Will the real Stephen Colbert please stand up? Or rather, sit down? Tonight at 11:35/10:35c, the chair that David Letterman vacated after 33 years and more than 6,000 broadcasts will pass to the comedian known for playing a fictionalized caricature version of himself on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.
Spending the better part of the past two decades as a “poorly informed, high-status idiot” was fun, but he’s looking forward to showing audiences the real Colbert on The Late Show, which will kick off with premiere guests George Clooney, Jeb Bush and musician Jon Batiste. Scarlett Johansson, Toby Keith, Joe Biden and Stephen King are in the first week’s lineup, followed by Emily Blunt, Jake Gyllenhaal, Kevin Spacey, Naomi Watts, Willie Nelson and Lupita Nyong’o in Week 2.
As he takes the wheel, Colbert told us about the big changes for himself and the show, meeting with Dave, and the presidential candidate he can’t wait to mock.
“I want to do jokes on Donald Trump so badly, and I have no venue. So, right now, I’m just dry‑Trumping.”
Are you excited to unveil the real Stephen Colbert?
He’s been there the whole time. I’ve been wearing that mask lighter and lighter as the years go on. One of the reasons why I most wanted to drop the character is that I felt I had done everything I could with him, or everything I could do with that show. And so now I feel actually more freed up. I don’t have to hold back at all. I had to put everything through an occipital CPU to live‑render what my character would think about what the person just said, but still have my intention behind it. Now I can just talk.
Do you think anyone will be confused?
I don’t think anybody would have watched the old show if they didn’t know who I was, because that guy was a tool, and we did our best from the very beginning to peek around the mask. With the character I had the excuse that I didn’t mean it, but I will tell you I meant a lot of it. I even agreed with my character sometimes. My hope is that when you see me on the new show, you’ll go, “Oh, wow. A lot of that was him the whole time.” But I won’t know how much until I go do it, honest to God. It’s an act of discovery for me, too. All I know is it’s the same creative team. So I’m just as excited about the jokes.
Will you have a traditional monologue?
I don’t think anything I’ve done on my last show or any show is necessarily traditional. We’ll try to put them together in a new way. I’ve got 202 shows a year. We’re going to find what’s right for me. I don’t feel like I have to come out of the gate knowing everything. I’d like to have enough humility to find it as I go.
What about other elements, like guest interaction?
I’m a comedian, but I got into comedy through improvisation. I didn’t start off in standup. I started off in Second City. I have to say that my favorite thing on the old show became doing the interviews. The nice thing about having done it as a character is that I learned as a performer at all times to be passionately attached to what you’re talking about. I love the interviews. I love desk pieces. We’ll continue to do that. It’s just a matter of finding the time to do it and finding the right joke.
I’m thrilled to have George Clooney and Jon Batiste on. But sometimes the people you don’t expect to impress you who can be your best guests. I love artists, whether they’re actors or musicians. I want to have politicians of all stripes on the show. I like intellectuals, writers, people in sports. But if somebody is not famous and they’ve got something to say and they can present themselves on camera, I think that would be a perfect guest to have. I’m just hoping that certain people stay in the race until we air. I want to do jokes on Donald Trump so badly, and I have no venue. So, right now, I’m just dry‑Trumping. Every night I light a candle and pray that he stays healthy until I get on the air, and that no one puts that candle anywhere near his hair.
Do you think he could win the election?
He could. There have been some great presidents. There have been some bad presidents. And having a giant swing instead of balls isn’t the worst thing in the world.
How will your set physically change?
The Ed Sullivan Theater has been completely gutted, and you’ll probably recognize the stonework on the proscenium that used to be behind Dave on the left, but it’s been taken back to its 1927 beautiful state. We’re building the set within the context of a Broadway theater, which you didn’t have before. The technology has advanced enough since 1993 that we don’t actually need giant sound sails and sound baffles. Before, you couldn’t tell that it was a theater, but now you can. It’s going to be a very intimate space now.
You met with Dave before he left. What did you talk about?
We spent about an hour and a half together, had a couple bottles of water. I asked him questions. We talked about how he approached every day of production and what the relationship with the audience was. “Where do you put the producers? The desk?” All these various decisions. It was great. I had a chance to tell him how grateful I was for his example, for what he did for comedians of my generation, because I never thought I would have the honor to take over the show that he created. I was able to thank him for a few bits that I think I just plain stole from him. I said to him, “Anytime I got a letter from a lawyer saying, ‘please don’t read this on the air,’ and then I would read it, I should have just put a quarter in Dave’s jar” because his not bowing to authority and not thinking that anybody is too good to make fun of, including himself, is a tremendous gift to a younger generation of comedians.
Dave used to get down to the theater in an old brass handled, manual freight elevator, which he asked them not to change back in ’93, when they renovated the theater. And I said the same, “Please don’t change that.” So after we talked for an hour and a half, I said, “Just one last thing, would you show me how to run the elevator?” And he showed me how to run it and how to open the door so the elevator would be right there. And then he said, “There. Now, it’s waiting for you.” It was really lovely. He couldn’t have been more gracious. He left me with the keys, you might say.
Can you get him to come on the show?
I think that would be a lot of fun. It would be a real honor.
The late night competition is stiff, and the other hosts are already established. Does that concern you?
I didn’t play a lot of sports when I was younger, so maybe I missed the competitive gene. I got picked last for dodgeball. Competition is not that fun to me. We are competing with ourselves to have fun on the show. We work hard. We put a lot of sweat into it, but we have a lot of fun with each other all day long, and then I try to show that to the audience. I hope everybody does the same and has fantastic ratings. I don’t really care.
When did you know you were funny??
I didn’t know that I was funny, but I was from a big family—I’m one of 11 kids. I’m the youngest. I’m the baby of the family, so I always had an audience. I wanted to make them laugh. And also, it stopped people from beating me up in high school. But my wife always says, “You’re so quiet when your brothers and sisters are around. They’re so funny!”
What does your family think of your new role?
What’s nice is that my kids are old enough now that I can let them watch the show. I didn’t want to let them watch the last thing. But now, they watch Game of Thrones, so how can I scandalize them?
Are you nervous about the launch?
If you are not a little nervous, you are probably not trying hard enough. But at this point I’m just really anxious to get on the air. I’m looking forward to being able to talk to guests without regard to having to translate it through an idiot’s mouth. I don’t know where it’s going. I won’t know until I’m doing it. I have my own hopes for the kind of show that I want to do, but it’s hard to know what that is until you do it. I’ll have to feel that as we go.
Photo courtesy of CBS