HBO Max's The Not-Too-Late Show with Elmo is better than it has any right to be

hbo max's the not too late show with elmo
(Image credit: WarnerMedia)

The HBO Max launch may be remembered more for the lack of Roku and Fire TV HBO Max apps, but I will remember this week for something completely different: enjoying Elmo's antics for the first time since I was a child.

I thought this could not happen. I'm not at all a fan of family-friendly programming, but from nearly the first minute, HBO Max's The Not-Too-Late Show With Elmo had me hooked. Before I knew it, the first three episodes of the show were over, and I found myself wanting more.

How did they do it? How did they melt my jaded thirty-something heart and get me to care about Elmo again? I've got some theories. Here's why I think that The Not-Too-Late Show With Elmo is the first great HBO Max show.

Wholesome with a sense of humor

The first episode of The Not-Too-Late Show With Elmo starts in Elmo's family's kitchen, as dad does the dishes and mom scrubs the counter. Instantly, a familiar voice booms over the the background, portending the start of the show. 

Elmo then actually asks his parents if it's OK for him to leave, saying "can Elmo be excused to go do his talk show, please?" His mom approves but warns him that bedtime is coming up. Talk show hosts, you see, they're just like kids everywhere. 

Then, Elmo changes wardrobe in an instant, off camera, jumping into a black suit. The curtains open, we see a studio with an audience of humans and muppets, and before he starts his monologue, Elmo "woops" one hand in the air, as if it's a subtle nod to Arsenio Hall.

hbo max the not too late show with elmo

(Image credit: WarnerMedia)

And because this is a 3.5-year-old TV host, Elmo immediately asks the crowd what they think about his monologue before it begins. The crowd cheers and the support around the room is real.

In between segments, we're treated to backstage moments where the crew of the show within a show is having a hard time keeping things together. A nice pun is dropped, inane wackiness ensues and some audiences will remember the classic Muppet Show, which this almost feels like a cousin to.

A late night show without the news

The monologue closes with a knock knock joke that has a slightly surprising punchline, and while the joke is good (kids might love it more than I did), I realized in this moment why Elmo is the perfect talk show host for this moment. He's not (yet) talking about the news, during this moment where good news is rarer than photos of Cookie Monster eating kale.

I don't know the details of the production cycle of The Not-Too-Late Show With Elmo, but I get the feeling that they won't be tackling President Donald J. Trump in any detail any time soon.

hbo max the not too late show with elmo

(Image credit: WarnerMedia)

And to be honest, I'm more than OK with this. In fact, I'm elated. Most of the time when late night shows, especially SNL, try and be funny about politics, they swing and miss, or take the easy jokes, seizing the low hanging fruit available. Not Elmo. Elmo's platform might be used to emphasize the value of washing out hands (depending on when these episodes were shot, or can film again), but this fun variety show doesn't need news to be entertaining. And nobody's gonna ask for Elmo's hot takes anyways.

Even when they almost careen into celebrity gossip, with Oscar's segment, the show swerves backwards from it, taking the segment away because it's out of time. This has all the makings of a fantastic recurring segment, and a sly nod to Jimmy Kimmel’s running gag where he didn’t have time for Matt Damon. We can only wonder how Oscar will eventually implode when it becomes too much to handle.

And maybe there will be a time when the production of the show can resume and Elmo can talk about washing your hands, but it's not needed right now. Kids (and the rest of us) would rather decompress with a show that's completely untethered from this modern moment.

Plus, strong guests out the gate

The first three episodes of The Not-Too-Late Show With Elmo give me a lot of reasons to trust the people booking guests for this show. Jimmy Fallon (as annoying as he may be) has such a strong understanding of the comedic timing and late night show interview structure, and he's visually comfortable talking to Elmo. As much as I was excited to see Lil Nas X in episode 3 — talk shows should book guests you don't expect, and he's definitely one — he was a little more stilted.

The first episode's second guest, country western singer Kasey Musgraves, managed to strike all the notes she needed to. Not only was her performance of "Rubber Ducky" serene and delightful, but she had solid banter with Elmo, when they went through photos from the early stages of her music career.

hbo max's the not too late show with elmo

(Image credit: WarnerMedia)

Episode 2 appeals to another section of the potential audience — fans of The Jonas Brothers — who were good sports for the "Silly Freeze Dance" contest where they had to try and stay still after doing weird dances. That segment also had a good wholesome message, with Elmo talking about brushing your teeth. 

Comedian and writer John Mulaney also proved to be an excellent guest, especially when he and Elmo engaged in a tricycle race around the studio hallways. Mulaney's knack for taking everything (including the trivial) super-seriously was a strong fit for the show. 

Trailers have shown that Elmo will be chatting with other late night hosts (like John Oliver), and that upcoming guests will also include Ciara, Blake Lively, Batman and writer Kwame Alexander, so I'm fairly confident that this first run of episodes will keep us on our toes. 

An Elmo's World I want to live in

So, yes, The Not-Too-Late Show with Elmo might not break the internet like Baby Yoda, but it's certainly a winner and a feather in HBO Max's cap. Its mix of classic muppets humor and modern talk show should appeal to all ages.

There are reportedly 10 more episodes left, and I can't leave without mentioning one of the best parts of the show. Episodes are only 15 minutes long, which makes each edition its own little snack. Any more of Elmo's cheer might wear parents out, but (personally) the charm offense wasn't thin to me, even as I binged the first three episodes. 

Henry T. Casey
Managing Editor (Entertainment, Streaming)

Henry is a managing editor at Tom’s Guide covering streaming media, laptops and all things Apple, reviewing devices and services for the past seven years. Prior to joining Tom's Guide, he reviewed software and hardware for TechRadar Pro, and interviewed artists for Patek Philippe International Magazine. He's also covered the wild world of professional wrestling for Cageside Seats, interviewing athletes and other industry veterans.