Stephen Colbert has, nearly every weeknight for the past 15 months, led the nation’s most-watched late-night show without many of the trappings viewers have come to expect. He’s had no live audience to respond to his jokes and monologues. His bandleader, Jon Batiste, made musical contributions from a remote location. And his interviews with newsmakers and celebrities, conducted by video-sharing technology, have taken on a hushed, almost intimate quality.
“There were no distractions. There was no energy in the room but my own,” Colbert told Variety of the scaled-back program that has aired during the pandemic. “Part of my journey on ‘The Late Show’ was going from my old character [from Comedy Central’s ‘Colbert Report’] to being myself. I’ve never had to be myself more than over the last 15 months.”
On Monday evening, the host returned to a more traditional environment, doing the program in front of a full live audience at Manhattan’s Ed Sullivan Theater for the first time since March 16, 2020.
CBS called the pandemic-era program with its quieter execution “A Late Show.” Now, as the nation emerges from an isolation imposed by the pandemic and amid a decidedly different news cycle, Colbert must ensure audiences still think of its more familiar version, “The Late Show,” as the genuine article.
“Colbert tapped into his most authentic and honest — even vulnerable — voice during the pandemic. The challenge will be finding ways to continue that with a large studio audience,” said Dannagal Young, associate professor at the University of Delaware who studies the effects of late-night comedy on the news cycle. “For many viewers at home, watching his live audience together inside his theater is going to be their own first almost-foray back into the world.”
Seeing Colbert bound on to the Ed Sullivan stage is likely to be one of several TV highlights in 2021 that mark the nation’s progress in overcoming a global malaise. Attentive viewers have already seen Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb, the co-anchors of NBC’s “Today” morning program, return to their usual seating, no longer socially distanced. And they have witnessed “Saturday Night Live” in front of a packed Studio 8H, rather than just handfuls of people. Now they will see the full Colbert, with all the trimmings.
“I think it will be very emotional. That’s my bet,” Colbert said. “Haven’t we missed each other? What do we most want to be? Not alone.”
Fans who lined up Monday afternoon outside the Ed Sullivan Theater to see Colbert’s first post-pandemic show were filled with heavy sentiment.
“I’m surprised he’s been able to carry on [the show] like he has. But he got the job done,” said Bruce Franklin, who won an online lottery to attend Monday’s broadcast. “Being in there on the first night back is going be great. I wouldn’t want to miss it. There’s going to be a lot of pent-up good energy waiting to get out there.”
Another attendee said taking part in Monday’s program was one of her first concrete steps toward post-pandemic life. “It means a lot to be here. This is the first time that I’m going to be in a big audience in over a year,” said Michelle Farah. “I’m already feeling emotional. It hit me when I was standing in line.”
Some of Colbert’s rivals and contemporaries — NBC’s Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers, CBS’ James Corden and HBO’s Bill Maher, among them — have already brought their programs back to their familiar studio stages, often with individuals scattered across the seats. But Colbert and his team wanted to wait until they could put on the show with which viewers were most familiar.
“We could have, you know, done a staggered return, starting, I think, probably in March. But my rule was I wasn’t going to go back until I could just go back,” said Colbert. The size of the Ed Sullivan Theater – with two tiers of seating, it is significantly larger than many of the homes of other late-night shows – means having a smattering of attendees would have limited effect. “We wanted the enjoyment of seeing an ending. I don’t want to dribble this out,” Colbert said.
Now he has other things to navigate. Colbert’s program has thrived over the last four years with a heavy emphasis on the news of the day, and the host’s broadsides against former President Trump. There is some thought that the nation has entered a new frame of mind and is eager for a lighter tone. And while “Late Show” has maintained its dominance among total viewers, rival shows from Fallon and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel have mustered new strength among younger audiences in recent weeks, particularly the crowd between 18 and 49 that is most attractive to advertisers.
Viewers are likely to continue to expect a robust political discussion. “In Washington, the political divisions are as intense as ever, and so it seems that there would be a ready audience for a continuing focus on political humor in late night,” said Stephen Farnsworth, co-author of the 2019 book “Late Night With Trump: Political Humor and the American Presidency” and director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington. “The environment may not look all that different post-pandemic.”
No matter the era, Colbert says he’s doing the same thing he has always done: talking to Americans about what interests them the most. “It’s all about what’s leading the conversation every day. I don’t make those decisions. We watch the news like everybody else.”
He will miss some elements of the show he’s done for the past year and a quarter. After all, without an audience, Colbert quips, “I could always imagine every joke was working.” He has spent most of his “Late Show” time either in a room with his sons and wife helping him produce segments delivered from a home in South Carolina, or in a small studio at his New York headquarters with Chris Licht, the “Late Show” executive producer and showrunner, longtime stage manager Mark McKenna, and, on occasion, his spouse, Evie.
“There are aspects of the show that we had to do during COVID that I’m going to miss a bit. I’d like to find a way to keep them. It felt very intimate, and I certainly was more casual and relaxed on this new show,” Colbert recalls. “The conversations with guests really felt like me sitting down with a friend or over dinner with a new acquaintance. I’d kind of like to keep that. I’d like to find some way to keep the gentle and casual nature. I do not know if you can in front of an audience. The audience changes how everybody behaves – you know, the observation changes the observed,” he notes, referring to the principle set by physicist Werner Heisenberg.
Colbert realizes he may still have to manage expectations. He’s open, for example, to the idea of guests using video-streaming to appear on the show, though he’d prefer everyone just come to the theater for a live visit. “There is no hard and fast rule. Everybody is adjusting,” he said. “Everyone has the right to have their own feelings about this.”
No matter the late-night logistics, Colbert is clearly relishing the chance to get back to normal. “I’ve been back in the theater and it feels strangely easy to be back in there, you know,” he said. “I’m hopeful it’s going to be like riding a bike.”
Brent Lang contributed to this report.