Stephen Colbert is featured on the cover of the 13 April, 2017 edition of The Hollywood Reporter Magazine. The accompanying article, by Marisa Guthrie, “dishes on his angst and anger over Trump, his Christmas gift to Letterman, Jon Stewart and why the election felt “like somebody dying.” In addition, Colbert is among the “35 Most Powerful People in New York Media“, along with fellow talk show hosts Samantha Bee, Andy Cohen, Jimmy Fallon, John Oliver, Trevor Noah and Seth Meyers.
Highlights from the article:
In February 2016, several days after a huge post-Super Bowl audience watched an awkward and rambling Late Show, CBS chief Leslie Moonves invited Colbert to dinner at the 21 Club. The host was ushered into a private room where Moonves and Glenn Geller, the network’s entertainment chief, were waiting for him at a small, round table. “It looked like I was going to be assassinated,” recalls Colbert. “I said, ‘This really feels like a scene from Goodfellas. There’s no plastic on the floor, is there?’ ”
Moonves came prepared with specific notes, and one that still stands out for Colbert was a critique that a bit with Will Ferrell was too long. “He goes, ‘Two-thirds would’ve been enough.’ And I said, ‘You’re two-thirds of a genius.’ ” Moonves also insisted that Colbert hire a showrunner to help manage the enormous workload of a five-day-a-week broadcast program, and a few weeks later, Chris Licht, then executive producer of CBS This Morning, was brought in.
Licht’s stabilizing influence was felt by the staff immediately, but it wasn’t until the conventions that the audience started to perceive it. “The live shows forced all of us, every part of this operation, to start firing on all cylinders because there’s no room for error, and they gave the show a certain sense of urgency,” says Licht, who encouraged Colbert to be his genuine self onstage.
So how do you feel?
I feel great. The last time you were here, we had just put our foot on the accelerator. Chris had been here for a few months, we’d kind of defined everybody’s lanes, gotten our ducks in a row, for want of a dirtier metaphor. And that changed everything. We got ambitious. It did the trick for us. We just said OK, we won’t stop. We will just maintain that level of urgency and that pace. That prepared us for when the unthinkable happened.
I could see it on your face as you were sitting there and it began to dawn on you — on all of us — that Trump was going to win.
We had a framework for four different shows that night: Hillary wins, and we know it; looks like Hillary’s going to win, but we don’t know it; Trump wins, possibly, but it’ll be a long time before we know because the path is so narrow and Alaska is going to have to come in and who knows. Then the fourth one is that Trump wins, and we know it. We just said: “Well, don’t even write that fourth one. Because I’m not saying it can’t happen, but let’s just say if it does happen, I’m going to be speaking to an audience that are like villagers who’ve been dragged into the soccer stadium in Chile to watch people be executed.” It’s going to be the darkest room you could possibly [imagine]. And I said (knocks on his desk), “Knock on wood we won’t have to do that.” I said, “Look, man, we’re really going to be in trouble if he wins, because we have no plan, and then we will be forced to just be raw. We’ll find out who the f— we are.”
We all found out who the f— we were that night.
Exactly! The election felt a little bit like somebody dying because you suddenly have an unreal feeling. It’s unreal and yet absolutely as real as possible at the same time. You feel very raw and very base, very awake and dreaming at the same time. We’re about 20 minutes into the show — we did an [80-minute] show — and there’s an hour more with no material, and I’m just talking to people who are catnip to trolls because they’re seeing us publicly upset. We had no commercial breaks. I’m like, “I’ll just start talking and see what happens.” And Chris and I were like, “OK, so that’s the show now. The show is me absolutely not hiding at all how I feel about this and just raw.” That was what that night was for us. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. (Laughs.) Hardest f—ing thing I ever did.
Now Trump is in the White House, and you’re beating Jimmy Fallon. What did you do the first time you beat The Tonight Show?
We bought pizza for the staff. And we’ve bought pizza every week. How about that? And that’s great, but we’ve [always] got another week of shows to do. Honest to God, it’s like, “Hey! Pizza! But remember: Maybe next week, no pizza. But it doesn’t mean we’re not doing great.”
Do you owe Donald Trump a thank-you note?
(Long pause.) No. I would trade good ratings for a better president. How about that? The interesting thing is that when we were prepping all that time, we weren’t waiting for Donald Trump. We were waiting for something that everybody cared about. Do you know what I mean? Donald Trump is epoch-making; he changes everything. And so we were ready for something that galvanized people’s attention and changed their priorities. The thank-you note is to my staff for being ready — that’s the thank-you note. Because if it’s not Donald Trump, it’s something else. There will be something else that we care about, hopefully happy, possibly tragic. But we’re ready to talk about what just happened, whenever it happens now. And that’s what we’ve learned. And so my thank-you note is not to Donald Trump. He can go with God.
And you’re making comedy out of it.
Oh God, yeah, sure! That’s what I want to do! That’s the joy. What a privilege to be on TV right now. I feel right now the way I did the night that Al Gore finally conceded in 2000. I did a couple of desk pieces [on The Daily Show election night special] with Jon, and after we finished, I turned to Jon and said, “I think this is the best job in America.” And that’s how I feel again: I think I’ve got the best job in America.
You’ve lived here for 20 years. What does New York mean to you?
My mom and dad grew up here. My mom worked at Tiffany. This is in the 1940s; they were born in 1920. Mom would be 97 this year if she were still alive. To me this city is constantly running into locations where stories of their lives happened. Like, “Mom I’m outside the Chock full o’Nuts where you and Dad would meet after going to mass at St. Pat’s.” Or going into Tiffany and saying, “Can I go back into that back office there? My mom worked in there. I just want to stand there for a minute.” They’d see Lester Lanin or Benny Goodman at the Starlight Room of the [Waldorf] Astoria. And then they’d go to mass and then they’d go home on the 5 a.m. train. I’ve lived all over this city; I’ve lived at the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in Chelsea. They would rent rooms, if they had rooms left over, to people who worked in nonprofits, essentially. And when I was a young actor I was definitely a nonprofit. That was my first apartment in New York. And then I lived on the Upper East Side. I lived up on Riverside [Avenue]. I’ve slept on a million couches in the city. I love it. When I first started dating my wife, she lived here and I lived in Chicago. Chicago is a great city. I never imagined I wanted anything more until I came to New York.