The tales are starting to be told. Every topical daily television show produced during the height of the coronavirus clampdown has emerged with stories of on-air experimentation, on-the-fly innovations, near misses and Hail Marys that rival the TV pioneer legends of Caesar, Berle, Gleason and Ball, et al.
CBS’ “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” is no exception. As the staff of late-night’s most-watched talk variety show reunited in June after 15 months of virtual production, key players gave Variety rare behind-the-scenes access to tapings and production activity at the Ed Sullivan Theater. “Late Show” showrunner/executive producer Chris Licht, executive producer Tom Purcell, and co-executive producers Tanya Michnevich Bracco and Denise Rehrig shared observations about the long road from the March 16, 2020, surprise segment filmed on an iPad in Colbert’s bathtub in New Jersey to the joyful return to the stage of their beloved Sullivan Theater on June 14, 2021.
Evie Colbert, who surely qualifies for IATSE membership after providing hours of technical assistance to “Late Show,” also offered candid thoughts about how the profound experience of losing his professional dance partner – a studio audience – changed her husband of 28 years.
‘We’re Not Going Away’
For “Late Show” staff, the pandemic journey starts in a bathtub on March 16, 2020, the Monday after the country began to shut down in earnest. “The Late Show” was already scheduled to be on hiatus that week, but Colbert led the charge to make a statement at a fraught moment. CBS aired two 10-minute segments of Colbert delivering COVID-themed monologue jokes from a bubble-filled bathtub, shot with an iPad and iPhone, after which a rerun kicked in.
Chris Licht: The bathtub signaled to everybody — we’re not going to crawl into a ball and wait for this to pass. The bathtub signaled that we were in a new reality and we have to stay on the air. You genuinely felt, our fans needed to see Stephen. Everything was changing so much. Stephen didn’t really want to go away. The bathtub was symbolic to fans that we’re not going away. It also signaled to the staff that now we’ve told our audience we’re not going away. We need to figure this out.
Denise Rehrig: When Stephen popped up that Monday night in his bathtub, he was doing what we were all doing. My dog was hiding in the bathtub. (Colbert) was reflecting back to the country what everyone else was going through.
Evie Colbert: Like so many things, you don’t quite realize what’s happening until it’s happening. I knew we were going to try to help him do the show. If you’d said ‘You’ll be doing the show from your home until (July),’ I’m not sure I would have said OK.
Licht: The bathtub (segments) were uploaded like a file you’d send to your grandmother on your iPhone. That was the most nerve-wracking part — the file transfers. Once we were able to figure out how to do that faster it got better. Now, you sit with an editor and instead of being together in a room the editor is at his or her house, you use Zoom to watch them edit. It’s unbelievable. It was all kind of made up as we went along from people all over the country.
‘What Else Are You Going to Throw at Me?’
With the benefit of hindsight, “Late Show” staffers marvel at Stephen Colbert’s ability to adjust to working in extraordinary conditions, over and over. By March 30, 2020, the Colbert family had relocated to the family’s vacation home in Sullivan’s Island, S.C., where Evie and their three children – Madeleine, 25; Peter, 23; and John, 19 – helped out as technicians and camera operators. By Aug. 10, 2020, production relocated again to a converted storage closet at the Ed Sullivan Theater. The theater’s big stage was too big for Colbert to perform there without an audience.
Licht: Without an audience Stephen looked like he was swallowed up by that stage. So Stephen had to learn how to be himself. He finally learns how to do that, and then he’s got to do the performance in a little room in South Carolina with his family in there. And then he’s got to switch to another gear coming up (to Sullivan Theater). And then he’s got to come it all again in front of an audience. It’s pretty remarkable.
Evie Colbert: Every six months it’s something different. When he took the job, no one thought Trump would run for president, let alone be President. That changed everything about the show. That was so all-consuming for so long, and then no one thought we’d have a pandemic. It’s taken so many turns. He has the confidence to say, ‘What else are you going to throw at me?’
Stephen Colbert: You have to love the grind. You learn to love it. You have to lean in to how hard it is. It’ll actually make you choose even more challenging things because you get a little high on it having been hard and getting it right. Well shit, let’s see if you can do something harder? It wasn’t like someone said, ‘You have to bug out immediately go to South Carolina, go into one room, and no one can come in except your family, and you have to do shows there for five months. No one can tell you to go do it in a tiny little converted room with a robotic camera and just a stage manager and an executive producer and you will not hear laughter for 10 months, except when your wife shows up.
Evie Colbert: For me it was quite the unexpected partnership we developed. I didn’t expect that. I could tell how difficult it was for him. He said, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do this, I need some reaction,’ so I said ‘OK, well I will try to help you.’ I enjoyed helping him, if that makes sense. It makes you feel good help someone you love.
Licht: The pandemic tested every part of this operation. This team has shown there’s nothing you can throw at us that’s going to stop us from putting the show on the air. I’m in awe.
Rehrig: So much of the staff looks to (Stephen) for their cues. We have a no-assholes policy as far as staff goes and it starts with Stephen. He’s a very thoughtful, caring, intuitive leader. I’ve always marveled at the way in which he treats the staff and his co-workers. He sets a tone for things. We looked to him (during the pandemic). Is Stephen panicking? No. He’s saying, ‘We’re going to do a show, guys. We’re OK. We’re going to keep going.’
‘No One Ever Says We Can’t Do That’
“Late Show’s” production team pulled off many technical feats during the pandemic, starting with the creation of a virtual control room on the fly. The sense of urgency was captured by the staff in a spoof of the “Houston, we have a problem” scene from 1995’s “Apollo 13.”
Stephen Colbert: My staff has this great esprit de corps. They like not being defeated. Everybody here is a leader. They see what needs to be done and they’re always in the process of value-adding whatever request was been made of them. No one ever says we can’t do that. Everybody says, ‘It’s going to take this to achieve that.’
Tanya Michnevich Bracco: We didn’t have to babysit the process. We just met with every department and asked, what do you need? Everybody quickly identified what they needed. The collaboration, the dedication, the creativity everyone showed and the problem-solving we did to make the tools work. There was a ‘can-do’ attitude because there was no other option.
Evie Colbert: I have all these different skills now. The big lesson I learned is that 90% of the time when something goes wrong, you unplug and plug back in the device and it fixes itself. The way we would do the show is, I’d put on a headset and had people in New York and all over the country talk me through everything we had to do in the kindest and gentlest way. I had to do (on iPads and laptops) what they told me to do, like a bank robber, just do what they tell you do to. I give Stephen a lot of credit, there were only a few times when he looked at me with that face that said ‘You work here, fix it.’ ”
Michnevich Bracco: His family became his crew. I can’t even say how many iPads that they had to charge and put together. They were such troopers. They’d say ‘This isn’t working’ and we’d say ‘Can you zoom in and show us what the problem is.’ We were literally directing them in real time.
Licht: When we booked the Bidens for their first interview after the election [in December 2020]. we told the senior team,
it’s got to be in Delaware. That means we probably have to do the monologue from Delaware because we can’t get back in time. But because it’s in the same place as Biden headquarters we don’t want to seem like we’re shilling for them, so the monologue set can’t look like the place where you did the interview. And there’s a blizzard and it’s in two days. And we have a George Clooney pre-tape that we have to do that morning. And there is a travel restriction and you cannot drive on the roads to Delaware. And they all got on a Zoom and then would come back and report on their progress. And it just happened. From Stephen’s standpoint, everything’s fine. There was no drama.
Michnevich Bracco identified five key unsung heroes whose work was essential to keeping ‘Late Show’ on the air:
- Kamal Rountree (Technical Manager)
- Mark Spada (Post Production Supervisor)
- Erik Akerblom (Post Production Supervisor)
- Bjoern Stejskal (Supervising Producer)
- Lou Grieci (Line Producer)
Rehrig: [Michnevich Bracco] is like the Oz behind the curtain. She put so much together. She’s the reason we’re on TV every day.
‘We Took Our Pleasures But Lightly’
By the middle of 2020, it was getting harder to make jokes every night. In the face of social upheaval and political polarization, “Late Show” leaned in to all the emotion in the air. And Colbert had to get comfortable with being himself.
Stephen Colbert: Our self-imposed mandate for the show is that we’re going to talk about the things you are anxious about today. And we’re going to tell you our reaction to our own anxiety. The anxiety of the serious feelings associated with the elevation and expansion of the Black Lives Matter movement after the death of George Floyd, the significant possibility that there was going to be a resistance to the democratic process from a sitting President, which turned out to be absolutely true. Like a well-placed fear. The actual denial and the riots. All of those things kept you from having the most fun you possibly could, but I would say the show was a great relief. I had more fun doing the show than I would have not doing the show. In between we found our fun. We took our pleasures but lightly in between those things.
Licht: With every maturation of the show (Colbert) has leaned more into being authentic. Not everyone looks good when you show them your real self. We have a tremendous advantage in that people like him. The more they get of him, the more they realize who he is, they like him more. There’s some people who put that facade up because you’re not sure people will like the real you. I think we have proven beyond a reasonable doubt that people want more of him not less, and we’ve really leaned in to that.
Tom Purcell: We’re like your friend in the friend group who watches the news and is kind of funny about it.
Stephen Colbert: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Writing jokes is like writing music. You can hear in your head how that would be played perfectly. And then when you go to perform it, unless you bring a certain energy to elevate that, all you can do is miss-hit a note. Because you played it perfectly up here [points to his temple]. And so having no audience increased that pressure even more. Because there’s nothing competing with how you heard it in your head. There’s only you saying it out loud. You’re trying to hit that rhythm you had in your head. Which can’t be done because the guy in your head doesn’t have lips, or the guy in your head didn’t have a bad night’s sleep last night. You did. The reality of you without an audience is always less than what your mind imagined what that joke should get.
‘You Could Feel the Lie Coming’
One silver lining of virtual production was that it gave the show more flexibility to go live on short notice. That’s the call they made on the night of Jan. 6, 2021, when the nation was reeling from the riot in the U.S. Capitol.
Licht: We have an infrastructure that allows for (Colbert’s) raw emotional state to be channeled into the show so that it harnesses that as opposed to having it go off the rails. The writers need a little bit of Stephen articulating where he is, and then he’s able to perform it with this authentic energy that is still in the dome of a comedy show. Even on January 6. The thing I’m most proud of about the January 6 show is that here we are in this pandemic, most of us are working from home. This horrible thing happens, and on the fly we do this show. We suddenly decide it’s live. At one point the network said ‘No commercials’ — no advertisers want to be in the show because it’s so crazy. So we were going to be live for an hour without a break. And then, because everybody was doing their job, (CBS) sales found (advertisers) who wanted to be in the show that night.
Stephen Colbert: You could feel the lie coming before they even thought of it. You could feel the lie coming. ‘Oh it didn’t really happen.’ There is no upper limit in their ability to lie in order to maintain power. (On ‘Late Show,’ he sought to reassure viewers) Hey, just want you to know this thing that you’re feeling today is the side effect of a product you were sold today. You’ve been advertised a feeling today, a feeling of dread, which is the intention. It’s not like the dread you were sold was a side effect. No, the the dread was the intention of it and the side effect is your confusion because you don’t understand how what you have been sold is real, and it’s not. They played a very complex game of psychology on the American people that damn near worked. Which was to continue their power. But thank god enough people said ‘That’s not real’ or even if it is real, I’d like to change it.
‘Constant Discovery, Constant Evolution’
After the show returned to full-blown production at the Ed Sullivan Theater on June 14, the staff has taken time to reflect on what they’ve been through and where the show is headed as it moves into Season 7 in the fall.
Purcell: One of the beauties of doing late night is that it’s constant discovery, constant evolution. You do so many (episodes). Late-night is a constant chronicle of the national mood and what people are going through in a very granular way. We’re reacting to it just as events are carrying us all along.
Licht: When we were ready to open back up, in the back of my mind I was wondering, are people going to want to do this? And then we got 20,000 ticket requests in the first week.
Rehrig: I want us to keep putting out a good product. I want our viewers to keep loving us for the right reasons. We have our own brand of humor and our own brand of funny and I want them to keep liking us for that. If we can beat everyone at the same time, then mazel!
Purcell: I’m interested to see whether our show and our culture can carry over the gratitude for the things we have, having lost them briefly. At work, we’re all super-happy to see each other, we’re all grateful for each other and the work we did to keep the show on the air. I hope that’s a permanent change in understanding what’s important. If after 15 months you haven’t learned anything from it, that’s kind of on you. If I ever complain about another audience in my life — shame on me.