NEW YORK -- Stephen Colbert has said he thinks of his show as "the joy machine." Thanks mostly to dumb luck, I was able to attend Tuesday's taping of The Late Show premiere at the Ed Sullivan Theater. I'm here to report the joy machine is real, and it works -- at least for the studio audience, which had an absolute blast from beginning to end.
The joy machine is also a large operation and, at times, as clunky as its moniker implies. I don't envy the show's editing staff, which had to condense about two hours' worth of taped material into the roughly hour-long broadcast. From Colbert's reactions throughout, this seemed like way more material than they expected to tape. Problems with sound equipment, time management and CBS President and CEO Les Moonves' comedic delivery all contributed to the overtime.
But while the excessive material may have been problematic for the editing crew, it was just a bonus for the crowd at the Ed Sullivan Theater. For us, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert was an exhilarating and thoroughly fun experience, and not just because of its outstanding host.
Colbert was clearly beloved by the studio audience. It didn't hurt that many of his family members were there, including his wife, children and at least five siblings. In fact, when Colbert's warmup guy was trying to entertain the crowd before the show, he called a member of the audience up onstage without realizing it was one of Colbert's brothers.
A lot of people have speculated what Colbert would be like after leaving behind his character from The Colbert Report. In his dealings with the audience, which included a brief pre-show Q&A and off-air asides, he came across as warm, quick-witted and eager to have fun on the show. It was a refreshing version of Colbert, and one that I think will suit him better than the old, restrictively opinionated persona.
Colbert's debut interview guests were George Clooney and Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush. A lot of material from the interviews was cut from the final broadcast, including Colbert trying to talk his way into an invitation to Clooney's home. He also helped coach Jeb Bush for a Republican presidential debate by having the candidate respond to a fake debate question, then try again with more of a Donald Trump-like flair. I'm sure it was painful to cut that one.
When I sat down to start writing down these thoughts, I had no idea whether the vibe of the live taping would translate to the edited TV broadcast. To the TV audience, the center of attention is the remarkably talented Colbert who, it seems, was born to host this show. And that was true also for those of us in the theater.
But at the heart of the joy machine was the infectious music of bandleader Jon Batiste and his New Orleans jazz-influenced group, Stay Human. What an inspired choice by Colbert and his team.
During commercial breaks, Batiste and his band members would dance across the stage and through the audience, exchanging improvisational passages with each other and prompting the audience to sing in response to prompted melodies. The elaborate musical performance at the end of the broadcast was the fullest expression of that. Each audience member was photographed before the show in front of a green screen; during the closing performance of "Everyday People," the audience's faces were displayed behind the performers.
For a years-long Colbert fan like me, the taping was an amazing experience. I met others in line who have followed his career just as closely, including a magazine editor, a writer for a feminist website and two television actors -- all of whom were there just as fans.
Some might feel like aspects of the TV broadcast were underwhelming; I can assure you the live taping was not. The quality of the show was incredibly high, and I think as time goes on the team will get better at sticking concisely to the show's strongest material, rather than relying on heavy editing.
Most important, they have the right host. Colbert has a great shot to become an iconic comedic figure like David Letterman, who preceded him -- and to whom Colbert paid tribute on Tuesday.
When CBS chose Stephen Colbert to host the network's premier late-night talk show, a vocal faction of Internet commenters plunged into despair, asking, what will we do without the character he played on The Colbert Report? Who will fill his satirical void after the big, bad network stifles his political voice? Can he even be funny outside the absurdist environment he created for himself at The Report?
Mostly, the sentiment was that we would lose the Colbert character we knew and loved. That character had become an institution of its own, evolving from an intentionally stiff hodgepodge of cable personalities into a fully formed, even lovable idiot with a personality of his own. Believe me, I miss that idiot too. He was our idiot. But when the new Late Show host retires someday from his current gig -- however far in the future that may be -- I have a feeling we'll miss the real Colbert a lot more.
The Late Show With Stephen Colbert
Weeknights at 10:35 p.m., CBS (Channel 11).
Wednesday: Scarlett Johansson, SpaceX and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk and Kendrick Lamar, who also performs
Thursday: Vice President Joe Biden and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, with musical guest Toby Keith
Friday: Amy Schumer, author Stephen King and Troubled Waters, which also performs