In my last taping reporT, I was leaving The Colbert Report studio for the last time. It felt like a wake, like a goodbye, like an ending. On September 3, 2015, I attended the last test show before The Late Show’s premiere, and of course, it was quite the opposite. I have read and remembered a lot that has been written about Stephen in nascent stages of his career and of course the launch of The Colbert Report, but this was my first opportunity to actually witness the beginning of a new Colbert project. It was not easy for me to make it to New York (again), but that I did to merely be present for what proved to be a very joyful time.
After consuming every little media morsel detailing the progress of Ed Sullivan Theatre’s renovation over the past several months, it was surprising to run down 56th street in a harried attempt to get in line early and then see the new Colbert marquee in all its glory. It was truly breathtaking to take in after all this anticipation. Also amazing was seeing Stephen’s face basically plastered on every taxi, bus stop placard, and reflective surface. At certain points the advertisements were reflecting on other advertisements themselves, creating odd Colbert-infused prisms everywhere. Just when you thought maybe you’d seen enough of Stephen, a bus would pass by with a ginormous advert with him sprawled across it in spectacular fashion.
For a fan like me, it was, in a word, wonderful. Wonderful to see Stephen properly celebrated and promoted in a way that will certainly bring more people into appreciating and knowing just how great his work truly is.
I got into line at about noon, behind two young ladies and older gentleman who seemed like he was just getting into Colbert. Usually, I like to ask people waiting about how they know Stephen and how they are fans, and responses are typically hard to predict and all over the map. I was third in line. Seconds after I arrived, what felt like 485 people lined up behind me – okay, I am exaggerating – but people kept passing us and asking what were we waiting for, did we have tickets, how do we get tickets, etc. I tried to hide behind the cute young girls so I wouldn’t have to greet every passers-by. At some point, CBS audience staff in snazzy white and black uniforms arrived (the head ticket lady gasped upon seeing the line forming), and begin to separate the stand by hopefuls from the ticket holders. I would say the audience coordination at the time of this report was more like organized chaos. [Note: I suspect that after the show launch, the line system may be better now.]
When the audience staff arrived there were a ton of people milling about the front of the theater. Unlike The Colbert Report, where the audience could be tucked along the side of the building, this space is a lot more challenging — it’s important at Ed Sullivan to have some kind of organization, as you are in the middle of an incredibly busy sidewalk. You definitely felt like you have to be more open about your Colbert-holism if your scarfing down sandwiches while being passed by hundreds of pedestrians, and pretending not to care. There are stores and restaurants and Time Square and Broadway and just … New York happening. Also, it was blazing hot, so there was also a need to keep people out of the sun as much as possible to prevent heat-related issues.
Once the audience folks started working, things got better, and once they started taking our names and checking IDs, even more so. My friend and I received numbers 4 and 5, and were mercifully told we could leave for about an hour (3:30 pm.) It gave us some to hydrate, eliminate, fix ourselves up so we didn’t look like sweaty messes, as best as possible.
Once we went through security, my friend and I were standing basically right in front of the closed double doors to the inner sanctum of the theatre. I could see red seats through the slit in the door. You have no idea how excited I was to be able to get in there and have a look! It was like Christmas morning.
Finally, several hours after we first arrived to theater, the doors were open. It was so great to step in and see with my own eyes what we have all heard about these past few months. Rows of deep red upholstered seats. Stained glass windows. A vaulted dome with a carefully crafted projection of more stained glass colors, the CBS logo, Stephen’s face, and the name of the show delicately lettered.
We were seated in the second row. I could see the wax gleaming off the floor of the stage. The beautiful Late Show desk, complete with light up logo. Blue and white lights every where, lining the staircases, outlining and headlining. Stage right had an elegant two-level bookcase design. Stage left was all about the band, with a secret door in the center of the wall and an open area above – which clearly was designed to be for jamming band members (and/or audience members? Fingers crossed on that one.) It was interesting that the set incorporated so many design elements, the traditional, sort of English-study design of the book shelves, the modern, bright lighting, the stained glass, the exposed brick and gritty elements of the band area. Harmonious and eclectic, it seemed like a larger, more upgraded version of the old Report set, and, in a word, very Stephen.
The audience was just buzzing with excitement. Soon, familiar warm up comic Paul Mercurio was on the stage. He led pretty much the same warm up he did on The Colbert Report, even prompting us to chant “Stephen, Stephen,” which for an amped crowd is never hard to do. He then proceeded to select various audience members, sometimes bring them on stage for some good natured ribbing. In the past I was not a fan of Paul’s abrasive style, but in the larger space his approach of singling out audience members really seemed to work.
What really was different about the show more than anything else, in my view, was the band. After the warm up, Jon Batiste and the Stay Human + guys (and one gal) came out in a line. They were immediately jamming. After seeing much press coverage on Jon it was great just to be there and see him finally embracing his new, new, new role as band leader. Once the band started playing, Stephen’s voice came over the microphone and he bounded in! Looking just the same as always, but this time with an even bigger grin than ever. The crowd was shrieking! Ahhh! It’s Stephen!!! It was like your favorite professor coming back after a long sabbatical, but in a really nice suit. The band settled into their spot and he started taking questions. He even said something like, “does anyone have any questions to humanize me before the show?” Except this time he didn’t say, “before I say all those awful things …” Sorry, Mr. Former Character.
(May I just say that I am glad he is still taking questions? Especially since the Mainstream Audience probably still doesn’t know he doesn’t pronounce the “T” in Colbert, there can never be too little information.)
Here were the questions from the audience Q &A:
I won’t go into the elements of the show too much, as they may be shown in the coming days and/or weeks. The Oreo bit shown on premiere night was featured at our testing taping, however, and it killed on both occasions. I can certainly say again how awesome the band is, and what a huge impact they bring to the show. Jon Batiste and Stay Human were all over the theatre and stage, playing through all the breaks, performing crowd-pleasing songs such as “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” Batiste would request the audience to join in, and they certainly did. They played all genres of music, and at one point Batiste was on top of the piano, jamming on his melodica (or “face piano,” as producer Barry Julien called it.) To hear a Colbert audience united in song while Stephen and his production team were conferring at his desk was surreal! The band almost, I say almost, stole the show from Stephen, and that’s really hard to do, especially in a room stocked with what I presume to be Colbert devotees.
At the end of the show the band lined up once again, this time with Stephen joining them. He also jumped into jamming out, playing the cow bell. (During one of the breaks, he was tapping on his aluminum water bottle, in similar fashion.) Music always seems to energize him, so for that reason alone, the band is earning their keep, in my view.
I like to think that deep down, Stephen is not all that different from the band mates. The band is young, vivacious, with a wild energy. They are excellent musicians, with hipster fashion sense and a strong desire to connect with the audience. The only distinction is that Stephen looks like a traditional talk show host, but nothing about what I saw indicated to me that this new Late Show would be conventional in any way.
Usually, I’m kind of sad to leave a taping. In this case, I was happy bounding out. Frankly, I was relieved. Stephen is demonstrating that in his new environment, he is not only going to survive, but going to thrive, and all the new elements of the show coming together are going to make it happen.