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Stephen Colbert On Missing His Live Audience And Making Comedy A Family Business

Stephen Colbert says working without a live audience has been challenging during the pandemic: "There's some vital performance adrenaline spark that's missing."
Scott Kowalchyk
Stephen Colbert says working without a live audience has been challenging during the pandemic: "There's some vital performance adrenaline spark that's missing."

It's a strange thing to host a late show alone without a live audience. But when the pandemic hit last year, the host of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert had to adjust.

Initially Colbert taped his show from home, with his wife and sons as crew — an experience he describes as a kind of 19th century "cottage industry."

"Like, the kids are going to come and help Dad cut the wood every day or something," he jokes. But he adds, it was also "intimate and wonderful and something I would never experience in another way."

The Late Show With Stephen Colbert is back to taping at the Ed Sullivan Theater now, but Colbert isn't working onstage; instead, he's broadcasting from an office that was formerly a storage closet — and he's still without a studio audience.

"It's much harder without an audience. ... There's some vital performance adrenaline spark that's missing," he says. "I'm much, much more likely to mess up and have to retake something, lose the rhythm of a joke, or even just misread the prompter."

Colbert isn't always alone — sometimes his wife, Evie, is in the room. He says if he can get a "genuine happy laugh" from his Evie, he knows he's on the right track.

"It gives me enormous joy when I hear her laugh," he says. "I wanted something intimate with [the audience] and that intimacy and the genuine happy laugh that comes with joking around with Evie is something that I had always thought: If I could do that, I'll make it, because that'll be something special."

Interview Highlights

On the loneliness of producing his show during the pandemic

I got into show business in a way to not be alone. Like a lot of comedians, I'm a bit of a broken toy.

I miss people. I really like the company of people. I miss going to dinner. I'm a hugger. I like hugging people randomly. I feel lonely a lot. I go to the theater to actually produce the show. We rewrite everything from home, everybody's at home, and myself and a very small group of people ... I only see about four or five of them ... others come in at staggered intervals throughout the day, come into this little storage closet where we do the show and I do the show, and I leave as quickly as I can. So we're all together for the shortest possible period of time, maybe a couple hours, and then we all go home and get ready to write the show from home again the next day. And it's lonely. I got into show business in a way to not be alone. Like a lot of comedians, I'm a bit of a broken toy.

On how writing love letters to Evie helped him become a writer

I only was able to write anything after I met Evie ... because the physical act of writing was actually kind of painful to me. What was in my head wouldn't go onto the page. I'd literally write the wrong words that I was thinking, and that would distress me so much that I would just give up. And it wasn't until I met Evie and she lived in New York and I lived in Chicago and we couldn't afford talking on the phone because we were both young actors and we couldn't afford to see each other. So if I wanted to talk to her, I had to write her a letter every day, and so I wrote her every day. ...

"It gives me enormous joy when I hear her laugh," Stephen Colbert says of his wife, Evie.
Scott Kowalchyk / CBS
"It gives me enormous joy when I hear her laugh," Colbert says of his wife, Evie.

This girl was very important to me. I knew I had to take my shot here or else I would kick myself for the rest of my life. So I took the time to be precise and say what I meant and not say anything I didn't. And that opened me to the idea that maybe I could write, but it ended up being all love letters. Then shortly thereafter, I was in a position to be able to write my own material at Second City, and those two things are related, I think: my ability to finally break through this aversion I had to the physical act of writing and my ability to start generating material for myself.

On why he turned to sci-fi and fantasy in his grief when his brothers and father were killed in a plane crash when he was a kid

Anything is possible [in fantasy stories]. Often it's a young man who finds himself with extraordinary powers that he didn't have at the beginning of the story. There's a "chosen one" in fantasy stories. Often there's a missing father figure — if they're not just orphans outright. ... I think being able to make ... an alternate world where there are new rules, or the character who you identify with can make his own rules, maybe even bring back the dead or make things impossible possible ... I think that's related to being in a constant state of grief and anxiety and needing a place to be able to escape to.

On realizing, while hosting a live show, that Donald Trump was going to win the 2016 election

Just because you know something is possible doesn't mean that it's not horrifying when you see it happen. What was going through my mind? "Wow. I can't believe that I'm doing an hour live and there are no commercial breaks to get the camera off of me."

It felt extremely raw. And the one thing that I knew is that, well, you cannot begin to pretend to be anything other than what you are right now, which is absolutely horrified for your country because, in a flash, I saw the next four years and there was almost nothing, almost nothing, in the next four years that felt too extreme to me, because I felt it all and that a sickening wave of reality of what the status of that office would convey upon this awful man, and how someone who craves attention above everything else is now not only going to get it, but rightfully get it. There is no argument that he is the most powerful person. Everything he says will be important. That is now presidential behavior, like the implications, the dignity and the import and the status that lays upon whoever gets into that office is what horrified me. And that suddenly, even though I knew that nothing about him would change, everything about him would now be conveyed the dignity of the great seal.

On what it took to be funny in his monologues during the Trump era

The thing that took work was to remain sensitive to how bizarre this was, because there was an attempt, by the administration, overtly to swamp the emotional boat of everyone so that you would sort of surrender to the new reality, and the job was to not surrender to the new reality. ... The job was to continually remind the audience that the world is crazy, you're not. That you're being fed poison by the people who should be actually helping you. You're being fed lies. You're being gaslit about reality. ... And we're going to talk about how that's a reality and make jokes at the same time, because the other tool of authoritarianism, besides lying, is fear. And make no mistake, this is pure authoritarian handbook.

... [W]hen you laugh, you can't be afraid at the same time. So if you can laugh, you can think.

But ... when you laugh, you can't be afraid at the same time. So if you can laugh, you can think. And so we're going to talk about the attempt to lie to you and we're going to make you laugh about it at the same time, so you're not afraid about the reality they're trying to spin around you with their lies. And then you'll feel better and we can do it again tomorrow. So, but to do any of that, you yourself had to stay shocked. Every so often there was somebody in the staff who would say, one of the writers or the producers [would] say, "Hey, I think this is one of those times when we have to pull the car over; that where we've gotten a little highway hypnotized here," and we would metaphorically pull the car over, get out, walk around, maybe throw up into a ditch and go, "Hey, so, what actually happened today? We're not inured to how terrible this is, right? We have to actually keep our nerves raw to this."

On his 2015 interview with Joe Biden when they connected emotionally about the losses in their lives

After Joe Biden came on, he walked off stage, and I said to my executive producer, Tom Purcell, I said, "I think that nice old man just gave me my show." And what I meant was how [to] actually talk to someone as myself, because what he was sharing with me in that moment was so intimate and speaking so specifically to my own experience that the only way to receive it was really as the real me. And it cracked something open for me when he was talking to me. And as soon as I said, "That nice old man," I went, "Oh, damn it, he's going to see this, and he's not going to like that."

And sure enough, the next day I got a call ... and my assistant goes, "What is he calling you about?" I said, "He's calling me about the nice old man thing." And she goes, "No, he's not going to care." I'm like, "If he's running for president, he's really going to care. That's when I'll know if he's running for president." And so I got the call and ... I put him on speaker and he goes, "Listen, buddy, if you ever call me a 'nice old man' again, I'm going to come down there and personally kick your ass!" And I said, "I promise you I won't, sir. You're clearly not that nice."

Amy Salit and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Fresh Air
Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.