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Colbert era launches on CBS with sharp political humor, high energy, great music

If Tuesday night's premiere is any indication, latenight network TV is going to be a lot more political and politically savvy with Stephen Colbert at the desk for "The Late Show" on CBS.

If Tuesday night's premiere is any indication, late night network TV is going to be a lot more political and politically savvy with Stephen Colbert at the desk for "The Late Show" on CBS.

And that's not simply a function of Colbert and his production team making unorthodox choices like booking GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush on his first show -- and setting off a late night booking war of presidential candidates.

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Once Colbert managed to get through a strained monologue utterly lacking in rhythm and sat down at the desk, he delivered a clever and funny piece focused on GOP candidate Donald Trump. It offered keen insights into the candidate, such as Trump's willingness to be endorsed by white supremacists, served up as Colbert downed Oreos like Cookie Monster.

Colbert is one of the few performers who can combine cerebral humor with broad physical silliness that way -- and it should be a huge asset for "The Late Show."

Johnny Carson wasn't political the way Colbert is. And Carson wasn't as cerebral as Jack Paar, Dick Cavett or Colbert. But Carson was one of the few late night hosts of his era who could do both in the same segment, and Colbert brought him to mind as I watched Tuesday night. That is much higher praise than I expected to be giving the former Comedy Central star when I sat down at the start of the show.

I used the adjective "unorthodox" to describe booking Jeb Bush on the premiere, because Bush is not exactly Nielsen gold these days, and worse, by the standards of television, he is, in the words of Trump, "low energy," try as he might to seem otherwise onscreen.

But as over-the-top awkward as Bush looked in his effort to come across as a fun guy, Colbert made the segment work with his own deftly scripted lines and perfectly paced questioning.

"I used to play a narcissistic conservative pundit," Colbert said to Bush. "Now I'm just a narcissist."

It went by so fast it seemed like throwaway line, but it was perfectly pitched to seamlessly stitch over the transition from his pompous gasbag persona on Comedy Central to his new I-Really-Am-Stephen-Colbert role as host on a mainstream network talk show. The note of self-deprecation was icing on the cake.

Overall, on the plus side, the show had great energy. In fact, there was almost too much energy, with it seeming at points more like pep rally than a late night show as the crowd chanted the host's first name.

But energy is always good in TV.

Colbert also has a killer band in Jon Batiste and Stay Human. The closing number, "Everyday People," with guests like Mavis Staples and Buddy Guy, felt like it had to be rattling the rafters of the Ed Sullivan Theater.

On the negative side, I could actually use less dancing and singing from Colbert. But if he really wants to do it, fine. Same for the sci-fi, geek-boy stuff, which leaves me just as cold.

What he and the producers do need to cut back on or find a way to improve, though, is the monologue. I know it is totally unfair to judge on the basis of one show especially when the host seems to be as keyed up and forcing it as Colbert was Tuesday.

But his attempt at a monologue Tuesday reminded me that there are about 10,000 comedians who do monologues better than him. That's not why he was hired. So, play within your talents. Don't try to be what you aren't.

Colbert is brilliant when he talks politics or interviews political guests. As good as he was with the goofy-looking Bush, he was awful with the debonair George Clooney. Colbert went without taking a breath from a question on Darfur to another on how Clooney feels to be "arm candy" for his new wife. And worse, it looked like he read the "arm candy" question off a sheet of paper without any thought of whether or not it might seem frivolous following a discussion about Darfur.

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But I will forgive a million such sins to have a host in late night who can intelligently up the political ante on that time period on network TV, which otherwise largely ignores the nation's political life.

And for someone who can do it as intelligently as Colbert, I'll forgive two million sins.

Let's hope he doesn't abandon or cut back on politics if he doesn't instantly attract the kind of mass audience he needs to succeed by CBS standards.

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