As he took the stage at Carnegie Hall as part of the New York Comedy Festival’s “Behind the Laughter” panel Thursday night, Stephen Colbert introduced himself and asked one of his many writers and producers seated in a semicircle of stools, “What’s behind the laughter?”
“Tears,” head writer Opus Moreschi deadpanned in response.
“Let me tell you a little bit about me,” Colbert added. “I’m a Taurus, I like long walks on the beach and being the number one show.” The crowd of adoring fans roared in approval.
The night was a victory lap of sorts for Colbert and his team, who took over The Late Show from David Letterman just over four years ago and—after an admittedly rocky start—have risen in the ranks to dominate the late-night TV ratings, thanks in no small part to the barrage of political news from President Donald Trump.
Insisting that his show is not itself “news,” Colbert said his goal was to give his opinions about the things that have been driving his audience “crazy” all day and “let you know that you’re not insane, the world is insane—no matter how much the orange guy in the White House is trying to convince you that what you’re seeing isn’t really happening.”
Also on hand was Chris Licht, the veteran news producer who is credited with helping to revamp the show about eight months into its run by urging Colbert to stop emulating traditional late-night host monologues and instead provide his audience with a nightly, joke-filled narrative about the outrages of an administration out of control.
When it came time for Licht to introduce himself, he noted that before joining Colbert he helped launch Morning Joe on MSNBC and then CBS This Morning. “And then I was asked-slash-told to come over here,” he joked. The host proceeded to rib his showrunner for leaving a previous job producing Joe Scarborough’s less well-regarded show Scarborough Country off his résumé.
“What happens in Scarborough Country stays in Scarborough Country,” executive producer Tom Purcell joked. Colbert then explained his beef with that show, which used to air entire segments of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, after which Scarborough and his guests would argue whether Colbert and Jon Stewart were ruining America.
The specter of The Colbert Report—the beloved show Colbert hosted in character as a right-wing pundit for nine years on Comedy Central—has always hung over The Late Show as he struggled to figure out what his “actual” persona as “the real” Stephen Colbert should be. He even tried to bring back a version of the character—defying legal threats from Viacom—early on in his CBS run, but he wasn’t quite able to recapture the original magic.
The “old show,” as Colbert likes to call it, only came up a handful of times during the discussion, most notably toward the end of a chaotic question-and-answer session near the end of the event in which audience members raised their hands and shouted questions at the stage.
Colbert revealed his dream guest (the pope) and the guest who surprised him the most (Mayor Pete Buttigieg, whom he knew almost nothing about when he interviewed him in February but seriously impressed him). He said he’s not scared of Trump’s Twitter army (“They’re all cowards”) and said he thinks Trump calls him “the guy from CBS” because Colbert gloated so much on air the one time the president actually name-dropped him on Twitter.
Then, Colbert fielded a question from someone who wanted to know the biggest differences between the Comedy Central and CBS shows.
“Our metaphor was Jon is going straight down the highway with the joke, and we’re driving backwards down the highway afraid we might jackknife at any moment.”
— Stephen Colbert
He explained that making The Late Show feels more similar to the “straightforward” process Jon Stewart used on The Daily Show than the “deconstructed” approach Colbert took on The Colbert Report. “Our metaphor was Jon is going straight down the highway with the joke,” he said, “and we’re driving backwards down the highway afraid we might jackknife at any moment.”
Tom Purcell, who, like the majority of writers and producers on the stage also worked at The Colbert Report, said that in just the past five years, the news cycle has started to move so quickly that there is not enough time to do that type of drawn-out, satirical comedy without the jokes getting old.
Jay Katsir, another head writer who worked on The Colbert Report (and famously played “Jay the Intern”), said it’s actually “much harder” to write for the “kind and decent” person that is the real Colbert than the “terrible, horrible person” that was his character.
Now, when they are writing the nightly monologue, Colbert said they try to stop and ask themselves, “How do we actually feel?”
“Because there are successful jokes and then there are jokes that support your actual, real, emotional state,” he continued. Colbert said he believes the show truly “transformed” after Trump was elected in November 2016. During their live Election Night special, when he found out the results in real time with the rest of the country, he had no choice but to reveal his true feelings to viewers.
Ultimately, Colbert admitted that he could never portray his Colbert Report character in a post-Trump world. “I have no interest in doing that,” he said. “I couldn’t do it.” Especially after Trump has used lines his character delivered satirically.
For the final question of the night, a woman in the balcony asked if the whiskey Colbert drinks on camera from time to time is real. “The rule that I’ve always had for my property department,” he answered, “on the last show and this show is, it’s always real whiskey.”
“That’s one more level of emotional honesty I want to share with the audience,” he added with a smile.
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