Stephen Colbert Talks Dealing With Late-Breaking Trump News

Stephen Colbert and Frank Rich at the Vulture Festival - H Getty 2017
Getty Images

The 'Late Show' host spoke with Frank Rich at the Vulture Festival in New York this weekend.

For the past couple of weeks, breaking news about Donald Trump's administration has dropped at roughly 5 p.m. almost every weekday. It was around that time when Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, and subsequent revelations about what the president may have told Comey or the Russian officials he met with the next day in the Oval Office have emerged in the late afternoon or early evening in the days since Comey's firing.

While the timing of that news might not be of much significance to consumers, 5 p.m. is an inopportune time for New York-based late-night comedians, as most of the broadcast shows tape shortly after that. Still, Stephen Colbert and his fellow politically minded East Coast hosts, like Seth Meyers and Trevor Noah, have managed to get a couple of jokes about each bit of late-breaking news into their shows airing later that night.

Speaking with Frank Rich at the Vulture Festival in New York on Saturday, Colbert offered some insight into how he and his team at CBS' Late Show have dealt with the recent wave of 5 p.m. scoops, including Comey's firing, which happened after he'd done his monologue but while the show was still taping.

He explained that, while previously the cutoff time for news that could make it into the monologue was 1 p.m., now they'll leave themselves open to including news breaking as late as 5:15 p.m.

"We'll say, 'Is it possible for us to say anything?' Three jokes, that's our rule. 'Can we get three jokes out on this subject?' Because I don't like to do a monologue that's only a single joke and a setup," said Colbert. "We like to tell stories and inform the audience or remind the audience of what they already know. If we can get three jokes out, we'll do it at 5:15." He added that the Late Show team keeps Trump's Twitter feed up on a video board with their script program and the script they're pulling jokes out of: "Just to make sure we're not missing the latest dispatch."

As for Comey's firing, which happened as Colbert was taping his Daily Show reunion special, Colbert went back and added those jokes onto the monologue.

"I finished the monologue, and it went pretty well. It was a little overstuffed. I go over [to talk to showrunner Chris Licht and he] says, 'OK, we're two minutes long, and Trump just fired Comey.' We gave the writers 10 minutes to come up with at least three jokes, and they came up with four," said Colbert. "And I went out, and I told the audience what happened. And I did another minute and a half of jokes, and we tagged that onto the top of the monologue. That's our M.O. We want to be able to talk about what the conversation's about. We've done that two or three times where we've gone back after the monologue's over and added a few more minutes of monologue that we've written while the show was going on."

And he learned from joking about that news, and how his audience reacted to him telling them that Trump had fired Comey, that he now has to tell the audience the news before he jokes about it, "because they don't hear the jokes at all, they sequence the news."

Since then, there's been at least two more instances of news breaking during Colbert's monologue that he's had to inform the audience of.

"Up until that point, we'd never done it before. I've done it four times now," said Colbert, adding that it shows how accelerated the Trump news cycle has become. "That feels sustainable from our end. It doesn't feel sustainable as a society."

"It's sort of hackneyed to say that I wish for the old, boring days, but what they were was boring [but] stability. You miss the stability of saying, 'Tomorrow morning, we'll learn something about our government that will give us time to react to and give other members of the government time to react to.' You want to get a sense that everybody's on the same page, even the opposition, and that everybody knows what's happening," added Colbert. "You don't know what's happening with Donald Trump. That's the scariest thing. It's not that I disagree with him, it's that I don't know what the f— he thinks!"

Colbert also said that he does keep an eye on his competition, offering that he watches Seth Meyers' Late Night on NBC ("I respect him a lot") and that he considers Meyers, The Daily Show's Trevor Noah (on Comedy Central) and, more recently, ABC's Jimmy Kimmel to be his contemporaries in joking about the political landscape at the same nightly pace.

"Trevor, Seth and I sort of do the jokes the fastest," said Colbert. "What [John] Oliver does and what Sam [Bee] does, while it's not at the same pace, I respect it enormously."

The Late Show host added that he and Meyers have exchanged notes about the challenges of doing live shows, which they've both done after really-late-breaking events, like the political conventions and the election.

Colbert also revisited the challenges of doing his live Showtime election special as it became increasingly clear that Trump would win, a scenario that he's admitted he didn't want to write jokes for.

In that discussion, he teased some of the unused material his team had prepared that they would've used if Hillary Clinton had won, including a pretaped bit Katy Perry did about "your new feminist overlords."

And he reflected on the experience of going to work and doing The Late Show the next day.

"The next morning, we came to work really afraid for the country about what [Trump] means. And I have not been proven wrong in my own mind. The thing that upsets me that morning upsets me every day," said Colbert, explaining that on Nov. 9, he gave his writers 30 minutes to be emotional about the election results before they got down to the business of writing jokes. He shared that one of his writers said something that he found particularly interesting: "It felt to him like people who felt like the culture had treated them cruelly decided to respond with cruelty in return by electing this person."

Colbert said when he did his monologue that night, he immediately felt a different response from the audience. "The audience didn't want to be alone in how they felt."

The Late Show host also offered more insight into how he felt about Trump recently calling him out in Time magazine, gleefully sharing that he couldn't believe that had happened.

"He'll attack anyone who talks smack about him, so I'm like, 'I'm kind of insulted.' I was surprised it took him so long," said Colbert. "And it also said to me that there's something wrong with his communications staff because I actually think it was an act of discipline not to feed me. He's not a dummy."

And without revealing the contents of his "great" preinterview with Trump when the then-Republican candidate was a guest on his show, Colbert explained, "It's remarkable how transactional it was."

"Ask me this, don't ask me that. I'll do this if you do that. It'll be great for you. It'll be great for me. I live around the corner, I'll be here anytime. Let's just make this good," said Colbert, summing up what Trump had said. "It's just page after page of, 'Don't ask me that, ask me this way.' He understands what the audience is going to like, and he understands how we're going to play out this relationship coin at a time for both of our benefits. So it surprised me that he would throw me such a bag of bones."

While Colbert has had a number of politicians from both sides of the aisle on The Late Show, his team has been trying to get Republicans on since Trump was elected but haven't had much success: "They're a little gun-shy."

And he shared that he would particularly "love" to interview Melania Trump or "anyone from [Trump's] administration except Kellyanne Conway."

"You want someone who's actually going to attempt to answer your question, and Kellyanne Conway does not seem to even attempt to answer your question," he explained. "There's some aphasia going on there."

While he hasn't had many conservative guests, Colbert has introduced a new conservative character, the Alex Jones-esque Tuck Buckford, which he told Rich he really enjoys doing, explaining that Buckford is the right character for the time.

"Alex Jones is such a hideous individual. He just yells and lies for a living. And I was trying to figure out why I enjoy doing Tuck so much because I have no interest in doing my [Colbert Report] character," said Colbert. "We haul him out when it fits the moment, but he's not that interesting to me anymore. But I love doing Tuck because he's so easy to improvise. He just seems so natural. And I said, 'I think Tuck Buckford is to my old character as Alex Jones is to Bill O'Reilly as Donald Trump is to George W. Bush.' There's a complete decadence of purpose beyond self-gratification."

Licht was in the audience for the event, and Colbert talked about the transformation that happened after the former CBS This Morning executive producer joined The Late Show. He also shared an amusing story about how he and his daughter had taken a plane ride with Licht months before he joined the Late Show team.

Apparently the two Colberts had hitched a ride from D.C. to New York on the "CBS jet" with the CBS This Morning team after Colbert had hosted the Kennedy Center Honors. Colbert, Charlie Rose, Gayle King and Norah O'Donnell all had to get back for their shows the next day. Licht, then working on CBS This Morning, was on the flight, but Colbert didn't know his name.

"After we get off the jet, [my daughter] goes, 'OK, so it was Norah and Gayle and Charlie. And who was the guy with the curly blond hair at the back of the plane?' And I was like, 'I don't know who that is.' She goes, 'Dad, just because someone isn't famous doesn't mean you don't have to know their name.' "

And when it was announced Licht was joining The Late Show, Colbert recalled, "My daughter calls me up and goes, 'Ha ha, you couldn't remember his name, and now he's going to save your life.' "