Stephen Colbert Q&A: Despite Politics, ‘Late Show’ Host Just Wants to Make Audiences Laugh

Stephen Colbert Late Show
Courtesy of CBS

Many of the nation’s late-night hosts like to keep their audience laughing, even when they’re not on camera. Stephen Colbert has a serious side, too.

He has reason, sometimes, to take a pause. In August, he and his team rushed to put together a monologue in half an hour, the result of President Trump’s now-infamous late-day press conference in which he said many different parties were to blame for the August clash between white supremacists and protesters in Charlottesville, Va. The effort, Colbert said during an interview the next day, left him tired.

But not at a loss for words. In an extensive interview that took place the day after that effort and that has been edited for clarity, the CBS “Late Show” host looks forward to new projects, including an animated series about President Trump that he is readying for Showtime, and a potential revamp of his program’s second half hour. He also explains where his humor comes from, and what its powers and limits are. Below, Colbert compares the perfect show to Catholic ceremony, pushes back on the notion that he’s giving late-night viewers the news, and says that no matter how intelligent his monologues are, he’s just looking for a good laugh.

Variety:  We are glad to be able to talk to you about a bunch of stuff – the show, the Emmys, how you are doing right now.

Stephen Colbert: Right now? I’m hungover –

Variety: Really?

Colbert:  From the news. I’m news hungover. I was talking to one of my writers today, and he was pitching an idea. And he said, ‘It’s about being news hungover.’ And I said, ‘Stop, that’s how we should open the show tonight.’ Because that’s really how I feel.  I feel news hungover. I’m in a terrible mood. I feel like I went on a bender last night, but all I did was watch the President of the United States, and then watch CNN to see who would burst into tears first, Van Jones or David Gergen. It turned out to be Van Jones, but If David Gergen were capable of expressing human emotion, I think he’d be clawing his eyes out.  You know, I really love this job because I get to approach the terrible things that are happening in America with jokes. And I feel better at the end of it, but there are some times – that press conference happened yesterday after rehearsal. We were already rewriting the show and we, we had to write the whole show, all of it was generated in about a half hour, and then we ground a polish as much as you can without a rehearsal or having seen the footage.  We were doing a lot off paper cuts of the press conference. We didn’t have time to watch it, and we were writing about it at the same time. We were listening to it and people were pulling out quotes, and we would key individual parts of it and things we needed for timing and stuff like that. That last night was probably the fastest we wrote a monologue – ever. Faster than the live shows. Because the live shows, we had the local news. Whatever the event was, we had the local news to prep everything. We didn’t even get to see the thing that we were writing about, you know, until I saw the footage. It was all just on paper – what did he say? What did he say?  I almost pulled a hamstring last night because we went from zero to sixty so fast. But it’s just emotionally, like a lot of people, this is upsetting. I wish I had my show to watch. People come up and thank us. One of my producers, Tom Purcell. said,’Oh, people use this show as an analgesic – ‘I feel so much better after I watch.’ God, could someone please do a show for me to watch!

Variety: What is it like behind the scenes? At some point, isn’t the show ‘locked’ and ready to go? Do you have to scrap what you have when news breaks late?

Colbert: There have been countless times when the show has been ready to go and we have to completely throw away the whole monologue. We do a long monologue. I’ll do a 15-minute monologue some nights. And then a second set of comedy. Many’s the night when we have to throw the whole thing out after rehearsal and rewrite the whole thing – all new subjects, all new clips, everything. It’s all hands on deck. Our shorthand is this is a ‘live show.’ I’m acting like we have to do this live, becase your first draft has to be the last draft. I’m still going to change it when I say it and I’ll often kind of freeball, as we say, how it transitions from moment to moment, because we don’t have to write it conversationally. There’s never a point when the show is so locked that we won’t change it – literally minutes before I go on stage. They will say there are new jokes in there.

Variety: Do you ever think you’ll do live broadcasts again?

Colbert: Sure, we’d love to. There just has to be a reason. Why wouldn’t you wait even 24 hours for this? Why is this the thing?

Variety: Are you satisfied with where everything is right now with the show?

Colbert: You are always chasing after the horizon.

Variety: Have you had your perfect show yet?

Colbert: I mean, there are some nights when the show is over when you are like, ‘Wow, that was a really fun show.’ Last night was a really fun show. An immediate monologue, a good second-act piece with a good roll in. Daniel Craig [who announced he’d stay with the James Bond franchise] held on to that for us, which was a really lovely thing for him to do. What a joy to talk to Tiffany Haddish. She was fantastic. I had never heard Blackberry Smoke, and they were great. All in all, last night was like, that was a solid show, man. But no, you never do a perfect show. I was an altar boy when I was a kid, for 11 years, second grade to senior year of high school. I always wanted to serve the perfect mass – meaning the priest never had to ask me for the correct water or wine. I would know to wash his hands before he gave the signal. I would always be there. A Eucharist would fall, I would catch it with the patent. There would be something I would do perfectly in every aspect of it. But I never did it. I don’t know how many masses I served – 500, something like that. Never got it. It also made me a good waiter. I don’t think you can – nobody hands you the perfect show, but you can like, try for an idea. And then see if you can hit that idea in any given show. Our idea is what people will be talking about by the time our show goes on tonight has to be what we are talking about in our show. That’s why we keep the doors open until the very last minute. We don’t want, if it’s just at all possible, to ever be left out of the conversation that is going to be happening that night.

Variety: Are there certain parts you want to tweak or think could be better?

Colbert: I’d say the second half of the show. I’m feeling pretty good about – I enjoy doing our ‘cold open,’ I like that as an amuse-bouche for the audience. This gives you some idea, some hint of what the show is about that night – the things we paid attention to in the news and the social conversation. And I like the immediacy of the monologue. We try to give it an honest, emotional beginning: How do we feel? What feeling led us to write these jokes? That’s the thing that changed how we do the monologue. In the second act, we’ve got the ‘refillables.’ It’s a good way to deal with the news that doesn’t fit into the monologue, or stylistically doesn’t. I really enjoy talking to the guests. I think I’d like to have more guys like Neil Tyson. I’d like to have more people like Brian Greene or more people like George Saunders or have more people like Jake Tapper or John Dickerson, or I’d like to have more people like Al Franken. I’m interested because it’s easy for me to bring a lively conversation with jokes to a subject that I really love. Some people represent a subject. And some people are idea and those are the most fascinating people to talk to. I’m a consumer of pop culture.  I love to talk to movie stars. I loved talking to Daniel Craig. What a great conversation.  He was a great lead guest. Now I’d like to talk to Neil Tyson or talk to Al Franken, to expand the palette of what is acceptable in late night, just have the audience be interested through our passion and interest in the subject.

Variety: You had folks like Tim Cook and Joe Biden a little while after you started on this show.

Colbert: We had them as lead guests. It may not be that. Now we have a lot of people watching. We are very lucky. We are building back to that idea. Now having built the nuts and bolts of the comedy, we’d like to build back to that idea. Take the passion we put into the first part of the show, and put it in the second. It’s under discussion. How we do that is up for grabs, but have the same kind of passion in the second half of the show we put in the first. I love talking to the guests, but I think we can expand what that means.

Variety: Who do you turn to find out if a certain show is good or not?

Colbert: My kids. Because my kids are between 15 and 21. I have three. If my kids heard about what I did, that means it must have percolated pretty widely, because they will watch the show because I’m their dad. If they hear about it by the time I get home, that means someone was talking to them about it. If they like it, boy that’s a great feeling. My wife – and I mean this as a compliment – is a human being. A lot of people in comedy are perfectly lovely but not necessarily human beings anymore. If you’ve been doing comedy for a while your standards are different. My wife is a human being. If she enjoyed it, if it meant something to her, that’s important.

Variety: Do you have a sort of kitchen cabinet of people you turn to – who if they think it’s good, it must be good?

Colbert: If J.J. Abrams writes me, I’m really happy … Robert Smigel, the first guy who hired me in network TV. Some of my old writers and producers who don’t work for me anymore. If they write back, if I can hear from Rich Dahm, or Meredith Scardino, or Liz Levon. These are some of my favorite people, and if they write me back, that’s great.

Variety: Can you tell us a little about Jon Stewart’s role in the show? Because he’s listed each night in the credits as one of the producers.

Colbert:  Oh, of course. And Jon. Jon wrote me about some of the Russian stuff. Ah, he watched. We talk all the time. We’ve been talking this week about the events and the response to Charlottesvile … He stops by.

Variety: You recently had Anthony Scaramucci as a guest. He was on ABC News the day before he appeared with you. Do you feel you are competing with news shows for guests and space and bandwidth?

Colbert:  I’m not in competition with the news. I don’t mistake myself for … Someone said to me the other day, you know, you keep on saying you guys have nothing to do with journalism, and well, I have enough people who disagree with you. And I said, ‘Well, I know they mean it as a compliment, but we are doing comedy. We just happen to be doing comedy about things that happened in the news today. That’s how we found out about it.’ I’m a fan of the news. I like the news. But I’m in no way in competition with them. I don’t want the status, or, I believe, the respect they deserve. I don’t want any of that. If anybody who worked at this job felt they were in competition with the news, I think they should probably just go do news.

Variety: Do you feel like you’re giving people some of their news, or some of their insight?

Colbert: I’m not giving anybody their insight. I’m giving them my insight. Comedy is always editorial, and so we’re just doing editorial about what happened today, about what people are talking about. I never want to break the news to the audience. Last night, it was tough. I go to great pains to let the audience know what I’m going to be talking about if I think they don’t know the story. Because, as I’ve said many times, the news will break, something will happen, something will come out of the White House or Washington. There will be something happens in the world, and we have to change some of the jokes, or a lot of the jokes in the monologue, and if that happens, I go out and tell the audience what happened. I don’t want them to learn during the jokes.

Variety: So you tape live and people are learning about the news while you are telling the jokes …

Colbert: It’s not a good idea, because I think our role is to talk about, ‘Here’s what we thought about that thing you’ve been thinking about today.’ And that way, comedy really is a release valve for somebody. But if you’re actually breaking news to them, and you are willing to do stories about things that might be upsetting to them, it’s natural for them to be upset! And that’s not what I’m here to do! Last night, the entire monologue got thrown away and totally rewritten with what Trump’s press conference was And it was such a garbage fire of a press conference. It was so angry. It was so distressing. There was no warning. I could not warn [the audience] enough: ‘He just said it. You just have to see.’ Literally, every clip is going to be new to them. But they were upset, and it gets in the way of your jokes. I want them to know already, so I can make jokes of the things they have already started to digest. I don’t ever really want to inform them.

Variety: Do you think it’s more important to get people to think or to get them to laugh after they have seen an hour of your show?

Colbert: [Pauses] Is that a trick question?

Variety: No. Other late-night hosts like Samantha Bee have been asked that same question and it makes people stop for a minute.

Colbert: Laugh. Listen, if I can make people laugh without making them think – like physical comedy. I love physical comedy. Rhythmic comedy. Character comedy. Often, that’s not about thinking at all. I have absolutely no qualms about that answer. Laugh.

Variety:  Because if you watch even the first half hour of your show, there is the expression of a lot of interesting ideas and ways of looking at the world.

Colbert: Sure, but we thought about it to make the joke. You might get a contact think because we had to think about it to think about the joke. The joke is objective. The laugh is objective. Hold the think. Give me a big laugh. Hold the think.

Variety: When Carson was the late-night person, you didn’t know he felt politically one way or the other.  His jokes were equal opportunity.

Colbert: He was on the inaugural committee for Reagan’s first inauguration, that Sinatra put it together, and yet he didn’t seem like a conservative. It was a different political time. It was a political time and you could be friends. He was reflective of a far more bipartisan time.

Variety: How much of what you say every night reflects your personal views?

Colbert: We have a team of writers, but I wouldn’t tell a joke the intent of which I do not share.

Variety: So you are disturbed by what’s going on in the world. You are alarmed and you are upset.

Colbert: Yes. Yes.

Variety: Are you a check and balance on what’s Trump’s doing?

Colbert: No. God, no. People have asked me that question, and not from the world of entertainment journalism, and I just can’t be clearer: We are not going to stop him. I, me, this show. Comedy will not stop him. The democratic process – that is it. The democratic process will stop this guy. He’s not a statue that a mob can tear down and that’s not the American way. The democratic process is the only way. That’s it. That’s the only thing. And for the Republicans to grow a pair. Just drop a ‘nad, and do what you know is right. And that won’t happen unless they lose the House or the Senate. And then, ‘Katy bar the door.’

Variety: Self-interest will rule the day.

Colbert: Rational self-interest. Ayn Rand will be in the driver’s seat.

Variety: Can I ask how your come by your political views?

Colbert: I guess growing up in the ’60s and ’70s. I have that poster right there (gestures to poster on wall behind him).  One of my brothers or sisters or somebody must have worked for the Nixon campaign. This is Young Voters for Nixon. It has sort of that Peter Max kind of aesthetic to it. It’s got those early 70s colors, all the youth issues of the day are around it. There’s the President talking to a boy wearing red, white and blue, and he’s got a hearing aid, if you look closely. That’s the humble, friendly Nixon that nobody ever got to see. And then I became obsessed with him, because when I came home from school every afternoon when I was in elementary school from ’72 to ’74, well there is Senator Sam Ervin with the big, bushy eyebrows, you know, at the Watergate hearings. I wanted to be watching ‘The Munsters’ or ‘The Three Stooges,’ but I was watching that because it was on all the channels. I was pissed off about it, because I didn’t want to watch that and there were not DVRs at the time. Until my sister Margo sat me down and explained why it was important. She explained to me who Sam Ervin was and what was going on with John Dean, and then it just became my stories. I loved it. I was always a news junkie for a long time, but certainly, a mistrust of power and authority, the ur-distrust comes from Nixon.

Variety: Here’s a ‘devil’s advocate’ question for you. At some point in the far or not too distant future, you may not have Trump to rail against.

Colbert: Are you saying you won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore?

Variety: It can’t last forever, right? At some point, is there a pivot you make in the show?

Colbert: When Trump’s not the headline, we will do a joke on whatever the headline is, because the show is not about Donald Trump. The show is about what everyone is talking about today. This is the only thing anyone is talking about. Every day. For the last year.

Variety: Has this fueled your audience growth, this close focus on this one story?

Colbert: This is the fifth presidential election I’ve done jokes about on a daily basis or nearly a daily basis, and primaries are nice. They are fodder, but they are one of the stories that people are talking about. Once the presidential campaigns really kick off after the conventions, they are the only things anyone is talking about. What’s great is for somebody who is doing a monologue or jokes on a nightly basis, everybody kind of knows the story already. Everbody cares, because it’s going to affect their lives. And nobody dies. Usually, everybody knows-everbody cares is usually a tragedy. Everybody knows-everybody cares-nobody dies, any joke is up for grabs, pretty much, and that’s what is great about a presidential campaign from the conventions on. Once the conventions started last year, we said we were all in. Live shows. This is going to be a thing we are going to talk about. But the campaign has never stopped. It’s never ended.

I don’t know if that changes until he leaves, do you know what I mean? On a daily basis, there are some things that we make jokes about on this show that are just sort of fun stories, like the HBO hack or that ridiculous Pepsi commercial. But the national conversation has been swallowed by him, and he’s in front of the lens all the time. He doesn’t want it to end, and in some ways we serve the news cycle. We serve the conversation, and whenever that changes, we’ll talk about something else. Maybe no one will care about anything as much as they care about him – on either side – and so that could temper the intense interest in what any of us in late night are doing, because it’s been, you know, I hesitate to use the word ‘good,’ but it has been strong notice across all of the late-night shows. When it’s not him, It may temper the interest in late night, but I don’t see it ending. But what I know is that no matter what, we will never stop keeping the doors of the show open until the last minute, because now we know what the show is about.

Variety: If the Trump phenomenon, for lack of a better word, were to dissipate, do you think it might mean that Fallon’s “Tonight” regains its lead among overall viewers?

Colbert: I have no idea. I have no idea. There’s no way of knowing.

Variety: You are the most watched person in late night right now. Is it still possible to be the so-called ‘king’ of late night when there are so many people doing interesting things in the time slot?

Colbert: I have no interest in that, the whole realm. Johnny Carson was the last person who could say that. Because to be unchallenged is to be king, and there has been no one unchallenged since Johnny. And anyway, I’d much rather be the President of Late Night. If people want to vote, that’s great. I’m an American. I don’t want to be king of anything.

Variety: You’ve called the Colbert character from Comedy Central back on occasion. He hasn’t been on recently.

Colbert: I like him fine, but I think it was fun during the height of the political campaign, when there was some discussion of who would be the next President of the United States. He’s around. He’s out there like King Arthur, if anyone needs him to come back to be wrong about something on a professional level. Because he’s professionally wrong about things. But I think I have an intimate enough relationship with the audience that they don’t want him between us. Do you know what I mean? The last time I did it, they enjoyed it, but I think they enjoyed me just being me more – and so do I. That’s why I took this gig.