He’s filling the seat long commanded by David Letterman, which is a gigantic deal in and of itself, but whether Stephen Colbert’s version of “The Late Show” gets off the ground ultimately has to do with whether he can fly solo—on his own terms.

That trick will require more than just ditching his doppelgänger from “The Colbert Report,” along with the timely brand of faux-servative punditry that made his Comedy Central staple more than just a worthy adjunct to “The Daily Show.” It’ll also call for him to play more down the middle without becoming yesterday’s milquetoast or being trampled in the crowded parade of after-hours comics, most of whom are well past the courtship phase with their respective shares of a fickle and fragmented viewing public.

With such jacked-up expectations and so many parties to please—as evidenced by a series of obligatory hat-tips to his mentors, to Letterman himself and to the lurking figure of CBS boss Les Moonves—Colbert’s first “Late Show” was bound to be a little uneven. Plus, the Eye Network’s newest host has suggested in preliminary interviews that he and his writing team would be treating this gig as a work in progress.

That said, there’s a balance to be struck between respecting the creative process and coming up short when they should be throwing down. From his opening pitch to the closing credits, Colbert didn’t quite deliver in Tuesday night’s debut, but he still has time and plenty of hard-earned goodwill on his side as he figures it out.

The makings were all there: years of experience as part of a prestigious and impactive fake news crew, a proven knack for extemporaneous hilarity, top-shelf guests and performers, a tricked-out set. Listed among the new “Late Show” executive producers was Jon Stewart, no less. Colbert was clearly eager to do whatever jig was required of him, and his studio audience was enthusiastically ready to follow along, but he kept making awkward, sometimes cringe-worthy, moves.

Even the bits that should have been sure bets went strangely awry this time. Colbert was almost upstaged by intentionally bad Photoshopped graphics during his most promising monologue, until he was rescued by some distressingly welcome footage of—wait for it—Donald Trump. The typically witty George Clooney showed up ready to play Mayor of Hunkytown but not a whole lot else, and though part of the ruse Clooney was chasing had to do with his not really knowing Colbert or having any project in particular to promote, even the actor’s best bedroom eyes couldn’t distract viewers from the fact that he didn’t have enough prime material at his disposal. Clooney shared that problem, which stuck out all the more on opening night, with his host.

As for what did work, the fact that Colbert apparently isn’t taking up the snarky sidekick trope is a definite plus. He approached his wicked “Colbert Report”-grade humor in flashes, and he shared surprisingly good chemistry with his other headliner, Republican scion Jeb Bush. It was also genuinely intriguing to catch glimpses of Colbert’s personal politics in his asides and interjections. The energy from the crowd, which chanted “Ste-phen!” as in the salad days of 2014, gave the pilot some extra buoyancy.

But when Colbert channeled his old alter ego for a moment, intoning a familiar “Hello, nation,” he was acting out the crucial riddle of his latest assignment: how to play in Peoria without losing his edge or his bicoastal appeal. Colbert took pains to point out that he’s Not David Letterman during Tuesday night’s big reveal (anyone in the writers’ room familiar with the term “show, don’t tell?”), but he has yet to demonstrate that he’s neither his former character nor out of his depth on network TV. We might be meeting a new Colbert, fit for the flyover states, but it’s up to the “Late Show” host and his staff to prove they can give him a heart without knocking out his teeth.

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