Stephen Colbert Could Break Broadcast Taboos on Live Showtime Election Night Special

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
Courtesy of CBS

Stephen Colbert was supposed to have Tuesday night off. Instead, he will try to make a few headlines alongside the winner of the U.S. presidential election.

Colbert’s “Late Show” on CBS will be preempted for election-night news coverage, but he will broadcast a live special on Showtime  –  a move that allows him to weigh in on the new President-elect and also to push at the standards that typically keep  him and broadcast-TV rivals like Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel from using profanity or nudity with any great regularity.

“There is one Showtime rule: If there’s male full-frontal nudity, it can’t be happy to see Stephen, if you know what I mean,” said Chris Licht, who supervises production of “The Late Show,” in an interview.  “For comedy’s sake, there may be some things we do on the show simply because we can. The writers are very excited about the opportunity. I’ll just leave it at that.”

The special Showtime broadcast – which will be bookended by live “Late Show” broadcasts on CBS both Monday and Wednesday –  likely will not have the audience regularly generated by Colbert’s CBS escapades, but it will serve further notice that Colbert intends to pop into the public’s consciousness in surprising ways, even if it’s not from his regular CBS perch. In recent weeks, the host has made use of Twitter and streaming video to weigh in on breaking news when his CBS show was not available to him. Last month, for example, after the show’s staff had dispersed for a break of several days, Colbert used the social-media outlet to post a video reacting to the release of the now-infamous “Access Hollywood” video featuring Republican candidate Donald Trump. A few days later, he grafted a new segment on to the opening of a repeat broadcast.

“If he’s feeling it, he will tweet. If he’s got something on a night we have a repeat, he will do a new cold open,” said Licht. “It makes him a little more 24/7.”

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This week’s live shows have started to take shape. Steve Wonder will visit “Late Show” on Monday night, while singer Elle King will sit in with Jon Batiste and Stay Human on the Showtime program, and will also perform. For Tuesday night’s program, Colbert and the staff have already crafted potential “blocks” of the show that can be shifted or rearranged depending on how events flow on Election Night, according to Licht.

CBS has acknowledged that Colbert had some rocky months when he first started, a situation created in part by the host’s desire to ride herd on many aspects of the program himself. Since Licht was named an executive producer, the program has tweaked its opening and relied more frequently on live broadcasts, particularly after some of the election cycle’s biggest events. Going live will continue to be a regular option, Licht said.

“I relay do think the bar is very low for us to go live,” he said, and learning how to master that option has helped the program. Writers are less concerned about preparing jokes about breaking news events, he said, and Colbert’s interviews with guests have gotten tighter, owing to the host doing some of those segments without the benefit of using the editing room afterwards. Going live “has really helped the machine, so to speak.”

TV’s late-night shows have thrived during the presidential campaigns, benefiting from visits by sundry candidates and from all kinds of election-related stunts. NBC’s Seth Meyers, Comedy Central’s Trevor Noah, ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel and HBO’s Bill Maher have also walked the live-edition tightrope, while TBS’ Samantha Bee has shaken up her show’s regular schedule to deliver material much closer to the broadcast of recent candidate debates. Indeed, Bee’s “Full Frontal” will broadcast two shows this week owing to the election.

What will happen after the election hoopla dies down? With so many wee-hours hosts on the air, all the shows will continue to try to stand apart from each other while attempting to gain on the format’s lead performer, Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show.” Colbert’s team intends to continue to tie the host to breaking events as often as it makes sense, said Licht.

“If there’s something right for our mission of being as relevant and topical as possible, and we are able to do it and Stephen is into it, yeah,” said Licht. “If we see an opportunity, we’ll go for it.”

The Showtime special will be rebroadcast on CBS on Friday, though there’s always the chance some of it may be blurred or bleeped out for broadcast audiences.

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