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“I wanted to change as a performer,” Stephen Colbert says as we sit down in the offices of CBS’ The Late Show, high above the Ed Sullivan Theater in Midtown Manhattan, on a “Pizza Tuesday” — a Tuesday when Colbert’s staff is treated to pizza because The Late Show topped the previous week’s ratings — and begin discussing why he agreed to say goodbye to “Stephen Colbert,” a character he perfected over 20 years on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, in order to succeed David Letterman as the host of the Tiffany Network’s late-night centerpiece. “I wanted to change what my responsibilities were on a daily basis,” he continues in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. “I just wanted to go out there and do jokes for people.”
It’s been almost two years since Colbert’s debut as host of The Late Show. And it’s been almost one year since disappointing ratings, an Emmys snub and a general lack of buzz prompted some to begin writing off a man who had shared in two Peabody Awards and three writing Emmys during his tenure at The Daily Show (which won five Emmys for best variety series while he was there) and who subsequently had picked up another two Peabodys, four writing Emmys and two Emmys for best variety series at The Colbert Report. There even were suggestions that he would be asked to swap time slots with James Corden’s The Late Late Show — or be replaced altogether.
What a difference a year — and a presidential election — can make! This year, The Late Show, rather than NBC’s The Tonight Show, finished the season atop late-night ratings for the first time in 22 years; The Late Show, and not The Tonight Show, garnered a nom for best variety talk series (plus two others); Colbert’s election-night special for CBS’ sister cable network, Showtime — Stephen Colbert’s Live Election Night Democracy’s Series Finale: Who’s Going to Clean Up This Shit? — received a nom for best variety special (plus two others); and Colbert himself is set to host the 69th Emmy Awards on Sept. 17. As “Stephen Colbert” might have asked, were he still around: Great comeback, or greatest comeback?
(Click above to listen to this episode or here to access all of our 170 episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Robert De Niro, Amy Schumer, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Louis C.K., Emma Stone, Harvey Weinstein, Natalie Portman, Jerry Seinfeld, Jane Fonda, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Nicole Kidman, Aziz Ansari, Taraji P. Henson, J.J. Abrams, Helen Mirren, Justin Timberlake, Brie Larson, Ryan Reynolds, Alicia Vikander, Warren Beatty, Jessica Chastain, Samuel L. Jackson, Kate Winslet, Sting, Isabelle Huppert, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Michael Moore, Lily Collins, Denzel Washington, Mandy Moore, Ricky Gervais, Kristen Stewart, James Corden, Sarah Silverman, Michael B. Jordan, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Bill Maher, Lily Tomlin, Ryan Murphy, Allison Janney, Eddie Redmayne, Reese Witherspoon, Trevor Noah, Elisabeth Moss, Jay Leno, Kris Jenner, Rami Malek, Jill Soloway, Robert Pattinson, Kate Beckinsale and Jimmy Kimmel.)
Colbert, who is 53, was born in Washington, D.C., and raised in South Carolina, the youngest of 11 kids in a deeply observant Catholic family. At the age of 10, his life was rocked when his father and his two brothers closest in age to him were killed in the crash of Eastern Air Lines Flight 212. “I have said to myself more than once, ‘Gosh, I hope I live long enough to figure out what that did to me,'” he solemnly reflects. “It’s almost like that event created a labyrinth in my mind in which I could hide when I was younger — no one could find me if I went into the labyrinth of that experience — but I was also lost in there.” By that time, Colbert’s surviving siblings were out of the home, meaning that he and his mother largely were left to take care of each other. During his ensuing adolescent years, Colbert’s spirits were lifted by comedy albums that he listened to every night (“Comedy saved my life,” he says) and it was out of a desire to brighten his mother’s spirits that he increasingly gravitated toward performing comedy himself (“I wanted to make her laugh and feel better”).
After “barely” graduating from high school as a result of having neglected his studies in favor of reading for pleasure and playing Dungeons & Dragons, Colbert studied for two years at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, before transferring to Northwestern University in order to pursue a theater major. There, a drama teacher insisted that students drop their facades and open up about their innermost feelings, and, Colbert says decades later, “I think it was the first time in my life I started to reflect on what had happened to me and my family as a child.” While in Chicago, Colbert also met Del Close, one of the legendary gurus of improvisation, and began studying improv on the side, ultimately at fabled Second City, where he was hired to join the national touring company in 1988. (There, he understudied Steve Carell, whom he would later recommend for a job at The Daily Show, and became particularly close with Paul Dinello and Amy Sedaris, with whom he would later co-create, with Mitch Rouse, Strangers With Candy for Comedy Central.)
In 1994, Colbert left Second City and headed to New York, where he had been offered a job writing for the Comedy Central sketch-comedy series Exit 57 — which promptly was canceled. Following a brief return to Chicago, he, his wife and their newborn child moved to New York for good when he was hired to write for ABC’s The Dana Carvey Show (on which he and Carell also voiced the characters of Ace and Gary, respectively, in Robert Smigel‘s The Ambiguously Gay Duo cartoons, which they later reprised on Saturday Night Live). That show was canceled after only eight episodes had aired. Thus began for Colbert a “dark period” of “soul-crushing work,” stints on the unemployment rolls and general uncertainty about his future. Interestingly, it had been at The Dana Carvey Show that he first was asked to play a newsman (the episodes in which he did so never aired), and it was after its cancellation that he was hired, as one of many short-term gigs, to do the same in humorous segments for ABC’s Good Morning America (just two of those segments aired). That, in turn, brought him to the attention of The Daily Show, which he reluctantly joined as a field correspondent in 1997, when Craig Kilborn was still the anchor. He recalls, “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m an actor, why am I going to be a correspondent?'”
Two years later, Jon Stewart succeeded Kilborn, and Colbert — who had been splitting his time between The Daily Show and launching Strangers With Candy — couldn’t have been happier. “We hit it off immediately,” he says, explaining, “He was injecting the show with purpose and an editorial position, and when I came back, he invited us to put our own thoughts, our own feelings, our own editorial position in what we were doing. We weren’t widgets to him; we were creative partners.” One of the things that Colbert took upon himself to do was create “Stephen Colbert,” a self-important newsman “persona,” initially modeled after a local TV news reporter; then after an all-business pro like Stone Phillips; and ultimately after a selection of the talking-head pundits who were beginning to proliferate across TV at the time, but one, in particular: Bill O’Reilly. “I really do think that he’s a well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot,” Colbert says of the now-disgraced Fox News alum, “which was my model.”
By 2005, having become immensely popular over his years on The Daily Show, Colbert was ready to move on to his next adventure. “I really liked working with Jon, but I wanted to leave because there was only so much I could do,” he recalls. “Jon was always going to be the guy with the ball, as well he should be — there’s no greater runner, he’s the master — but I knew I could only do so much for him. It was a beautiful note, but it was only one note that I could do for him in his chorus of correspondents.” Colbert and Stewart pitched a sitcom to NBC, but the network passed, and then Comedy Central asked if they might like to create a Daily Show spinoff, starring “Stephen Colbert,” which would follow The Daily Show each evening. They bit, and for the next decade, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report arguably were television’s best — and certainly its funniest — one-two punch.
In April 2014, when it was announced that David Letterman would be vacating his job as host of The Late Show, few imagined that Colbert, who had been Letterman’s guest 10 times over the years, might replace him. But, Colbert says, “I had already decided I wasn’t gonna do the [Colbert Report] show anymore,” and when CBS approached him about the position, he began seriously considering it — largely because he thought his mother, who had died less than a year earlier, would have liked him to. “In some ways, all of this was for her,” he says. “She would absolutely have been so tickled.” Colbert realized that he would be trading in cable for broadcast, giving up four half-hour shows a week for five hourlong shows and, most significantly, retiring “Stephen Colbert” for Stephen Colbert, even though, as he puts it, “No one ever knew that guy” — and he took the plunge. His first Late Show aired on Sept. 8, 2015.
Did Colbert make the right move? “I was an actor, and this is not acting,” he says. “This is a harder job. There’s a challenge to driving a car straight, as opposed to swerving all over the road.” Even though Colbert brought almost all of his Colbert Report staff — some 80 people — with him to the new job, and even though he had not had a showrunner before, it quickly became apparent that without one, he, “a control freak” who was hands-on with every detail of the show, from its set to its greenrooms to its comedy, was in trouble. “I lost my mind,” he acknowledges in hindsight. “I couldn’t sleep at night because clearly, aesthetically or in terms of having an editorial intention, the show was not coalescing. People didn’t know what they were gonna get — they didn’t know what it was about — because neither did I. I had thrown out the baby with the bathwater: In trying to not be my character, I also threw out my interests which led to the character.”
The first of two major turning points for the show came on April 2, 2016, after it already had been on the air for eight lackluster months, when CBS chief Les Moonves arranged a meeting between Colbert and Chris Licht, a producer who had helped a number of other shows on the network find their footing. Colbert recalls Licht’s proposal for a collaboration: “He said, ‘Any moment you’re not thinking about comedy, I’ve failed.’ And I said, ‘Let’s shake on it. Do you want the job?'” Ever since, Colbert asserts, he has gotten better about “letting go and just enjoying being onstage with the audience,” and he also has arrived at an understanding that “what works in one of these shows, at least in my experience, is, I’m gonna talk to you about the thing that you’ve already been talking about today, and we’re gonna give you our take on this thing that everybody’s talking about, to give you some context — and maybe calm you down about it.”
The second turning point came on Nov. 8, 2016, the night of the U.S. presidential election, when Colbert was hosting his live Showtime special, for which he and his team had planned all sorts of comedic material. But as it became apparent, to everyone’s disbelief, that Donald Trump actually was going to win, Licht approached Colbert with a piece of advice that the host says he took to heart. “He said, ‘No more bits. All the things we have planned, let’s just throw [them] out the window. Just go over there and talk to people.’ So that’s what the show became [that night], and we’ve tried to not let go of that.” Colbert continues, “That show changed us because it showed me the value of not pretending to feel some way you’re not.” In other words, rather than avoiding politics simply because it had been the bread and butter of “Stephen Colbert,” Colbert would tackle politics head-on because it was precisely what was on his mind — and therefore, in all likelihood, others’ minds, too. Two weeks after the election, Colbert’s Late Show topped the ratings for the first time, and it hasn’t looked back since.
“There’s a lot of things that have changed,” Colbert muses. “I have an even deeper respect for [ABC late-night host Jimmy] Kimmel and [NBC late-night host Jimmy] Fallon and [TBS’ current/NBC’s former late-night host] Conan [O’Brien] and the people who came before us. I always respected their comedy, but I really respect them professionally because I didn’t know what they were doing until I got here.” He hastens to add, “I’ve learned to trust my staff,” noting that he could not have done 17 live shows over the past year if he hadn’t. And, above all, at long last, he’s having fun. “I love this job,” Colbert says with a big smile. “I couldn’t love it more. This feels, right now, like the first year of the old gig. There’s a sense of excitement, and I hope that is throughout the whole building — that people feel like they’ve created something new that wasn’t here a year ago.”
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