworn to secrecy about what went on in the hallowed (and renovated) halls of the Ed Sullivan theater, plenty about the show has already leaked out. With some help from several preview attendees who have asked to remain anonymous, here's what we know so far:
You’ll recognize the guy onstage
Despite having shed his conservative blowhard persona, the real Stephen Colbert has a lot in common with his old “Colbert Show” counterpart. “The warmhearted narcissism, the sharp-witted criticism of politicians and the biting jokes about current events are still all there," observes Brian Ries at Mashable. “His patriotism is very much alive. And Colbert, even on a bigger stage and with a bigger audience, remains comfortable and at ease.”
“He is more like the Colbert we already know and love than I expected, but a little looser,” one guest, who attended his preview last Thursday, told Salon. “He's still a ‘character,’ plays up his narcissism a lot — just doesn't pretend to be a conservative.”
Another Thursday guest told Salon that Colbert hadn’t lost any of his traditional exuberance onstage: "My biggest take-away from it was that it's incredibly high-energy. Anyone who gets up on the stage and doesn't bring 100 percent sticks out like a sore thumb.”
Still, the similarities were jarring for some: “I felt like he was trying to shrug off the old character but is finding it very difficult to do,” said yet another guest, a 50-something writer from Brooklyn. “He seems happy and in control, but he's got to stop calling the audience ‘nation,’ for a start.”
The set is new, but with some familiar touches
Some of Colbert’s favorite trinkets, like his Captain America Shield, made it to the new set, as well as his old bookshelf and a very patriotic red, white and blue color scheme. Yet there are some fun new additions as well. Per Mashable's Ries, the band plays in an area decked out with columns and stained glass that “looks like a church,” while attendee Scott Interante told CNN that Colbert enters the stage through a garage door that has a “mechanic shop aesthetic.”
“The set was part church and part car garage and part talk show," one preview attendee corroborated to Salon. "It was kind of this amalgam of American culture. You got the sense, a little bit, that they were having fun exploring and playing around in that space and in that stage. There’s a spiral staircase that goes up to a balcony above the band, where at different parts of the show band members or Colbert will run up and do bits.”
The ceiling — which prominently features Colbert’s face — was a particular hit. ”One of the funnest details of the new set was a bunch of smiling stained-glass Colbert faces patterned on the vaulted ceilings,” another attendee explained. "Many of the guests pointed out this detail during their interview run-throughs."
The house band rules
Based on early accounts, the "Late Show" band — led by New Orleans jazz musician Jon Batiste — killed it. "The band played the most impressive rendition of 'If you’re happy and you know it' I've ever heard,” observed one guest.
"Jon Batiste, the 28-year-old incoming Late Show bandleader, is a musical force to be reckoned with,” wrote Ries, while the Guardian’s Ruth Spencer called the music ”an absolute highlight."
"Batiste and his band, which includes a tubist and a serious cowboy-hat-wearing drummer, bring a palpable energy to the show," wrote Spencer.
But another attendee, the above-mentioned Brooklyn writer, was less impressed. “I thought the band was HORRIBLE. Jon Batiste is brilliant, but they are even more of a mess than the soulless 8G band on Seth Myers,” she said, adding that she wasn’t a fan of the wholesome, nostalgia-fueled song choices. “I write about music and was with someone who is also a huge fan of music and we were both devastated by how awful it was. Also, the choice of songs was like a wedding band — at one point he played ‘You Are My Sunshine.’”
There will be Trump jokes
Viewers expecting the political humor that he pioneered on “The Colbert Report" will not be disappointed. Ries wrote there were at least three Trump jokes at the Thursday taping, while another attendee at the Thursday show described the political segments as “standard Colbert: making fun of politicians and also of the media's coverage of them.” There was also a segment about online colleges that one audience member described as a “kind of a pale imitation of John Oliver.”
The Brooklyn writer, who attended a different taping, said she felt that the political humor didn’t overpower the show. “He's excited about Trump, and at one point looked at the camera and said, 'Please come on. I dare you,’” the guest recalled. “There was some political humor but it didn't dominate at the taping I was at.”
However, a guest who went to an earlier test show in late August said there was nary a Trump joke to be heard. However, “the main segment of the opening, which would basically be the equivalent of his 'Colbert Report' opening segment, was a political thing about the GOP. That felt the most like something that could have been on ‘The Report,’” the guest recalled.
The show might have a woman problem
In Spencer's preview for The Guardian, she wrote that the show appeared overwhelmingly male — disheartening given Colbert’s stated commitment to creating a more feminist late night show. "Tonight, sitting four rows back, I watched nearly 40 people troop on and off stage. Of all the producers, directors, stage managers, writers and cameramen who appeared around the set tonight, I counted only two women: a makeup artist and hair stylist,” she wrote. The show also apparently feels very male, not just in terms of personnel — Spencer reported that only male-led bands were played as warm-up music and that Colbert interviewed a fashion blogger by “making fun of her outfits.”
Another attendee corroborated Spencer’s account to Salon. “It felt incredibly cartoony at points, as a bunch of men hunched over Colbert’s desk between breaks to go over cues, something you'd see out of Amy Schumer’s '12 Angry Men.'”
“I like watching production on TV broadcasts and pay attention to things like writers,” said the Brooklyn writer. “No women. No women on the stage except hair and makeup. I am kind of flabbergasted and majorly disappointed.”