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Stephen Colbert was with his wife and in-laws in South Carolina the day Ronan Farrow’s New Yorker exposé about Leslie Moonves broke, and he received a call from his executive producer Chris Licht just an hour or so before the story, in which six women accused the CBS CEO of sexual misconduct, was published online.
Licht alerted him to the upcoming story, which, as Colbert said at a Monday night TimesTalks event, “ruined [his] weekend.”
“Not that my weekend matters. But that’s all I thought about for the rest of the weekend,” the host told New York Times culture writer Sopan Deb. “It was clear to me we had to talk about it because we talk about what most people are talking about. We’ve talked about most of the major revelations since the public knowledge of the #MeToo movement, so I knew it was something I would want to talk about.”
Colbert explained that he primarily wrote his speech about Moonves by himself with some help from Late Show executive producer Tom Purcell, but it was what Colbert wanted to say, and that he was more focused on that than any other component of that evening’s program.
“There is no show. There is only the second act for me,” Colbert said he told Purcell that morning.
And he reiterated what he told Andy Cohen on Sunday night that the Late Show team told CBS what Colbert was planning to say and they didn’t push back.
“They just said, ‘Thanks for the heads-up,'” Colbert recalled, adding that it was the first time he’d honestly taken on his boss on the air as opposed to the many times his Colbert Report character poked fun at Viacom executives.
“I’ve never worked for anybody like him,” Colbert added of Moonves. “He’s a really big deal.”
Throughout the hourlong conversation with Deb at the Times‘ New York headquarters, Colbert offered numerous behind-the-scenes details about how the Late Show comes together, shared his thoughts about the lingering effects of the Trump presidency and revealed the story behind Sean Spicer’s controversial appearance at last year’s Emmys.
Colbert took the audience through a typical work day, revealing that he consults The Drudge Report, Huffington Post‘s main page, the front page of the New York Times and the politics section of Reddit among other news sources first thing in the morning. Then he’ll consult with Purcell on what they see as the major news of the day, and the two of them will decide how much they can joke about one thing (like, Omarosa Manigault Newman, today) on that evening’s show as opposed to other topics in the news. Before rehearsal, he’ll meet with Licht to go over the ratings from the night before and do other “show business”; stop in to see the digital, talent and field teams; and talk with his producers about the guest interviews.
And, Colbert revealed, he likes to walk around the building and say, “hi,” to people in an attempt to keep himself from being too isolated from his staff, not wanting to be “just a guy behind a locked door at the end of a hall.” After rehearsal, there’s a fast rewrite and final joke tuning before the Late Show team tapes that night’s episode and they do a postmortem.
Colbert also talked a bit about how he and his team decide how they approach various types of news stories and guest interviews.
At the end of the conversation, he revealed why he felt he had to ask former president Bill Clinton about the #MeToo movement, or more specifically about what was widely viewed as a tone-deaf response to a question about the Monica Lewinsky scandal as viewed through the lens of the #MeToo movement on the Today show.
Colbert said he saw it as something he had to do but didn’t want to.
“I want to do it as an honest performer and someone who does consistent work,” he said, “But it’s gonna be no fun for me to talk about the thing that as a person on stage in that moment, a person who has a talk show, I will not enjoy at all if I don’t.”
And, essentially, Colbert wanted to ask Clinton why he was surprised by the Today show questions, when “you are the most famous example of a powerful man misbehaving sexually at work, misusing the power dynamic, of my lifetime.”
As for Sean Spicer, Colbert said he wanted to use the former White House press secretary to drive home his jokes about the president’s obsession with TV ratings. Licht had drinks with Spicer and apparently it wasn’t difficult to get him to agree to their offer: “It was not a tough sell.”
The Late Show host also explained why he’s “perfectly fine” with the joke, which he clarified was a dig at Trump.
“I felt a little bit bad for [Spicer] because he’s a walking punchline. He is the punchline,” Colbert said. “The punchline is, ‘I lied on behalf of the president. Now I’m going to lie to the president, using the same lies I did for him,’ which is a joke really about Donald Trump. The joke’s about Donald Trump and about how Trump lies about anything and he pays people to lie for him. So I’m going to pay somebody to lie for me.”
He explained that there was some concern by his team that people would be “mad,” but he felt it was worth the risk, adding “people are gonna be mad about a lot of things.” And Jon Stewart supported him.
“I called Jon Stewart, and I said ‘What do you think?’ And he said, ‘You’ve got to, that’s the perfect ending to the monologue.'” Colbert added that while he worried they were normalizing Trump, Spicer seemed like a sad figure who might never work again. He didn’t intend to redeem Spicer, he said, and he doesn’t think he did.
Colbert shared some other political predictions with Deb.
When asked “how this ends,” he quickly replied, “Happily.”
And while he doesn’t see a future in which Michael Avenatti is the president, he said, “I don’t think the country will ever be the same.”
“I don’t think there are a lot of Donald Trumps out there,” Colbert said while making the sign of a cross. “I suspect we get a boring president next.… But I think the country is changed. Irreparably sounds like it’s all damaged, but I would say irrevocably, our politics are changed by what Mr. Trump has done to show how social media can be leveraged. How demagoguery can be used in America in ways that we haven’t seen in our lifetimes before. So it’ll never be the same, in my opinion — I don’t know.”
And as for the breakneck pace of the news cycle, Colbert doesn’t see that going away.
“I don’t think the speed will ever change. We all do our jobs faster. The news cycle I think will never slow down, and I don’t think candidates of the future will ever let it slow down because they’ll want to recapture the attention of the press. They’ll see that as a tool.”
Watch the full interview below.
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