How Stephen Colbert Survived the Pandemic, Trump and the Loss of Laughter

Photographs by Mary Ellen Matthews

Stephen Colbert is punchy.

It is the first night of his second week back with a live studio audience doing CBS’ “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” at the Ed Sullivan Theater. He’s still on an adrenaline high from his return to the 400-seat Broadway venue after 15 long months in the wilderness of delivering monologues and conducting interviews without the feedback that comes from working in front of a crowd.

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Mary Ellen Matthews for Variety

Dressed in a sharply creased dark gray suit, in contrast to the plaids and Pendletons he favored during the pandemic, Colbert, 57, bounds onto the stage on the evening of June 21, minutes before the taping starts, high-kicking and punching the air with abandon. “The Late Show” house band punctuates his every move with a cacophony of sound. The fans roar. Colbert revels in a prolonged standing ovation — but in an instant, he switches gears to avuncular as he instructs the live audience to watch the prerecorded cold open on the monitors about the stage.

“Thank you so much for being here,” Colbert says, propping himself on the edge of the desk where he and his guest, actor Andrew Garfield, will soon banter. “I’m not over it. I’m not over having live audiences. The energy you give us lets us do a better show for you.”

A day after the taping, in his first lengthy interview since returning to the stage, Colbert declares that he has been changed by the pandemic experience.

“I had to adjust my rhythms as a performer. I didn’t realize fully how much I had adjusted my rhythms until I came back here and had an audience again,” Colbert says in a sit-down in his office at the Sullivan Theater — a replica of which had been built in a storage closet at the theater that served as Colbert’s set from Aug. 10, 2020, through June 10, 2021.

The comedian, who first came to fame as a “Daily Show” correspondent, has never been more comfortable being the real Stephen Colbert on air, after months of opening up about his family life and effortlessly demonstrating his powerful bond with his wife of 28 years, Evie Colbert. (She was often half of his in-person audience on any given night and a frequent presence on camera by the end of the pandemic shows.) Colbert’s interviewing skills have been sharpened by months of longer and often more intimate and less plug-the-project-focused exchanges with guests. If there was any shadow of his bombastic Bill O’Reilly-esque “Colbert Report” character hanging over “The Late Show,” it’s gone now.

“Until the moment I walked into this building six years ago, I was an actor and I had no illusions about it. I was an actor, not a talk show host,” Colbert says.

As happy as he is to settle back into a familiar routine with state-of-the-art production facilities, Colbert wants to harness the ingenuity demonstrated by department leaders during trying times to keep the show unpredictable as it heads into Season 7 in the fall. The late-night series that changed its name to “A Late Show” during the pandemic months — to signify that it was not full-fledged “The Late Show” they’d intended to produce — is on a roll with recognition for its feats of on-air derring-do.

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“Late Show” was recognized with a Peabody win last month — “for combining comedy with genuine goodness at one of our darkest hours,” as jurors explained — and this month it picked up five Emmy Award nominations, including a bid for variety talk series. The Showtime special “Stephen Colbert’s Election Night 2020: Democracy’s Last Stand” is up for variety live special, and two more awards. And Colbert picked up another nomination as an executive producer of Paramount Plus’ “Tooning Out the News.”

Colbert at present has a budding roster of shows produced with “The Late Show” showrunner and executive producer Chris Licht. The latest has Colbert teamed with radio provocateur Charlamagne Tha God (a fellow native son of South Carolina) to executive produce a weekly half-hour series for Comedy Central, “Tha God’s Honest Truth With Lenard ‘Charlamagne McKelvey,” set to debut Sept. 17.

Yet even with more plates in the air than ever, Colbert’s excitement at his return to “The Late Show” proper is palpable.

“Coming back to the live audience lets us say, ‘Oh, this is great!’ But I don’t want to just be satisfied that we do the old form of ‘The Late Show,’” Colbert says. “We’ve got to keep evolving. And I don’t know what that is other than I know you always have to wear that idea on your nose in a little music stand with a little piece of sheet music that says ‘Evolve’ on it.”

For Colbert, the gratifying part of the job is the collaboration and brainstorming and seat-of-the-pants work with his writing staff and production teams. Many “Late Show” staffers have been in the daily trenches with Colbert since the dawn of “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central in 2005.

“Ultimately, I think you should do these shows as if you’re putting up a college newspaper, as if no one’s watching,” Colbert says. “Forty-nine percent of my joy of doing the show the audience never sees. Working with this staff and seeing them rise to the occasion. And wanting to be as dedicated to getting the show right as a performer as they are to getting it right from a technical or production end.”

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Mary Ellen Matthews for Variety

Colbert felt vulnerable during the pandemic months without the “forgiveness” an audience provides. But he had no choice but to be himself as his family lived through the fearful months of the COVID-19 pandemic like the rest of nation.

“I’m glad to have relaxed into that vulnerable feeling because it makes you less nervous in general about being a public figure, let alone a public performer,” Colbert says. “It’s like you’re saying, ‘Well, this is really what I’m like, and I hope that’s OK with you.’ And to find out that was OK was another level of becoming myself, of which this entire show has been a journey to.”

Colbert marvels at the feats of engineering and technology it took to keep “Late Show” on the air during the COVID lockdown conditions. And he is full of gratitude to “Late Show” showrunner-executive producer Chris Licht and the show’s staff for the hard work and dedication that made it happen. Colbert backed up his words by paying out of his own pocket to cover the salaries of an undisclosed number of crew members during many months of the pandemic after CBS said it could no longer keep idled workers on the payroll.

“Stephen is a quality human being,” says Conan O’Brien, a friend and fellow late-night veteran. “You take away the suits and the noise on these shows, and you’re left with just the person. That’s something that shows Stephen in a really good light.”

•    •    •

Over the past few months, “The Late Show” has answered the question of whether its audience would drop off after the Trump circus left Washington. There’s no doubt that “Late Show” found its footing during the Trump era, following its first-year struggles after Colbert took over from David Letterman in September 2015. Despite the turmoil in the nation and the sea changes in the television business, CBS’ “The Late Show” remains a strong No. 1 in late night with an average of 3 million viewers a week since March 2020, compared with 1.8 million for ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and 1.7 million for NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”

As the “Late Show” staff members reunited in person last month, they were all still processing the journey of the past 15 months of producing the show with a spirit of on-the-fly experimentation not seen since the earliest days of television. Colbert, Licht, executive producer Tom Purcell and co-executive producers Tanya Michnevich Bracco and Denise Rehrig and others gave Variety rare behind-the-scenes access as “Late Show” returned to full-bore production in mid-June.

Bracco is among those who have been with Colbert since 2005. She recalls working around the clock early in the pandemic to get equipment and production resources shipped to individual staffers’ homes as needed, among other tasks, as the production team splintered into remote work mode. “My husband would slide food under the door at 6 o’clock,” she says. “There was no phoning it in.”

The intensity of the job to figure out how to work remotely came at a time when plenty of people on staff were also feeling the hardships of the COVID crisis in the wider world. Getting the show done every day required a level of commitment, self-sufficiency and cooperation among industry pros in every department.

“Every show in their own way has their stories, but I would argue that our ambition levels were higher than everybody’s [in late night],” Licht says. “I will immodestly say, I think our level of ambition did not in any way decline for not being in the theater.”

Licht points to the consistency in prerecorded cold opens with elaborate animation and graphics and lightning-fast editing of hours-old news footage. He points to the number of live telecasts “Late Show” braved with a skeleton crew and a news cycle that bordered on surreal, never more so than when “Late Show” went live on the somber night of Jan. 6. Colbert delivered one of the rawest monologues of his career about the Trump-fueled riot in the U.S. Capitol: “How about you, Fox News?” he snarled. “Do you think maybe years of peddling his conspiracy theories had annnnything to do with this?”

“Late Show” also kept up efforts at comedy bits (with varying degrees of success) with celebrity guests in the Zoom span. It landed the first post-election TV sit-down with then-President-elect Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden, and then defied Mother Nature to get staff and equipment in place for a shoot at Biden transition headquarters in Delaware — in the middle of a December blizzard.

Colbert admits the show had no choice but to push hard. For one thing, each episode needed about 20% more material to make up for the lack of audience laughter. For another, Colbert’s relocation to his native South Carolina coincided with the trauma of the pandemic and the social justice uprising sparked by George Floyd’s murder.

“The silence was deafening for the first few weeks,” Colbert recalls. “We knew we had to be ambitious about new ideas all the time because there had to be something there to keep the energy up. Because just me talking into a camera — as much as I’m a huge fan of me — you need something that’s an alternative to that energy.”

Colbert came to rely on the show’s tech and engineering teams pulling off the impossible, particularly after “Late Show” production moved to the tiny den of his family’s South Carolina vacation home from March 30 through July 23, 2020, during the height of the lockdown. He could not help but be impressed on the day that his staff rigged up a connection for him to speak to astronauts on the International Space Station through the satellite truck parked in his front yard.

“I can get in front of a camera and talk — that part is simple,” Colbert says. “Can you find the rhythm which with to do it with no audience? Can you find any internal impetus to keep going when the audience is why you got into this to begin with? That’s fine. That’s my problem. I have no idea about all of the technical hurdles that had to be overcome. I don’t know how they did it. But I didn’t doubt for a moment that my staff would figure it out.”

Colbert’s appreciation was further demonstrated by the decision he and Evie made to cover some of “Late Show’s” payroll for much of the COVID downtime. Evie calls it “an enormous privilege” for the couple to be able to show gratitude for the work done at every level of “The Late Show.”

“We wanted everyone to know that we cared about them and that we were going to help people in this scary time,” Evie says. “It was a wonderful way to say to people, ‘You’re going to be OK.’ “

Colbert’s confidence and generosity inspired “Late Show” staffers, who took their cues from the top.

“The thing about Stephen is, at a time when a lot of people would have grasped for more control because so much was out of control, it felt like he had faith in the staff to do their jobs and get this done,” Rehrig says. “That meant the world to a lot of people. What sticks with me now that we’re coming back is ‘Holy shit, we nailed it.’ ”

Part of the challenge was not knowing how viewership would hold up under extraordinary circumstances.

“We’re overwhelmed with gratitude that our audience followed us through all of it,” Purcell says. “When you don’t check in with a live audience for 15 months, you don’t know if people are really watching at home. But now that we’re all back together there’s a feeling that they’ve been on this journey with us.”

Robert Morton, a veteran late-night producer who worked with David Letterman, gives credit to Colbert and other hosts for surviving the pandemic and providing a sense of consistency to the nation. Morton produced a few episodes of Letterman’s “Late Night” and “Late Show” without an audience, and they were not pleasant experiences.

“As a producer, I felt the discomfort. I don’t know how these guys can pace themselves to make an entertaining program without the audience feedback that creates the timing of any good show,” Morton says. “Colbert is such an inventive guy. He created such an intimacy with the audience.”

•    •    •

One of the notable aspects of Colbert’s strength in late night is that it comes as the nation is bitterly divided along partisan and cultural lines. The host has only started to understand what it meant to have his own late-night pulpit at the time.

“They played a very complex game of psychology on the American people that damn near worked,” Colbert says. “Every so often it would come up in the writers’ room. We would need to metaphorically pull the car over and everybody get out to go throw up in a ditch and get our breath back and realize how insane today was. Because you’d become inured to it. And part of the job was to not develop a callus? That was a big part of it.”

In Colbert’s view, “Late Show” was not a voice of the resistance to Trump but simply a voice of reason. He was disturbed by what he saw as the former president’s gaslighting of the public in order to pursue a stealth agenda.

“The firehose of misinformation or disinformation and the attempts to make all of us feel crazy by thinking that this was crazy gave us a very interesting place to stand,” Colbert says. “We finally came to the realization that we knew exactly where we wanted to stand — on dry land. Because the rising tide of the administration’s mendacity made it very clear that the only thing left for us to do was to say, ‘No, no, no. That’s not true. No, we’re not crazy. They’re crazy for saying that.’”

Colbert takes a few long pauses while talking about Trump, and it’s the only time his face hardens into a grimace.

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Mary Ellen Matthews for Variety

“Like everybody else in America we were being so swamped by all the strangeness and the weirdness — it’s almost like a spell was being cast over people,” Colbert reflects. “It felt personally offensive and personally assaultive to me. It was a common feeling in the [‘Late Show’] building, and we trusted that it was a common feeling out there in the world. And we backed the right horse.”

Colbert emphasizes that his roots in improv ground his work in trying to find his honest emotional reaction to any situation. During the most outrageous moments of the Trump administration and through the pandemic, Colbert found that the key to connecting was to reveal his true emotional state.

“When we weren’t happy with the show on a given day or week, it usually meant we weren’t having an honest emotional reaction to what was happening,” Colbert says. “So we started putting it in our process to put something at the top of the monologue that was a hint to the audience where we are coming from in this monologue emotionally, so they know how to catch the pitch.”

Colbert was in the right place at the right time to be the voice that many turned to for perspective with humor at a unsettling time. Colbert hasn’t spent much time thinking what the past four years would have been like under a Hillary Rodham Clinton administration.

“We never thought for a moment ‘Oh we’ve got X, Y and Z planned for Hillary,’ ” Colbert says. “While I had enormous trepidation and a bowel-loosening fear of what it would be like once I knew the last guy was elected, we didn’t have any plans. It was all a day at a time.”

His longtime collaborators often comment on his knack for knowing how to “match the mood” of the general public with his show. There’s no mystery as to why that is, Licht and others say. Colbert may be the most regular individual to scale such heights in a field that is known for drawing neurotic workaholics. “He’s a suburban New Jersey dad who wears khakis,” says Licht. “He’s not someone who needs a focus group or research to tell us that the show is not matching the moment. That comes from him living life as a normal person.”

Rehrig adds that the host’s instincts were spot-on throughout the pandemic. It was Colbert who put the brakes on returning to the studio without a live audience. He didn’t want to do anything halfway, which set him and his staff up for a triumphant return to the Sullivan Theater on June 14.

“I would argue that for what the country was facing, we were the best version of the show that we could be,” Rehrig said. “Everybody was doing what we were doing. Everyone was working from home or in different circumstances.”

Friends and colleagues say the foundation of Colbert’s normal-ness can be described in one word: Evie. Numerous “Late Show” staff members remarked that the closeness Colbert and his family demonstrated during trying times was touching. Particularly after Evie and their three children — Madeleine, age 25; Peter, 23; and John, 19 — were pressed into service in South Carolina to work as technicians and camera operators.

“We have a very strong family life. I think that grounds him in a way that if he didn’t have that, it would be really hard for him,” Evie says. “He identifies himself as a husband and a father and someone who works in television. It’s not like he has to be a superstar all the time.”

•    •    •

For about 15 minutes on a Friday night last year, the entirety of the CBS Television Network rested on the strength of the Wi-Fi connection at the Chester, Conn., home of a “Late Show” editor.

In the anything-goes environment of the early pandemic months, the idea was hatched to do an animated monologue for the Friday, April 30, episode to ease the burden of shooting two shows on Thursday. Colbert and Licht are also producers of the animated series “Tooning Out the News” for Paramount Plus and “Our Cartoon President” for Showtime, both of which rely on quick-rendering animation, so the tools were handy.

On that Friday night, Licht was watching a “Late Show” Slack channel to monitor the delivery of the episode to CBS’ broadcast operations department, as he always does.

Most nights, those in broadcast operations get antsy if the various acts of the 41½-minute “Late Show” are not uploaded by 9:45 p.m. ET for its 11:36 p.m. ET start time. Around 10:15 p.m., Licht saw discussion in Slack that rendering of the monologue, which takes up the full 14-minute first act, was taking a lot longer than expected. File transfers, as everyone scrambling to produce TV in a pandemic was learning, go much slower when users are spread out and relying on residential-strength broadband connections.

“As you can imagine, people are freaking out,” Licht recalls. It soon became clear that “the only way this is going to get on the air is if it plays back live from the laptop of the editor in his living room. So the guy was on the phone and someone said, ‘Press play,’ and he played back our first act for millions of people watching the CBS Television Network from his laptop at home,” he says.

“Oh, dear God. Oh, dear God” was all Licht could say to himself silently as he watched the show unfold from home. “What if it had frozen?”

From CBS president-CEO George Cheeks and CBS Studios president David Stapf on down, network brass have been rock-steady in their support of the show, Licht stresses. But there were consequences for pushing the outside of the envelope on the episode delivery deadline.

“I got a very sternly worded note the next day from broadcast operations, ‘Let’s never have that happen again. This is not how we do things,’ ” Licht recalls. “And by the way, we’re like, ‘Correct,’ this is not the model. Sorry, we were too  ambitious.’ ”

•    •    •

As the post-pandemic and post-Trump chapter of “The Late Show” begins, there are inevitable questions about how long Colbert wants to keep at a job that is as demanding as hosting a nightly late-night comedy series. In his mind, things that he finds hard are usually worth doing.  “You have to love the grind. You learn to love it,” he says.

When pressed about his long-term plans, Colbert reiterates that he never sought to be a talk show host per se. But he’s enjoying the challenge of producing comedy at such a tumultuous time in history. And he’s looking forward to doing more with his “previously unexplored vulnerability” as the show evolves and he refines his hosting style.

From the start in 2015, “what I really wanted to do with this old form that has been done for almost 70 years [was to] see if we could do something new with it. To put new wine in an old bottle,” Colbert says.

Colbert looks like he’s settling in for a long run. “I’m having a really good time,” he says. “I am more excited about continuing to do this show now than I was a month ago. I feel like I could do the show for 10 years. But call me in a week. Because it changes.”

He is quick to add that “it’s not up to me — it’s up to CBS and it’s up to the audience how long I hang out.” And he also wants to see what the prevailing winds bring for the country and for the culture before he commits to entertaining America for a Carson- or Letterman-esque 30-year tenure.

“We’re now emerging into this new world that we can’t make any predictions about. I want to see what the next couple of years are like,” he says. “If they’re what I think they’re going to be like, I think I’ve got one of the greatest jobs on the planet.”

Costume Designer: Antonia Xereas; Wardrobe Supervisor: Derek Moreno; Hair: Jenna Robinson; Makeup: Jesse Lindholm; Prop Stylist: Carrie Hill/See Management; Look 1 (suit): Suit: Ermenegildo Zegna; Socks: Paul Smith; Shoes: Ferragamo; Look 2 (jeans): Jeans: Paige; Shoes: Converse