Stephen Colbert on Donald Trump, Dropping the Character and Letterman’s Advice


Stephen Colbert is positively itching to get on the air. So much so that he’s saying a prayer every night that Donald Trump stays in the Republican presidential race just long enough to allow him to get off a few jokes when he takes the reins of CBS’ “The Late Show” on Sept. 8.

In his appearance Monday at the Television Critics Assn. press tour, Colbert quipped that he’s been reduced to “dry-Trumping” because he doesn’t have a TV outlet for another few weeks. On the spot, he was challenged by the roomful of reporters at the Beverly Hilton to serve up his best lines.

“Every little boy grows up believing they could be president of the United States. I’m so happy that little boy is Donald Trump. Please stay healthy until I get on the air,” he said, in the quietly sincere voice that viewers of “The Colbert Report” came to love. “Every night before I go to bed I light a candle and pray that he stays in the race, and I also pray that no one puts that candle anywhere near his hair.”

Colbert thoroughly charmed the TCA crowd as he answered question after question about the process of dropping the mask of the buffoonish conservative commentator character that he played for nearly 10 years on Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report.” When the session was over, he sat down on the edge of the stage while a hive of reporters surrounded him for the post-session scrum that ran about 10 minutes — until a CBS publicist came from behind and gently pulled him off the stage.

Colbert emphasized that one of the things he’s most excited about is to be able to do interviews in his own voice and persona. Interviews of intriguing people became his favorite part of “Colbert Report,” although he had grown tired of having to process his questions through the filter of the character. By the end of the series run last year, Colbert barely bothered to do so.

“On the old show I wore the character as lightly as a cap. I could dial it up and down as need be,” he said. “I’m looking forward to being sincerely interested in what they have to say without having to translate it through an idiot’s mouth.”

Colbert didn’t give up too much about his specific plans for the format of his show. He said he wanted to do some traditional latenight TV elements “in new ways.” And he announced that Kendrick Lamar will be his first musical guest on the show. Colbert said that it was only appropriate to welcome the rapper since Lamar was his last musical guest on “The Colbert Report.”

He did offer insight into the remodeling of the Ed Sullivan Theater, which has been restored to highlight the venue’s original 1920s architecture. He said it looks more like a traditional Broadway theater now rather than a TV studio because production technology has improved so much that sound and lighting equipment doesn’t need to be as prominent.

Colbert said he spent a day in the office with David Letterman about 10 days before Letterman signed off the show in May. Colbert asked Letterman a barrage of questions about doing the show. The two put away a few bottles of water during the process (“the hard stuff,” he joked).

At one point, “I asked him do you mind me asking you these questions? He said ‘No. Nobody ever asked me these questions before.’ It was a very gracious way for him to say that only the person sitting in that chair would care about the answers.”

At Letterman’s suggestion, Colbert has moved the desk on the set to the other side of the stage, he added.

Colbert also said Letterman made a point of showing him how to operate the brass-handled freight elevator that Letterman used to go from his office to the “Late Show” stage floor. The symbolism was not lost on Colbert. He said ‘there it is. Now it’s waiting for you.’ “

Colbert was part of another send off last week, Jon Stewart’s final installment of “The Daily Show,” the show that launched Colbert’s career in a big way.

“Daily Show” producers asked Colbert to deliver an on-air thank you to Stewart — something he knew would make Stewart squirm.

“I told producers he’s going flop around like a fish on the dock,” he said. “I felt like a rodeo clown trying to keep him on the stage.”

Afterwards, when the “Daily Show” alumni correspondents gathered around him in a big bear hug, Colbert revealed: “We were all chanting ‘Made him cry,'” he said. “It might be my favorite thing I did on the show.”

During the TCA Q&A, Colbert made a point of stopping to send several tweets, including one mocking a reporter for being a little too aggressive in trying to ask a question.

Among other topics touched on during the season:

  • Colbert said he choose George Clooney for his first guest “because he’s a brilliant actor and a great director and he cares about the world.”
  • John Batiste was selected as his musical director because of his deep roots in New Orleans jazz and his charisma. “I can’t wait to play off his energy on stage.”
  • His criteria for guests will be “somebody with something to say.” He enjoyed his forays into Washington and with politicians during the “Colbert Report” run but is happy to be able to drop the artifice because it was tiring. He’s done some field reporting already and “I’m not tired at the end. That’s really heartening.”
  • He shot down the notion that he’s entering a latenight “war” with his timeslot competitors. “Competition’s not that fun to me. We have fun with each other all day long” while producing the show. “I hope everybody does the same and has fantastic ratings. I don’t really care.”
  • The bulk of his “Colbert Report” writing and production staff has moved with him to CBS. A few of Letterman’s staffers are staying on, including music booker Sheryl Zilikson.
  • Asked whether he thought Trump had a legitimate shot at becoming President, Colbert paused and said “Honestly, he could.” And then he added that a president “with a giant swinging set of balls isn’t the worst thing in the world.”

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