CBS' 'Late Show' comeback kid — who covers THR's New York media power list — dishes on his angst and anger over Trump, his Christmas gift to Letterman, Jon Stewart and why the election felt "like somebody dying."
In July, I interviewed Stephen Colbert as he was preparing for live telecasts of CBS' Late Show for the political conventions. He was still less than a year into his tenure as David Letterman's replacement, and both ratings and buzz remained far behind the frontrunning Tonight Show on NBC. A hot rumor at the time was that his slot would be flip-flopped with his lead-out, James Corden. In conversation, Colbert was more upbeat than the public narrative would suggest. But criticism about his performance — "I'm a human being. Yeah, I care," he said at the time — clearly was wounding.
What a difference eight months and the election of a reality TV star makes.
As I sit with Colbert in early April in his 12th-floor corner office above the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City, he has just notched his ninth consecutive week as the most watched late-night show on television. He's animated, focused and much more relaxed, like a man who has rediscovered his purpose. "What a privilege to be on TV right now," he says.
In February 2016, several days after a huge post-Super Bowl audience watched an awkward and rambling Late Show, CBS chief Leslie Moonves invited Colbert to dinner at the 21 Club. The host was ushered into a private room where Moonves and Glenn Geller, the network's entertainment chief, were waiting for him at a small, round table. "It looked like I was going to be assassinated," recalls Colbert. "I said, 'This really feels like a scene from Goodfellas. There's no plastic on the floor, is there?' "
Moonves came prepared with specific notes, and one that still stands out for Colbert was a critique that a bit with Will Ferrell was too long. "He goes, 'Two-thirds would've been enough.' And I said, 'You're two-thirds of a genius.' " Moonves also insisted that Colbert hire a showrunner to help manage the enormous workload of a five-day-a-week broadcast program, and a few weeks later, Chris Licht, then executive producer of CBS This Morning, was brought in.
Licht's stabilizing influence was felt by the staff immediately, but it wasn't until the conventions that the audience started to perceive it. "The live shows forced all of us, every part of this operation, to start firing on all cylinders because there's no room for error, and they gave the show a certain sense of urgency," says Licht, who encouraged Colbert to be his genuine self onstage.
Since then, Colbert's monologue has become a nightly deconstruction of the existential angst his audience is feeling about Trump's presidency. The comedy bits, too, have become much more topical and biting; several have featured cameos from pal and executive producer Jon Stewart.
By the first week in February, shortly after Trump's inauguration, Colbert had edged out the apolitical Jimmy Fallon (who wasn't helped by his widely mocked tousling of Trump's hair during the campaign) by 20,000 viewers, the first time The Late Show topped The Tonight Show since Colbert's massively hyped premiere in September 2015. Though Fallon retains a narrow edge among viewers 18-to-49, Colbert's streak now stands at 10 weeks. In the first quarter, Late Show averaged 3.29 million viewers a night compared with The Tonight Show's 3.02 million, a 17 percent year-over-year jump for Colbert and a 17 percent sag for Fallon. "All those naysayers who were writing him off — not fair," says Moonves. "I knew there were growing pains. Was I concerned? Of course. Was I worried? No."
Trump may have been the catalyst. "We were ready for something that galvanized people's attention and changed their priorities," says Colbert, 52. But during the course of our hourlong interview in his Ed Sullivan office, he also was characteristically modest: "You think you know what you're doing, but until you do it, you don't really."
So how do you feel?
I feel great. The last time you were here, we had just put our foot on the accelerator. Chris had been here for a few months, we'd kind of defined everybody's lanes, gotten our ducks in a row, for want of a dirtier metaphor. And that changed everything. We got ambitious. It did the trick for us. We just said OK, we won't stop. We will just maintain that level of urgency and that pace. That prepared us for when the unthinkable happened.
Election night was quite a night. You were live on Showtime as it unfolded.
Yeah. That night is sort of a separate beast. But that urgency that we captured in those two weeks [in July] changed everything for us. It reminded us [that] there's a whole other level to play at.
I could see it on your face as you were sitting there and it began to dawn on you — on all of us — that Trump was going to win.
We had a framework for four different shows that night: Hillary wins, and we know it; looks like Hillary's going to win, but we don't know it; Trump wins, possibly, but it'll be a long time before we know because the path is so narrow and Alaska is going to have to come in and who knows. Then the fourth one is that Trump wins, and we know it. We just said: "Well, don't even write that fourth one. Because I'm not saying it can't happen, but let's just say if it does happen, I'm going to be speaking to an audience that are like villagers who've been dragged into the soccer stadium in Chile to watch people be executed." It's going to be the darkest room you could possibly [imagine]. And I said (knocks on his desk), "Knock on wood we won't have to do that." I said, "Look, man, we're really going to be in trouble if he wins, because we have no plan, and then we will be forced to just be raw. We'll find out who the f— we are."
We all found out who the f— we were that night.
Exactly! The election felt a little bit like somebody dying because you suddenly have an unreal feeling. It's unreal and yet absolutely as real as possible at the same time. You feel very raw and very base, very awake and dreaming at the same time. We're about 20 minutes into the show — we did an [80-minute] show — and there's an hour more with no material, and I'm just talking to people who are catnip to trolls because they're seeing us publicly upset. We had no commercial breaks. I'm like, "I'll just start talking and see what happens." And Chris and I were like, "OK, so that's the show now. The show is me absolutely not hiding at all how I feel about this and just raw." That was what that night was for us. I wouldn't wish it on anybody. (Laughs.) Hardest f—ing thing I ever did.
Now Trump is in the White House, and you're beating Jimmy Fallon. What did you do the first time you beat The Tonight Show?
We bought pizza for the staff. And we've bought pizza every week. How about that? And that's great, but we've [always] got another week of shows to do. Honest to God, it's like, "Hey! Pizza! But remember: Maybe next week, no pizza. But it doesn't mean we're not doing great."
Do you owe Donald Trump a thank-you note?
(Long pause.) No. I would trade good ratings for a better president. How about that? The interesting thing is that when we were prepping all that time, we weren't waiting for Donald Trump. We were waiting for something that everybody cared about. Do you know what I mean? Donald Trump is epoch-making; he changes everything. And so we were ready for something that galvanized people's attention and changed their priorities. The thank-you note is to my staff for being ready — that's the thank-you note. Because if it's not Donald Trump, it's something else. There will be something else that we care about, hopefully happy, possibly tragic. But we're ready to talk about what just happened, whenever it happens now. And that's what we've learned. And so my thank-you note is not to Donald Trump. He can go with God.
Do you find yourself getting angry about events?
Sure. But the goal is not to be angry on camera. The goal is to take that and run it through your distillation process of your jokes, and then you get a little bit of distance on it. You can't really bullshit your way through 202 monologues a year. You have to care in some way. So you have to take that shock, maybe even more than anger and bewilderment sometimes … like, "Really? You hired who?! To do what?! And now he's gone?" There is a sense of confusion as much as there is a sense of [anger]. The anger is something [Trump] capitalized upon and fanned for his own purposes. And the confusion is an act of control. The anger can help you write passionately, but you shouldn't bring it to the stage.
Are there times when you do feel the anger when you're onstage?
Sometimes there is no way to fully extricate it from the material because it is the marble of the statue itself. You're not drawing a picture of the anger — the anger is the thing. So Trump [finally admitting] back during the campaign that Barack Obama was born in the U.S., period, that made me super angry. Like, "Come on, now you're really trying to make us feel like we're crazy. You're gaslighting us." It's not just ass-covering — that's truly malicious behavior. I'm a Catholic, and heresy is the worst sin because not only are you sinning, you're recruiting people into your sin. By denying reality — by saying that there is not an objective reality and that facts don't matter — you are actually engaging in heresy against sanity. And that's the greatest sin a public official could commit.
And you're making comedy out of it.
Oh God, yeah, sure! That's what I want to do! That's the joy. What a privilege to be on TV right now. I feel right now the way I did the night that Al Gore finally conceded in 2000. I did a couple of desk pieces [on The Daily Show election night special] with Jon, and after we finished, I turned to Jon and said, "I think this is the best job in America." And that's how I feel again: I think I've got the best job in America.
Is there anything off-limits with regard to Trump?
I don't want to make jokes about [his 11-year-old son] Barron. We had some joke about how Jared Kushner's got to save the Middle East and [deal with] Mexico, and I said [in the writers room]: "This is a lot. Can we give one of these jobs to Barron?" And we went, "Ahhh, make it Tiffany." It's not a joke at Barron's expense, but it's not even worth getting into that. Like, please, he's just a kid. But Trump is the president, there is nothing about him that's off-limits. What could possibly be off-limits? (Laughs.)
If you could interview Trump now, what would you ask him?
"What do you mean by 'great again'? Define 'great.' " Or, "I challenge you to say anything right now that Vladimir Putin wouldn't like. Say one thing. You could dispel all of these rumors if you would just say one thing. Just say, 'Yeah, he kills journalists.' Say it."
David Letterman has been talking a lot lately, and he has implied that leaving Late Show was not entirely his decision. Have you talked to him recently?
I don't read articles about myself or Dave or anything like that, because what good would it do me? So that's news to me. How about that? I've seen him at parties; we've had cordial conversations. It's perfectly casual and lovely. I sent him a nice Christmas present; he sent me a lovely note back. To me he has been very gracious.
What did you send him for Christmas?
His monologue spot. Before I even started the show, I was like "OK, where do I want to stand, where do I want to do the monologue?" I said, "Yeah, I want to stand here." And I looked down, and I literally was straddling his dot where he did his monologue. As we were renovating the theater, I said, "Can you please have this taken up and have it cleaned and framed?" It was just a blue square of floor material with a red dot painted on it. It was in the corner of my office for over a year. It looked like art. People thought it was an Ellsworth Kelly or something; it really was quite beautiful. And I said, "Why aren't I hanging that up? Oh, I know why. It's not mine. It's Dave's." So I mailed it to him and said, "Nobody who visits my office can figure out what this is. I hope you do." And I said, "It's not mine; it's yours. Merry Christmas."
How do you decide when Jon Stewart goes on Late Show?
Sometimes he has an idea, and sometimes we have an idea. I'll call and go, "Hey, would you want to come in and do this?" Or he'll call me up and go, "Hey, I was thinking ..." We just talk on the phone every so often, and sometimes the conversation turns into a bit and sometimes it's just, "How ya been?"
How do you think Jon is processing the election? He doesn't have the release valve of a regular gig like you do.
I think he'd be processing a lot more if he was performing. He has said to me, "I'm glad I'm not doing The Daily Show anymore." But, yeah, you don't get a gig like this unless at some point in your life you processed anxiety through comedy. And so I'm sure he's grateful to be working on [his upcoming HBO animated show] that's creatively engaging and has something to do with politics and the news. If I couldn't do this, I think I'd be going a little crazy.
You have some history with Bill O'Reilly. What do you think will happen to him?
I haven't the slightest idea. I spoke about it on the show [only] because Trump weighed in, because I really have zero interest in talking about Bill O'Reilly. I did more than my share of that over the years. I enjoy having Bill on the show and listening to him, with his own particular professional form of bloviating. I mean, he's really good at it. I've got to admire it as a broadcaster — the words keep coming out. But if Trump hadn't weighed in, I would never have said a word. I have been absolutely monastic in my discipline not to talk about him since I got here because I really don't care that much.
How do you think New York has changed since Trump was elected? He was such a fixture here in a certain way.
The sense I get from New Yorkers is that they look at the rest of the country and say, "Oh, I can't believe you fell for that." Like, "He's the rich kid who didn't study hard and just was famous for being the class clown. But we know not to take him seriously. We should have warned you. And y'all are the ones who are going to suffer." There have been a lot of protests, and people seem energized and activated. He lost Manhattan by 20-to-1. So has New York changed? I think its love of the arts, of liberal politics, its essentially social democratic nature has come to the fore because it seems threatened. Robert De Niro saying he wants to punch Trump in the face was a nice reaction. He represents New York better than Trump does. Though Trump has punched himself in the face a few times since he got in office.
You've lived here for 20 years. What does New York mean to you?
My mom and dad grew up here. My mom worked at Tiffany. This is in the 1940s; they were born in 1920. Mom would be 97 this year if she were still alive. To me this city is constantly running into locations where stories of their lives happened. Like, "Mom I'm outside the Chock full o'Nuts where you and Dad would meet after going to mass at St. Pat's." Or going into Tiffany and saying, "Can I go back into that back office there? My mom worked in there. I just want to stand there for a minute." They'd see Lester Lanin or Benny Goodman at the Starlight Room of the [Waldorf] Astoria. And then they'd go to mass and then they'd go home on the 5 a.m. train. I've lived all over this city; I've lived at the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in Chelsea. They would rent rooms, if they had rooms left over, to people who worked in nonprofits, essentially. And when I was a young actor I was definitely a nonprofit. That was my first apartment in New York. And then I lived on the Upper East Side. I lived up on Riverside [Avenue]. I've slept on a million couches in the city. I love it. When I first started dating my wife, she lived here and I lived in Chicago. Chicago is a great city. I never imagined I wanted anything more until I came to New York.
And now when you walk up Broadway, your name is in lights 20 stories tall.
Yeah. It's nice. Here in Mr. Hammerstein's corner office, Mr. Gleason's corner office, Mr. Sullivan, Mr. Letterman, me. It's a great honor. That sign is an act of trust, and I didn't want to let that trust down. It's a very simple thing, but there is no substitute for an enormous amount of work. I thought I knew what I was doing until I came over here. But I didn't have the time to know. Then when Chris got here, he gave us the time and the space and the organization to know. It's almost a danger to know what you need to do because then you need to do it. And right when I met you last year, right before those live shows, that's when we were figuring it out. At the time, we didn't know how much work it was going to be. Yeah, I'd love to get back to the gym sometime, you know? But it's satisfying. When I'm on vacation, I want to come back and do it. I want to be here.
A version of this story first appeared in the April 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.