Credit: Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS

How can you tell the difference between the real Stephen Colbert and the right-wing blowhard he played for nearly ten years on The Colbert Report? Colbert finally put that question to rest during his first night hosting The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. First, he admitted that he’d spent a long time searching for the “real” Stephen Colbert: “I just hope I don’t find him on Ashley Madison.” Then he explained the difference between who he was then and who he is now. “I used to play a narcissistic conservative pundit,” he told his guest, Jeb Bush. “Now I’m just a narcissist.”

The question of realness has haunted Colbert ever since CBS announced that he would replace David Letterman. Critics have wondered what kind of person Colbert would be, now that he’s no longer acting. How would his approach to interviews change once he didn’t have to pretend to be willfully ignorant? Could he charm us as easily with relatively straightforward jokes as he once did with jokes inside quotation marks?

All of this attention to “realness” rings a little false, though, since most of us already know the real Colbert. We’ve seen him breaking character on screen. It’s clear that his curiosity and enthusiasm about his guests usually comes from an authentic place — a welcome change from Letterman, who sometimes seemed bored by the people sitting on the couch. Besides, it’s unfair to hold Colbert to a standard we don’t use for others. Can we really say for certain that George Clooney wasn’t playing an exaggerated version of himself when he appeared on Colbert’s stage last night? Can anyone truly be “real” when they’re on TV?

Well, if it can be done, Colbert got pretty close to doing it last night. He was just as funny and quick-witted and inventive as he’s ever been off-camera,and he seemed genuinely excited about hosting the show in front of an audience and dancing on stage with his studio band, Jon Batiste and Stay Human. When he kicked things off by joining other musicians to perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” in various locations across America, briefly stopping at a baseball diamond where Jon Stewart called out, “Play ball,” his patriotism wasn’t ironic. The guy had color-coordinated his tie, shirt, and suit jacket in red, white, and blue for the occasion.

The whole opening accentuated Colbert’s all-American image as the Catholic family man who’s smart about the serious political issues, but still appreciates a good, old-fashioned lowbrow joke about Donald Trump’s hair or Willie Nelson’s brand of marijuana, both of which he touched upon in his monologue. It was telling that, for the night’s musical performance, Jon Batiste and Stay Human joined special guests including Mavis Staples and Brittany Howard to sing Sly & the Family Stone’s “Everyday People.” Colbert could almost pass himself off as an everyday person, with that Norman Rockwell hairdo and those American Gothic eyeglasses. So that only made it more thrilling when he suddenly reminded us how weird he can get.

Colbert was showing viewers around his new studio, pointing out the Captain America shield he borrowed from the Colbert Report finale and a Civil Rights pendant he got from his mom, when he came upon a cursed amulet. He said that in exchange for landing this gig, he made a promise to an evil being, whose full name he couldn’t utter out loud for fear that it would appear before him and “feast on the blood of the innocent.” The deal required him to make “certain regrettable compromises.” Cut to Colbert enjoying some mmm-delicious! hummus from his sponsor, Sabra.

The bit captured everything that’s great about Colbert: it was hilariously bizarre, clever, and just slightly disruptive, making us question whether the joke was on the advertiser or the viewer who can’t fast-forward through this particular type of commercial. Granted, he was acting in the tradition of Johnny Carson, who once pretended to eat Alpo dog food on screen, but it’s still notable that the same comedian who ran a political campaign sponsored by Doritos would be up for product placement.

There has been a lot of talk lately about whether Colbert will be able to remain just as subversive on CBS as he could on cable. During his time on Comedy Central, he hosted one of the best White House Correspondents’ Dinners in recent memory — and one of the worst nights for President George Bush. His semi-serious Super PAC created actual trouble for Comedy Central’s parent company, Viacom, which sent him a letter denying him permission to establish it as a PAC. But Letterman started out as a subversive, too, before settling into a slightly more staid role. The larger ratings expectations for a CBS show, along with its older, more conservative audience, could make any late-night host turn mainstream.

At first, it seemed that Colbert might abandon the one thing he’s best at — creating uncomfortable comedic situations — just to defuse tension. He got positively chummy with his late-night rival Jimmy Fallon over a video conference call, allowing the Tonight Show host to plug future guests while dispelling any rumors of a bitter Leno-versus-Letterman-style stand-off. Colbert played relatively nice with Trump, criticizing the media for consuming the man’s sound bites in the same way that America consumes Oreos, a snack that Trump vowed to never eat again. (Cue a billion GIFs of Colbert feasting upon Oreos.) He teased Clooney for acting as “arm candy” to wife Amal, but most of Colbert’s jokes were aimed less at Clooney than the late-night culture that sucks up to him.

Offering Clooney a wedding gift — a paperweight inscribed with the words “I don’t know you” — he riffed on the false sense of friendship between hosts and guests. He also pointed out that late-night celebrity schmoozefests don’t often happen without a project to promote, so he and Clooney created teaser clips for a fake action movie called Decision Strike. Whether the segment qualified as an actual interview is up for debate, since we didn’t learn much about Clooney, but it was fun to see the actor in the Decision Strike trailer, shouting, “Not now! I’m diffusing a nuclear bomb!”

It wasn’t until Jeb Bush stepped onto the stage that Colbert found his true breakthrough moment. Because Colbert’s Late Show shares much of its writing and producing staff with The Colbert Report, it’s better equipped to handle politics than its competitors, especially since Fallon and Kimmel are more interested in lighthearted parlor games and viral pranks right now. And Colbert is the master of asking obvious but fascinating questions that hardly anyone else ever asks. “Why do you want to be President of the United States?” he asked Bush. When Bush gave a generic answer — “Cause I think we’re on the verge of the greatest time to be alive, but our government isn’t working” — Colbert pushed him to better define how his views differ from his brother’s. He asked why Bush’s mom said that we don’t need another Bush in the White House. He poked fun at Bush’s campaign poster, which simply reads “Jeb!” (“It connotes excitement,” insisted a flustered Bush, without any trace of excitement.) It was an honest, awkward conversation, and it showed great promise for Colbert, who will likely find more cringe-comedy gold as the 2016 campaign heats up.

Is late-night ready for another politically-minded, semi-absurdist host at a time when so much programming is geared toward breezy chit-chat and broad morning-after memes? If not, we might hold Colbert responsible. Long ago, he and his fellow Daily Show alums made the networks’ late-night programming seem outdated, especially compared to the experimental, satirical news shows on cable. Now it’s up to Colbert to make smart late-night programming relevant again. Whether he can do that as the “real” Colbert remains to be seen. But so far, he’s good at pushing guests like Bush to reveal something real about themselves.

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