Late-night's onetime king of political satire rebounds at the conventions (with an assist from Jon Stewart) as he gets comfortable (finally!) revealing his best character — himself — amid criticism and job rumors: "I'm a human being. Yeah, I care."
"I'm sorry, Jon and I are quite happy here making jerky and canning our own urine for the end of times," says Stephen Colbert.
It is Monday, July 18, and Jon Stewart and Colbert are on the Ed Sullivan Theater stage in New York taping a bit for tonight's Late Show that will mark the return of the supremely unctuous fictional newscaster Colbert played for 10 years on Comedy Central. It also kicks off eight days of live shows during the Republican and Democratic conventions.
In the bit, Stewart, dressed in a blue plaid bathrobe and slippers and drinking from a tin cup, is living in a cabin in the woods with the fictional Colbert of The Colbert Report. (In real life, Stewart, who also is an executive producer on CBS' The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, actually has been living on his farm in New Jersey, somewhat off the grid, tending to a menagerie of pigs, goats and chickens.)
The bit is called Trumpiness, a play on "truthiness," the Colbert-coined term to describe the from-the-gut, perception-is reality ethos ushered in by George W. Bush. And Donald Trump — with his penchant to embellish, exaggerate and, depending on your point of view, outright lie — just may be the human apotheosis of the word. So the real Colbert has sought out his alter ego to help put into context the inexplicable: Donald Trump is thisclose to moving into the White House.
Stewart and Colbert run through the bit four times, effortlessly trading lines and clearly enjoying working together again. When Stewart spits a mouthful of water in Colbert's face after learning that Trump — not Jeb Bush — is the GOP nominee, Colbert barely stifles a laugh. As two makeup artists descend to dry off Colbert, Stewart asks him why he doesn't wear an earpiece. Colbert explains that he's deaf in one ear, the result of botched surgery for a perforated eardrum. Cracks Stewart, "That's what separates you from Brian Williams."
"Yes," answers Colbert, "and nothing else."
They've been working on the bit for a couple of weeks. Colbert tells me he has thought of his original Comedy Central character as a "tool" to be deployed — judiciously. "He can't come in small, it's got to be big," he says.
He muses on an over-the-top entrance for the character: "Shirtless muscle men in little toreador vests, and I'm on a tiny little chariot, and they're pulling me with ropes," he says. "Little children throwing rose petals. Or maybe an old man holding a laurel crown over my head as I come in."
He'll also carry Captain America's shield and a Sting sword from The Lord of the Rings, which fans will recognize as the props he held in the farewell scene of the final episode of The Colbert Report.
But he admits he still has reservations. Not for himself but for the audience. "Hopefully," he says, "they won't be like, 'Huh? That's a different show. Wasn't that 18 months ago? Why haven't you moved on?' "
“Some people were saying, ‘Don’t pull your punches. Punch ’em!’ ” says Colbert of his Late Show guest interviews. “I’m like, ‘No, no, you don’t understand; I don’t want to punch them. I actually want to know what they want to say.’ ”
Eleven months into his tenure as host of CBS' iconic The Late Show, Colbert still is figuring out how to move on without the character he inhabited for more than 10 years. After being personally courted by CBS Corp. chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves and agreeing to a five-year deal that pays him $15 million year, Colbert, 52, got off to a roaring start: 6.6 million viewers tuned in to watch his Late Show debut Sept. 8, giving CBS a rare win over NBC's The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon; when delayed viewership was factored in for the first week, Colbert even bested Fallon among 18-to-34-year-olds. CBS didn't expect Colbert to knock off Fallon, whose puppy-dog charm is perfectly suited to broadcast late night. But by the second week of December, the spread between No. 1 Fallon and Colbert had widened to 1.5 million viewers, and when spring arrived, Colbert was tracking below David Letterman's final weeks at the desk.
Clearly, in bringing back Colbert's old character, CBS is hoping to concoct the type of viral sensation that Fallon has mastered and that James Corden, star of Colbert's lead-out Late Late Show, has achieved many times over with "Carpool Karaoke," launching the previously unknown (to American audiences, at least) Brit into the zeitgeist. (Corden's show also received an Emmy nomination while Colbert's did not.) Corden's sudden rise has been particularly complicated for Colbert, fueling the media narrative of a budding rivalry and feeding the rumor mill that CBS executives are angling to flip-flop Colbert and Corden, 37 — a la Conan-Leno 2009 — in the late-night lineup. Corden's elaborate Hamilton skit at CBS' annual upfront presentation to advertisers in May — while Colbert went virtually unmentioned — only stoked the gossip flames. Howard Stern finally pushed the idea into the open when he asked Corden during a June 6 interview if he was going to get Colbert's time slot. Corden strongly refuted the notion — "Never gonna happen," he said — even as Stern attempted to needle him into acceding by posing a hypothetical scenario in which Colbert was hit by a car. Colbert has not listened to the interview.
"That's a reasonable question for Howard to ask, I suppose, because Howard asks provocative questions," says Colbert. "I mean, any question is a reasonable question if you think it's interesting, and that's a very interesting question. But, I mean, what can I do about a question? All I can do is the best show I can."
We are in Colbert's office, on another Monday night, well after the show has wrapped. Colbert has finished his dinner (a grilled chicken leg out of a cardboard box), and we are talking over glasses of Oyster Bay sauvignon blanc. He answers my questions with unfailing care and thoughtfulness and, unlike so many comedians, rarely uses jokes to deflect discomfiting lines of inquiry. (One exception is a question about Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman, his former boss at Comedy Central: "I think the world of the man, unless Sumner has already fired him, in which case, I'm on Sumner's side.")
Colbert with Bill O’Reilly, who was part of the inspiration for the 'Colbert Report' character.
'The Late Show’s' “Hungry for Power Games” skit.
When I ask Colbert if the Corden rumors make him feel bad, he looks down at his desk. After a long pause, he answers: "The implication of that question is that the show isn't good enough in its present position. So of course that makes you feel bad. But it doesn't jibe with what I know about our show, so you recover."
CBS executives have flatly denied the rumors. "We have no plans to flip the two shows," says Glenn Geller, president of CBS Entertainment. "It's really easy for people to pit the shows against each other. But they're different kinds of shows, they're different kinds of hosts. One was a known quantity to America, and the other was not. I don't think it's fair to compare the two and say, 'Well, just because one show has this, why doesn't the other?' "
While conceding that Colbert's performance has been "uneven," Geller emphasizes that the show still is in its early days, adding that network executives hope the convention shows will remind viewers of Colbert's talent for incisive political satire.
Says Stewart (right) of his role as an EP on 'Late Show': “I consider Stephen kind of a genius, and I don’t get in the way.”
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Colbert's tenure so far has been the lack of that. When he first arrived at Late Show, Colbert set about courting many of the Republican candidates, including Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz, seeking to reassure them with personal letters. (He also wrote to Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders). "I think after the legend of that whole character, people wanted to know [that] I'm really going to treat them with respect," he says.
When Trump appeared on the show Sept. 22, Colbert exhibited glimmers of his old self; it was about two months after Trump declared his candidacy by impugning Mexican immigrants as "rapists" and "criminals." Colbert opened the interview by apologizing to Trump for some of the things he has said about him and asking Trump whether there was anybody to whom he would like to "apologize." It was a great bit, but the interview that followed was lackluster. "He played it very safe," reflects Colbert. "He didn't say anything crazy, he was the soul of reason. He wouldn't even look at me. He sat there like a schoolboy with his hands on his lap. So I found him to be dull, if anything. As soon as the interview was over, I went, 'Oh, f— me, why didn't I call him low energy?' [Trump's constant insult to Jeb Bush.] That would've really riled him up."
Colbert and wife Evelyn have been married since 1993. They have three children.
Colbert says he and Corden (left) have a “very nice relationship.”
Hillary Clinton's appearance in April, staged at the Carnegie Deli, was similarly benign. They talked mostly about food — husband Bill Clinton's veganism and the grossest thing she's ever eaten on the campaign trail.
Outside of these face-to-face encounters, Colbert has been sharper, explaining Trump's xenophobia with a swastika diagram and offering a gleeful takedown of Clinton in the wake of the FBI's excoriation of the former secretary of state's use of a private email server.
Trump, says Colbert, is a slippery target for parody because "he is a parody. You can't quite put your finger down on what he means. Our greatest success has been aping a stream-of-consciousness style in which he talks."
Colbert always has been a sharp monologuist — the form plays to his strengths as a joyous interpreter of life's absurdities. But at CBS, he's struggled to find the right tone for the rest of the show, especially the guest interviews. And while some of his bits have landed (The Hunger Games parody of Stanley Tucci's over-the-top Caesar Flickerman is a standout and was employed to hilarious effect at the Republican convention when he was dragged from the stage by security. "I know I'm not supposed to be up here," he protested. "But let's be honest, neither is Donald Trump!"). But other bits have not. The more frequent cold opens often can feel forced: a riff on the Pokemon Go app, an attempt to skewer North Carolina's anti-LGBT law.
I ask Colbert if the criticism bothers him, whether he cares what people write about him.
"I'm a human being. Yeah, I care," he says. "If there's something informative, if there's some criticism that would be helpful, I'm happy to listen to it. But you know, you are the show, and so you can't not take it personally. And the only difficult thing really is I like what we do, and so I don't entirely know how to feel about negative criticism."
Part of the problem has been a simple matter of workload. At Comedy Central, Colbert was his own de facto showrunner along with Tom Purcell and Meredith Bennett, who was forced out at Late Show in May. He brought nearly his entire staff of about 80 people with him to CBS (the total Late Show staff now numbers 200). But he did not want to hire a showrunner, and CBS executives acquiesced. So in the first several months on Late Show, his natural inclination to micromanage — he was approving props, lighting, graphics, sitting in meetings about hiring junior staffers — was having a deleterious effect on his ability to perform.
"It was like going from go-kart to NASCAR in terms of the speed at which everything had to happen," says Colbert of the pace, breadth and competitive considerations of a five-day-a-week, one-hour broadcast show (Colbert Report was 30 minutes, four days a week). "I didn't really have much fun in the late fall."
Says Stewart, "My biggest concern was, he was doing too much and being on the front lines of decisions that I think were not a healthy place to be for the person who also has to go and perform."
By the time the holidays rolled around, Colbert was on the brink of exhaustion. "I went, 'OK, well, I like what I do, but I think that the pace of it might kill me unless I can find a way to regulate the way I'm throwing myself at it.' "
Starting right when CBS announced in April 2014 that Colbert would succeed Letterman, even Colbert's most ardent fans worried about how he'd make the transition, about how funny the subversive caricature of a high-status idiot cable news host could be as himself — on risk-averse CBS no less.
For Colbert, it has been a struggle in ways that viewers don't see. On his former show, he says, it was easier for him to operate as a producer up until a few minutes before the show taped because he was playing a character. Now, he says, being himself in front of an audience "requires a level of ease and enjoyment and in some ways a level of energy and trust that cannot be achieved by someone who has just been doing calculus right up until the last moment. Like, who pays attention to the syntax of things will never wholly kiss you, wholly to be a fool while spring is in the world, my blood approves. You've got to wholly kiss the audience, and you can't be doing syntax all day long."
Lurking beneath the E.E. Cummings quote (probably not something dropped into the typical Fallon or Corden interview) is a powerful admission — Colbert has just fessed up to still getting comfortable playing himself.
For now, CBS easily can afford to give Colbert time to find his footing. Whereas Letterman produced and owned both Late Show and Late Late Show under his production shingle, they now are the property of CBS, giving the network the ability to monetize the myriad ways viewers now consume late-night comedy. Even with what sources say is a $15 million salary for Colbert and annual show budget of more than $30 million, The Late Show is profitable, says Geller. But he would like to see the ratings improve; so far this season, Colbert is averaging 2.9 million viewers (827,000 in the 18-to-49 demographic), well behind Fallon (3.7 million viewers and 1.3 million in the demo) but still comfortably ahead of ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live! (2.4 million total viewers and 709,000 in the demo). Corden is pulling in 1.26 million viewers with 414,000 in the demo, behind Late Night With Seth Meyers with 1.56 million total viewers and 585,000 in the demo.
Even before the ratings began to founder, Moonves, says Colbert, had suggested that he needed a showrunner. "He told me two weeks in," says Colbert. "And it took me to Christmas to go, 'Oh, this is what he means.' "
But it wasn't until Colbert's post-Super Bowl 50 show — which earned more than 21 million viewers but provided no sustained lift for The Late Show — that Moonves and Colbert, along with Geller, finally had their come-to-Jesus talk over dinner at the 21 Club, a favorite CBS haunt.
"He knows how to talk to talent because he was an actor," says Colbert of Moonves. "I thought I could do it, I thought it would be a natural transition to make. But that was a real revelation to go like, 'No, if I want to do the show that I want to do and enjoy it at the same time, I have to have somebody else come in here.' "
Chris Licht had just landed in Houston for the Final Four when he got a call from CBS News president David Rhodes. It was Friday, April 1, and Rhodes told him that there was a discussion afoot to install Licht as Colbert's showrunner. "I was stunned," recalls Licht. "I think David wanted to be sure that I wasn't going to be like, 'No f—ing way am I going to do this, I'm a news guy.' "
On transitioning from four half-hours to five hourlong shows a week, Colbert says it was like “going from go-kart to NASCAR in terms of the speed at which everything had to happen."
Licht had arrived at CBS News in 2011 from MSNBC, where he had created Joe Scarborough's buzzy Morning Joe. At CBS News, he quickly established himself as an inventive producer, positioning CBS This Morning as a hard-news alternative to the frothier offerings on ABC and NBC. (He was alone among his morning-show rivals in not allowing Trump to call into the show and instead insisting that he be present in the studio.) He endeared himself to Moonves and his bosses at CBS News by naturally taking to the CBS management philosophy that prizes efficiency, competitiveness and a clear sense of hierarchy.
The following Wednesday, Licht, Colbert and Colbert's agent, James Dixon, met for drinks at the Parker Meridien. "It was love at first sight," recalls Dixon.
After three hours and multiple glasses of Macallan, they made a handshake deal; Licht wouldn't tell Colbert how to do comedy, and Colbert wouldn't tell Licht how to produce a TV show. "I remember thinking that meant something, the handshake," says Licht. "I knew there was no not doing it."
Since Licht arrived, they've added that cold open (again, to varying degrees of success) and tightened up the pacing. Gone are the prolonged opening credits — and Colbert performing as the show's announcer. And while highbrow guests (George Saunders, Ron Suskind, Tim Cook, Elon Musk) still are sprinkled in, there are more actors in the mix, which Colbert professes complete comfort with. "I am an actor!" he says, laughing. "I loved talking to Bryan Cranston. I like Busy Philipps. I'm interested in just people. I spent 10 years doing one thing. This is a change-up pitch for me.
"I still want to talk to scientists and intellectuals, authors and members of the news media. But it’s only a couple times a week now as opposed to what the bulk of it was before, but I don’t miss that.”
There is a perception — erroneous, says Colbert — that he has chafed at the more populist requirements of the job. Yes, he has esoteric interests (Latin, world religions, medieval literature, Tolkien), he says, “but I really like pop culture. I eat McDonald’s, I drink Coca-Cola, I like a Bud Light Lime. I do. I mean, in some ways I’m extremely pedestrian.”
He explains: “Some people are willing to share themselves. On that old show, we had a very specific criteria for what was a good guest for me. Do they represent an idea, are they there to advocate an idea or do they represent an idea in my character’s mind? I didn’t want to advocate all the time.”
If Colbert admits that the first few months of his show he was mired in the minutiae that Licht now has taken off his plate, he says there has been notably little interference from his corporate bosses.
“There has been a remarkable lack of bullshit from CBS. I thought there’d be more. The only bullshit is like odd prudishness.”
But Colbert has used this as fodder for the show; getting around the network censors has become a running gag. “Like I said ‘sturcus usu venit’ on air. OK. That means loosely in Latin, ‘shit happens.’ It literally means ‘dung it comes to pass.’ Like it’s a really terrible way of saying shit happens. And CBS is like, ‘Well, we have to bleep that.’ I’m like, ‘It’s in Latin! I am not sturcus-ing you on that one. I mean, NCIS can stack up hookers like cord wood, but heaven forbid I say ‘goddamn it’ or ‘asshole.’ By the way, you bleep ‘hole,’ not ‘ass.’ ”
While Colbert is still finding his rhythm on-air, his crowd-pleasing genius is on full display during his preshow ritual, which producers recently have started posting on the show’s Facebook page. About 10 minutes before a show is taped, he comes out and takes questions from the audience. (Colbert’s answer about how he met his wife, Evelyn — during which he referenced poet Chuck Sullivan and Robert Fagles’ translation of The Odyssey — went viral on July 6.) It is an exercise to warm up the crowd, as much as it is to warm up Colbert, his way to “wholly kiss the audience.” The affection is heartily returned.
"There has been a remarkable lack of bullshit from CBS. I thought there'd be more," says Colbert. "The only bullshit is like odd prudishness."
On July 14, when he appears onstage for the warm-up, a teenager from the balcony shouts, “You’re my hero. I really look up to you.”
Colbert shoots right back, “I am literally looking up to you right now.”
“I love your political views, and you seem like such a nice, genuine person,” the kid continues nervously. “Who do you look up to?”
“My mom,” answers Colbert.
(Lorna Colbert died in 2013 at age 93; she was Colbert’s salvation when, in 1974, two of his brothers and his father were killed in a plane crash in North Carolina. Colbert was one of 11 kids in his family.) “If you like me, that’s because of my mom.”
Another audience member asks whether Colbert will run for president; the crowd erupts in encouraging cheers.
“I did that twice already!” he says. (He famously started a Super PAC in 2011 to mock the maligned Citizens United Supreme Court decision that allowed corporations to — indirectly — pour unlimited funds into political campaigns.)
As he begins to thank his audience, an older woman wearing blue fingernail polish yells out, “You look good, Stephen.”
“Hey, what’d ya say? I look good?” he says, tugging at the lapel of his light gray suit.
The studio audience whoops and cheers; someone yells, “Hubba, hubba.” Colbert asks teasingly if she’s single.
“Not right now,” she answers.
“Not right now?” he laughs. “You mean, the night is young, you don’t know, maybe …”
When the theater quiets down, he continues: “I want to thank you all for being here because the energy that you give all of us when we do the show allows us to do a better show for you. I mean the clothes make the man, but the audience makes the show. And thank you so much for everything you do for us.”
"I really like pop culture," says Colbert. "I eat McDonald’s, I drink Coca-Cola, I like a Bud Light Lime. I do. I mean, in some ways I’m extremely pedestrian.”
This story first appeared in the Aug. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.