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Comedian and Late Night host Stephen Colbert speaking and gesturing

'Late Show' Host Stephen Colbert Says He's Finally Found His Post-'Report' Voice

Late Show Host Stephen Colbert talks about his upcoming election special, taking over the Late Show from David Letterman, and giving up his Colbert Report persona.




This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is Stephen Colbert. It was just over a year ago that he took over CBS's "The Late Show" after David Letterman retired. Colbert has an election night special coming up, but not on CBS because "The Late Show" will be preempted by election coverage. So he's doing a special on Showtime called "Stephen Colbert's Live Election Night Democracy's Series Finale: Who's Going To Clean Up This Stuff?" It will be on from 11 to midnight.

We're going to talk about why he ended "The Colbert Report" two years ago and decided it was time to drop his persona and what it's been like to create his version of "The Late Show" and discover who he is on stage out of persona. Colbert's been doing comedy about the election just about every night on "The Late Show." Let's start with an excerpt of last night's opening monologue.


STEPHEN COLBERT: And it's been a very good week for Donald Trump. His poll numbers are up. Hillary's email scandal is relevant again, and he just got his second newspaper endorsement. Is it The Journal? Is it The Post? No, it's The Crusader, the political voice of white, Christian America.


COLBERT: Yes, Donald Trump has been endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan newspaper.


COLBERT: We've finally answered the question, what's white and white and white all over?


COLBERT: And I don't know about you...


COLBERT: I don't know about you...


COLBERT: ...But when I first heard this, I was like, what took you so long?


COLBERT: Was the Klan on the fence? I don't know. Maybe Jill Stein.

JON BATISTE: Right. Right.

COLBERT: Maybe Jefferson Davis - not sure who we're going to endorse this time.


GROSS: Stephen Colbert, welcome back to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on your new show - not so new, but it's the first time I've spoken to you (laughter) since you've been...

GROSS: Cool.

GROSS: ...Doing "Late Night."

COLBERT: Thanks for having me back. I'm really happy to talk to you.

GROSS: Well, I'm thrilled. So you've got an election night special coming up, a live special, which is going to be on Showtime instead of CBS, I assume because CBS is going to be doing actual news coverage of the election. So...


GROSS: Your show is being billed as "Democracy's Series Finale." You've promised you will be buck naked since you'll be on Showtime. I'm thinking you'll be playing someone named Buck Naked (ph)?

COLBERT: Someone will be buck naked. You know, people - perhaps people bringing me the latest, you know, senatorial race results will be coming in with just blue cards taped to their groins.

GROSS: Groins have been in the news a lot lately, though. It wouldn't be inappropriate for the election.

COLBERT: No, I will have a pair of tongs...

GROSS: (Laughter).

COLBERT: ...At all times, just in case.

GROSS: Anything you can tell us? Anything else you can tell us about what it will be like?

COLBERT: Well, I mean, it's going to be like my show, in that it's going to be the - the most jokes we can do about the latest thing that has just happened. The reason why we're doing it over at Showtime is because - I don't know why this didn't occur to me.

But a couple of months ago, we were going over our schedule for the fall, and my showrunner, Chris Licht, said, and of course, obviously we've got election night off. And I said, what do you mean we've got election night off? We've been doing all these live shows. We did live convention shows. We're doing live debate shows. Why would we be off on election night? And he goes, because Scott Pelley will be broadcasting. And I went, oh, of course. How dumb of me. And I said, is there anything to be done?

And so he called Showtime, and they were into it. And so that's why we're going over there, but we want to do the show that we've been doing, which is, you know, we're like trick shooters. How fast - how many coins...

GROSS: (Laughter).

COLBERT: ...Of the news that just happened can you shoot out of the sky before they hit the ground? And we'll have a, you know, panel of politicos. We'll have, you know, entertainers. We'll have musical guests. It's going to be the show with more of a - with more of a purely political bend to it because of the subject of the night. And we'll have live results. You know, we'll - you can actually watch to find out what's happening.

GROSS: And will you be able to say things that you can't say on CBS, language-wise?

COLBERT: Oh, and things I can't say on NPR, for damn sure.

GROSS: (Laughter).

COLBERT: Can you say damn sure on NPR?

GROSS: I hope so. (Laughter).

COLBERT: OK. Yeah, yeah. Yes. I'm really looking forward - we might actually just run a clip of all the things that have been bleeped that I've said on CBS so far, and believe me, they're pretty mild. You cannot even use a euphemism for the thing that you're not saying on CBS.

GROSS: How do you feel about that? Is that cramping your style?

COLBERT: I love it. I...


COLBERT: There's nothing like - because, I mean, road races are fun, but steeplechases are even more fun to watch. And having to jump over the stupid rules is just more opportunities for jokes.

GROSS: For "The Colbert Report," you had to follow Fox News really closely 'cause your character was based in part on Bill O'Reilly, and...

COLBERT: Though, I didn't actually watch Bill for most of the series. I got it in my head.

GROSS: Right.

COLBERT: And then I only watched him on basic stories. I - at a certain point, I couldn't actually sip that cup anymore.

GROSS: But you still had to watch Fox in general, didn't you?

COLBERT: Yeah, we were - we raked through it to see what the take on the right was, yeah.

GROSS: Right. So I'm thinking you might be taking a special interest in the Roger Ailes sex scandal that led to his having to leave Fox News.

COLBERT: If by special interest, you mean rolling my eyes back in ecstasy in an overstuffed chair...

GROSS: (Laughter).

COLBERT: If that's what you mean by, special interest, then, yeah. I have a special interest in that.

GROSS: (Laughter).

COLBERT: What I can't believe is that happened during the end of the first week - that happened the end of the first week of the Republican convention, when we had already talked to Jon Stewart about coming on as being a surprise guest that night. And I couldn't believe I got to share that moment with Jon at my desk of - of - of Roger Ailes's comeuppance, or come-down-ance (ph) or however you want to describe that. It was a perfect consummation devoutly to be wished that the two of us should be together as his flaming meteor, you know, hit the surface of the barren planet that will be the rest of his career.

GROSS: Unless he heads up Trump TV?

COLBERT: I don't think you can ever shake off the accusations against him. I don't think he's got enough ticks left in his heart to shake off the tar that has stuck to him from the revelations of his behavior.

GROSS: So now that you're not doing "The Colbert Report" character, are you watching any more or less of Fox News?

COLBERT: I almost never - I never watch Fox News, nor do I ever mention them on air. You'll notice that I have not said the words Fox News. I think I maybe said it once in 250 shows.

GROSS: So why is that?

COLBERT: I don't care. I - I - I am not a media critic. I engaged in media criticism with the old show. But I'm a comedian. And really the reason to watch Fox News is to do media criticism. And I actually think that there is a - I'm interested in talking about a broader scope of things than getting sucked into the whirlpool of what particular emotional gratification is being expressed on Fox News or MSNBC. The pure polarization that is a hit of heroin to those who take pleasure from political strife has no more appeal to me.

I'd rather talk about the story itself and what is happening than what people are saying about the story.

GROSS: OK. So I want to play another clip from "The Late Show." This is from October 28, and this was after Megyn Kelly and Newt Gingrich had the big dust-up on her show 'cause he accused her of being fascinated with sex and not caring about public policy after she had asked about allegations of Donald Trump's sexual predatory behavior. And she responded by saying that she's fascinated by the protection of women. So again, this is about him accusing her of not caring about public policy. And here's what you had to say.


COLBERT: Well, the thing is Megyn "Kelly File" isn't talking about fun-time, bedroom, whoopie-making. She's talking about assault. Oh, wait, unless Newt doesn't know the difference. Maybe no one gave him the talk. Hold on. Let's do this.


COLBERT: Newt, sweetheart...


COLBERT: ...You're growing up so fast.


COLBERT: In fact, you're 73.


COLBERT: Your body's changing. You've...


COLBERT: ...Probably noticed some strange new hair growing on your earlobes.


COLBERT: It's perfectly natural. You're old enough to finally learn about the birds and the bees and the consent.


COLBERT: You see, when a man has special feelings for a woman, he wants to give her a special hug. He asks her a special question - you up?


COLBERT: But grabbing a lady because you're a TV star is not sex. It's assault. And fun fact, assault is a matter of public policy 'cause it's illegal even if you use Tic Tacs.


COLBERT: I hope that clears things up, buddy. I would explain to you what sex is, but then I'd have to picture you doing it.


GROSS: That's Stephen Colbert. That's really, like, hilarious. Can you take us a little bit through the process of coming up with that sketch?

COLBERT: In the morning pitch meeting, someone said, did you hear what Newt did last night? And I said, no, what was it? And they told me the - they told me what he did. And I went, oh my gosh, what an interesting emotional moment for him and for her. And you saw Megyn Kelly in the video. You see Megyn Kelly sort of really throw up her armor and go, all right, well, this is how you're going to behave. It turned from what could have been an interview with ease to one where she was deeply armored and shot a barb at him about - I'll let you deal with your - I'll let you go so you can deal with your anger issues. And it became an emotional moment rather than an informational moment.

And I really - that was very interesting to me. And we want, more than anything else, then to talk about everything that just happened as quickly as we can, to leave no meat on the chicken for the next day, which is different than the way we used to do our show because it used to be that I was always skiing in Jon Stewart's wake. And I knew that he was going to pick the chicken, as we would say, or eat every berry on the bush of that day's news.

And we had a hunter-gatherer relationship. Jon would do all the gathering, which is every nut, every berry that's growing that day, and we would do the hunting. We would talk about a single subject maybe for a week. Or we would think about one idea that we might do three or four days from now or maybe two weeks from now as we developed the idea and how my character might put himself in that news story.

Now it's how fast can you talk about everything that happened in the news or in popular culture in the last 24 hours? And it's much faster than we used to work. It's - you know, the joke I've made is that we went from go-kart to NASCAR, with all the, you know, advertising stickers on the side of our car, too.

GROSS: Do you feel as - just as a person, as opposed to as a performer, do you feel especially invested in this election? And is that affecting how you're dealing with it as a performer?

COLBERT: I mean, this is a very emotional election. I've done this enough to know that it always gets emotional, especially toward the end. But this one has particular emotion because I don't think there's an equivalency of the candidates. I think that you have someone who is - in Hillary Clinton, someone who is - been around for a long time, but actually represents - if I were to be pejorative, represents a - steeped in what you would think of as the common systemic corruption of Washington, D.C., but that her experience obviates that particular sin. To a degree, that seems necessary in a complicated world.

Donald Trump seems like a monstrous aberration of our political history. We have never flirted with strongman before. Not at this level. And so the political stakes seem enormous. And so the emotional investment is unprecedented.

GROSS: So in addition to trying to be funny and entertain your audience, do you feel like you're also trying to make an argument with your comedy that look - look at this election. Look at how important it is. Here's how I feel about the candidates.

COLBERT: I don't think I've been subtle...

GROSS: (Laughter).

COLBERT: ...About how I feel about Donald Trump. So it's less of an argument and more of a look, look at the flaming carcass shambling toward us. And we should probably not touch that thing. You know, look, it's rabid. Don't touch it. But that's not the same thing as making an argument for - against him or for Hillary Clinton because I don't think we've made an argument for Hillary Clinton. I think people's hesitancy about Hillary Clinton is completely reasonable.

We just happen to be in extraordinary circumstances. In fact, I can imagine that Trump might be the only person she could beat because she's not a great candidate. And she's got a lot of flaws and a lot of baggage that she can't shake off, however historic or even prepared for the job she is in this case.

GROSS: Does CBS ever ask you to be even-handed in your comedy? Or is it understood that comedy, particularly satirical comedy, is not about being even-handed?

COLBERT: I have not gotten a shred of editorial guidance from them.

GROSS: Which I'm sure you're very happy about.

COLBERT: Absolutely. It was one of the things I was most nervous about going over to a network, that there would be a thumb on the scale. I mean, the only thumb on the scale is, you know, can you not mention that car company? Could you mention this car company because they don't sponsor us? And - but it's much like it was over on cable because if the car company or the phone company or whatever it is is in the news, they're hands-off. It's actually surprisingly little interference.

GROSS: Glad to hear that.

COLBERT: Yeah, me too.

GROSS: We have to take a short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Stephen Colbert. And he has a special, an election night special, coming up on Tuesday. And it starts at 11 and runs through midnight on Showtime because CBS is actually going to be doing actual news coverage of the election. Stephen Colbert will be supplying the comedy on Showtime. So we're going to take a short break. We will be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Stephen Colbert. And he's going to be doing a special edition of "The Late Show" on election night. Since CBS will be running actual news, he's going to be doing a version of his show election night on Showtime, where he will also be able to use language that he cannot use on his show broadcast on CBS.

So, Stephen, what made you realize it was time to end "The Report?"

COLBERT: I didn't really want to model the behavior of punditry anymore because I thought it was, A, limiting on a certain level, that I wanted to be able to do more than that character. And I also didn't - I guess the word would be I didn't respect my model anymore. And I - and I...

GROSS: Wait, wait, wait. What do you mean by that?

COLBERT: Well, you know, people always said it was Bill, but it's punditry in general, the sense of certainty regardless of the facts that was embodied in the idea of truthiness. That was the thesis statement for the entire show, that how you feel is more important than what the facts are and that the truth that you feel is correct is more important than anything that the facts could support, which is - which we expressed in a very concise way on the show. We embodied it, satirically. Though, it's not really a new idea. And as you can see, it's been amplified in interesting ways since we went off the air, but I didn't - just didn't want to play the game anymore.

That was - that was a single thesis statement we tried to remind ourselves of every day. I would - when in doubt, I would just sort of recite those mantras to myself about what is truthiness? And I'm looking out for you, and because I'm looking out for you, I'm also looking over your shoulder because I've got your back. And I have a special relationship with the audience that is - and it's only us. And we're the only ones who get it. And if you agree with me, I love you. And please love you because I agree with you.

And all those - those - those emotional ideas, I'd have to remind myself every day to stay in character. And I'd remind myself of them right before I went on stage every night because I thought, well, you've come this far, why blow it now?

And toward the end of the show, I started to think that my - my love of that game was diminishing to the point that I might actually blow the entire - I might actually drop the entire China set one day because I just couldn't take playing that character anymore.

GROSS: Like accidentally drop it?

COLBERT: Yeah, I guess so. You know, I began to feel like I was stumbling downhill with an armful of bottles and - and that I couldn't actually keep up the discipline 'cause it took discipline to remind myself every day to - no, be the character. Don't be yourself. And I began to wonder, well, what would it be like to be me?

And - and - and so I decided a couple of years before the show ended that I was going to end the show - about two years. I said, OK, this will be the last round of shows that I'll do. And I remember looking at the - before anybody knew, I remember looking at the calendar and saying, what's our last day in 2014? They'd go, oh, it's the 18. It's Thursday the 18. I said, OK, great. And I circled it on the calendar, and I knew, OK, that's the last day I'm doing it. Last time I'm doing this show.

And - and it was - it was not because I didn't like it anymore. I still liked it, but I just felt like, I'm not sure if I can actually keep this up without hurting someone.

GROSS: Hurting someone?


GROSS: What do you mean?

COLBERT: I don't know. It's a feeling. I thought maybe I would make some big mistake with the character because he says - he would say terrible things, and I got away with some of the terrible things he would say or do because it was all filtered through his mask. But if I didn't maintain the mask, it would just be me being terrible.

And that's - and he would say hateful things or hurtful things. And I thought, well, if I - if I don't play this tightly, if I don't - if I don't - if I don't - if I don't hit the bell just right all the time - not that it was a perfect performance.

But what I mean is if I didn't maintain this discipline - and I felt my discipline slipping - if I didn't maintain that discipline, that I would simply slide into being like the thing that I was mocking.

GROSS: My guest is Stephen Colbert, who now hosts "The Late Show." He'll be preempted next Tuesday for CBS election night coverage. So he's going to do an election night special on Showtime from 11 to midnight.

After we take a short break, we'll talk about making the transition from "The Colbert Report" to "The Late Show" and figuring out who he was on stage after dropping his "Report" persona. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Stephen Colbert. It's been a little over a year since he took over "The Late Show" on CBS. He'll be pre-empted next Tuesday by election night coverage. So he's going to do an election night special on Showtime from 11 to midnight. When we left off, we were talking about why he decided to end his Comedy Central show "The Colbert Report."

At what point did you know that you would be hosting "The Late Show"? Like, you'd made the decision to stop "The Colbert Report" before you knew, right?

COLBERT: It fell out of the sky. It was absolutely no part of my plans when I decided to end "The Colbert Report." That happened literally years later. It was a complete surprise to me. It hadn't been an ambition of mine. And I had just been an enormous fan of Dave. And so I had great respect for what he had built. But it - when they called and said, OK, how about you, I was shocked.

GROSS: So in that period when you knew you were ending "The Colbert Report" and you didn't know what you were going to do next...


GROSS: ...What were you thinking about your future?

COLBERT: Oh, I don't know, go be an actor, I guess.

GROSS: Oh, yeah?

COLBERT: Yeah, because I'm an actor. And that's how I started. And that's what I was doing for 10 years. I was acting.

GROSS: Right. Right. But - so when you were offered "Late Night," did you think, but I really wanted to act? I don't know if I want to be doing this.

COLBERT: Well, yeah. I mean, you have to give that some thought. But I also knew that if someone wants to hire me or if I can get my own production company together or create my own project, you can act any time you want. You'll - this opportunity will never come again. And I love a live audience. And I love the grind of every day. And I love the people I work with. And it gave me all the things that I loved.

And that was not a hard decision once I looked at that I could leave the thing that I didn't want to do anymore and still keep all the aspects of it that gave me deep satisfaction every day.

I mean, this - the release, the privilege it is to do a show about what just happened in the last 24 hours or the last hour or the last half hour, given the speed of the news cycle right now, in front of a live studio audience, which just feels so happy to be there, with people that you love working with who are all pulling on the same rope is a drug.

And as hard as it is, I get that great release at the end of the day to being in front of the audience. And to know that I can continue that with my friends was the greatest draw. And I also couldn't think of anything after "The Colbert Report" that would seem like a promotion other than taking over for Dave. And so I said, what a fool I would be to - not to accept this incredible opportunity because I can act till the day I die if I want to, but I can only do this now.

GROSS: When you started doing "The Late Show" as opposed to "The Colbert Report" and you were able to drop the "Colbert Report" persona, did you know what your authentic voice was going to be? You know, what your voice as, like, the actual Stephen Colbert was going to be? Because you still have to have, like, a bit of a persona as an entertainer onstage.

COLBERT: I don't think so. I knew that it would be a little bit of a public discovery. You know, what's the - it's somebody else's joke, but life is like learning to play the violin in public. You don't know what you're doing until you do it. And I knew that there'd be a learning curve that had to happen in public, on air. I would say that what I didn't anticipate was how much I would overcorrect for not doing the character.

GROSS: What do you mean?

COLBERT: I think - well, because I was not talking about politics. I wasn't doing a monologue on the day's events when we first started. I mean, I would still talk about what was happening, but it wasn't highly focused. It wasn't - it did not have intention. And I wasn't speaking all that honestly because I was attempting to do something different than I had done before. And the overcorrect, I would say, is that not realizing that through the character, I was actually speaking very honestly and you were hearing my voice a lot of the time. You know, there's a...

GROSS: I felt that way as a viewer.

COLBERT: Yeah, there's a confessional aspect to wearing a mask. You know, the same reason why it's easier to confess behind a screen to a priest than face-to-face. And so by - the character was a 10-year confession, perhaps of, you know, indulging ego and appetite through the person of this character. Then you go on stage as yourself and you're responsible for everything you say.

And there's a natural - I think there's a natural inclination to pull your punch because you have to be responsible for what you're saying. You cannot hide behind the mask. And also, that if you talk about politics all the time - well, isn't that what that other guy did? Why would I - or we talk about the news all the time. Well, isn't that what - then how am I changing in any way?

And it took me - oh, gosh, I would say it took me almost half a year to realize that those two aren't mutually exclusive, that you can have a highly opinionated, highly topical show as yourself and not essentially fall back into the basket of "The Colbert Report."

And now I have no qualms about being sharp and satirical and highly opinionated and saying whatever's on my mind as quickly as I can and not worrying about that I'm playing the same game. I know I'm not playing the same game. But it took me a little while to realize that the character was not in danger of re-emerging.

GROSS: Yeah, I was really glad when you added more political satire at the top of the show.

COLBERT: Yeah, me, too. It's much more enjoyable. And the audience enjoys it. And it's more honest, actually, because it's what I consume all day.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Stephen Colbert. And Tuesday night, election night, he's going to do an election special on Showtime live at 11 to midnight. It's basically going to be a version of his "Late Show," but he has to vacate CBS for the evening because they will, of course, be covering the actual news while he satirizes it. So we're going to take a short break and be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Stephen Colbert. And he's going to be doing a late-night special on election night on Showtime because CBS, where he has his regular show, is going to be covering the actual election. He's going to be doing his satirical coverage live of the election from 11:00 to midnight. It's called "Stephen Colbert's Live Election Night Democracy's Series Finale: Who's Going To Clean Up This Stuff?"

COLBERT: Stuff is close enough.

GROSS: Right. I can't say the real word.

COLBERT: And that's why I'm going to Showtime.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK, so I want to play another clip from your show. And this was pretty recently. This was from October 25. And as background, a few weeks after you started hosting "The Late Show," you interviewed Joe Biden. And on your show, you asked him if he was going to run. And he explained that he wasn't going to run for president because when you run, you have to give it 110 percent. And with his son Beau having recently died, he just didn't have it in him to give that. So that's background for this clip. This clip is about finding out that you were mentioned in WikiLeaks. So here we go.


COLBERT: Today, we at "The Late Show" found out we're a WikiLeak. Yep, yeah, I'm happy about it, too. As you know, WikiLeaks has been releasing emails from the Clinton campaign because they're committed to transparency or however you say transparency in Russian.


COLBERT: (Imitating Russian accent) Transpareshnik (ph). Transpareshnik.


COLBERT: Well, Julian Assange just pinched out another Wiki dump, and it included a Clinton campaign email from last year when I had Vice President Joe Biden on my show. Team Clinton was very suspicious that Biden was going to make a major announcement. One Clinton staffer wrote, my prediction, Biden announces his run on Stephen Colbert's show. I don't think he'd take him unless he was making news. Yeah, you got me there. You got me there. Why would I talk to the vice president of the United States unless he was making news? Otherwise, you're just stuck in a boring conversation with Joe Biden.


GROSS: That's Stephen Colbert from October 25 on "The Late Show."

So when I heard that - and I thought it was really funny - I was thinking that if this had happened during "The Colbert Report," your character would have just loved it because the whole world is about him. Like, everything that happens in the world has to be about him. That's the way he interprets it. So, like, hey, even WikiLeaks is about him. How great is that? But doing this as yourself, you have to have a different take on it.

COLBERT: Yeah. Well, I mean, I like when the news is about me.

GROSS: (Laughter).

COLBERT: I mean, that's part of what the confession of the character was.

GROSS: Right.

COLBERT: I mean, that's - I was able to piggyback my ego on that old guy and pretend it wasn't me. You know, but I was waiting - I've been waiting, like, sure, we're going to show up in the WikiLeaks - right? - because we'd had on, you know, Mrs. Clinton, I think, twice already. We'd had Joe Biden on. We had the first lady on. We'd, you know - I mean, we had Tim Kaine on, on some very small level, I know, John Podesta. And I'm like I've got to show up in these.

And, yeah, the old show he would have just been demanding to be in WikiLeaks. He wouldn't have waited until he was in it. He would have said come on, some - these can't be real. They can't be a real leak or else I'd be all through them. I'm a huge player here. Something - something doesn't smell right. And - but when this came up, I actually said, like, look, let's keep our eyes open for if we appear in this because I think at some point we're going to pop up.

And I was absolutely thrilled. I just don't demand it of the news, but I'm still just as happy. You know, I like feeling important. I showed up in - Russian hackers found my name and gave it to Julian Assange and then it became news. What could be better than that?

GROSS: So you're doing comedy now not behind the anchor desk, though sometimes you're doing a monologue behind the anchor desk. But you're often...

COLBERT: Yes, I sit down there. If it requires graphics and if it requires a sustained argument, I do it behind the desk.

GROSS: But sometimes you're doing it standing up. And...

COLBERT: Most of the time.

GROSS: So what have you had to learn to learn in terms of, like, you know, walking out and standing in front of the microphone figuring out what to do with your hands (laughter)?

COLBERT: That was easy. That part was really fast. But to enjoy - enjoy taking my time with it. That's the thing. And seeing the smiles and the people in the front row unlocked the door for me and allowed me to really enjoy it. You've got to sincerely enjoy what you're doing there or else the audience, I think, can sniff it. And it took me a few months to really enjoy standing there.

And as you can see, when the show first started, we did like three-minute opening monologues. Now we do 10 minutes because I don't want it to end. I want to stay there on stage with them.

GROSS: It seems to me one of the hard parts of doing an opening monologue is what to do when the audience is laughing.

COLBERT: What to do when the audience is laughing?

GROSS: Yeah, like...

COLBERT: Oh, my gosh...

GROSS: ...Do you repeat the punch line? Do you just keep your hands in your pockets? Do you...

COLBERT: Hide your erection.


COLBERT: Yeah, what do you do? What do I do while the audience is laughing? That is the hardest part of the job. What will I do while the audience is laughing? It's such a challenge. You know, how was the show last night? It was so hard. Why? The audience laughed so much, I didn't know what to do with myself.

GROSS: No, but really, you've got to do something...

COLBERT: What do you do?

GROSS: You do have to do something.

COLBERT: Levitate, nail your feet to the floor because you'll just fly up into the rafters. What does he do? You lean into it like it's a wind. It's the greatest feeling in the world. What did you do? That's the easiest part of the job. You smile, and you're happy that they're happy. That's it. And then you're like - you know what the biggest challenge is?

GROSS: What?

COLBERT: It's where do you jump back in to get to the next joke?

GROSS: Right, OK.

COLBERT: Where do you - how do you ride that energy to the next joke? How then can I use what was given me to give them a better rhythm, a better joke the next time around? How can I slide down the front face of their wave to give them better energy back? It's like how can I make this a reciprocal relationship? How can I make this good - this moment feel as good for them as it's feeling for me right now? What can I give back to them? And because comedy is about rhythm, it's like where you jump in on their laughter is really maybe the only decision you're making. And if you're really feeling it, it's not a decision at all. So there's nothing to worry about while the audience's is laughing. That's just...

GROSS: So you have to wait for the right amount of decay of laughter before you come back in?

COLBERT: Exactly. And if this wasn't radio I would graph it for you.

GROSS: (Laughter) You probably would (laughter). So you used to come in and make the nightly stage entrance doing a kick dance with your band leader Jon Batiste. It was very manic.


GROSS: And you've taken...


GROSS: ...That down a notch. And you're not doing the kick dance anymore.


GROSS: Can you talk about changing that?

COLBERT: Yeah. When the show first started, I thought, well, it's a giant space. It's a Broadway stage. What kind of energy - what level of energy do I need to fill this space that is then sort of captured by the camera? And - because I used to very much do a show that was for the camera that the audience got to witness. I feel like now I'm doing a show for the room that the cameras witness. And that's...

GROSS: That's a really big difference.

COLBERT: Yeah. And you really feel it when you're doing it. And I - my first choice was, well, err on the side of energy. And then at a certain point I realized, well, that actually doesn't translate over the camera. And the audience is just - I'm - and the audience is just as energetic whether I do that or not. And so I started eliminating things. And I said, what's left? What's left is you walking on the stage and doing jokes. And then - and so it was just erring on the side of giving the audience more, giving more energy, knowing I had enough energy for that room 'cause it's a Broadway stage. It's a big house.

And it's even bigger than when Dave was there because the room had been choked down, I think, a long time, maybe even in Ed Sullivan's days. They had choked the whole room down with huge sound sails and baffles. And you couldn't even tell you were in a theater. It was all so choked down. We've opened it up. It's a restored 1927 theater now. And it's an amazing space to be in. And you feel a great need to fill it.

But what you learn eventually - and this is something I knew sort of intellectually but I'd forgotten instinctually - is that you actually don't need high energy to fill a large space. You need your own sense of presence and focus. You know, you can bend an entire room by bending a paperclip if you've got the focus of the room. And to accept that the audience - you know, that you are their focus, you don't need to do high kicks. You just need to be there, present for them, and then you've filled the entire room.

GROSS: My guest is Stephen Colbert, host of "The Late Show" on CBS. It will be pre-empted election night, so he's going to do an election night special on Showtime at 11 o'clock. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Stephen Colbert. And he's doing an election night special. "The Late Show" is going to have an election night special on Showtime, Tuesday from 11:00 to midnight.

Is it a relief for you to be doing interviews as yourself as opposed to in character, trying to - having to try to figure out what your character's take on that person would be?

COLBERT: They're very different. It's not a relief. I enjoy knowing something about their subject. I'll tell you that. You know, I can have Neil Tyson on and know something about...

GROSS: Right, because your character was always ignorant.

COLBERT: ...Interplanetary exploration.

GROSS: Yeah.

COLBERT: No, my character was a straw man for whatever - for whoever was on. I was a mass of ignorances and for you to knock down, should you choose to. I used to be alarmed that people would not knock them down. Like, someone would come on and they would call into question the ascendancy of whatever particular figure of their religious right. And I would say, well, you know, all the founding fathers were fundamentalist Christians. And then they wouldn't correct me. And I'd go, oh, good lord.

GROSS: (Laughter).

COLBERT: What's going to happen now? Now I've miseducated America again. I won. I don't want to win.

GROSS: (Laughter).

COLBERT: You know, I didn't always want to win. But my character always wanted to win. The biggest difference is that I'm not there to win against my guest. And, you know, I am not - I'm letting them talk for more than seven seconds at a time. Where I was - I was living by the old Joe Scarborough rule on the old show, which is if your guest talks for more than seven seconds at a time, you've lost control of your show. And I don't do that anymore. I'm so happy to hear the stories that they have to tell.

Now, the danger there when I first started the show is that then you bring - you have to bring some opinion to the table, you know? Again, it was like a matter of overcorrection when the show first started. I guess I'll have no punch because everybody was so afraid of - so many people wouldn't come on the old show because the legend of that character, that he was going to stick a knife in your ribs and then slap the handle for the audience's amusement, was not really true. And so I overcorrected when we first started, going, like, I'm not going to have any opinion. I'm just kind of let them talk. Or I'm just going to - I'm going to pull every punch.

And there's a great release. There's a great gift of exhaustion that comes on you from doing a show like this over and over and over again that you actually lose all those second thoughts. And then you're allowed to sort of be yourself with your guests, finally. And again, about six months into the show I went, OK, I don't have any - I don't have any energy left to overthink this. I just have to do what instinctually feels good to me. And every aspect of the show got better and got easier and became more like me because I didn't have time to think about - I didn't have the energy to think about it anymore.

I'll tell you who actually gave me kind of a hint about that is that - one of my dear friends is Steve Higgins, who's Fallon's announcer and sort of sidekick. And I've known him for many years, and he's a lovely guy. And he said, so how's the schedule going? I said, oh, we're going to start doing two on Thursdays. And he goes, oh, thank God. You're going to love it. I said, why? It's going to kill me, right? And he goes, no, that second show you do on Thursday is how you should do the show every week because you'll be too tired to worry about whether you're making the right choice. And he's absolutely right.

GROSS: Oh, that's interesting.

COLBERT: And now that informs everything I do...

GROSS: That's really interesting.

COLBERT: ...Without the tired. I don't have to be tired. But I don't worry about the choices. I just do what I feel - what feels good.

GROSS: I want to ask you a question about Pope Francis.

COLBERT: Frankie.

GROSS: (Laughter).

COLBERT: Papa Francs, yeah.

GROSS: So what are your impressions of him so far, and what impact does that have on you, as a Catholic, to have a new pope or specifically to have Pope Francis? It's not like you're - you know, you're meeting him or talking with him. But he is the head of the church. So, yeah, what effect does it have on you?

COLBERT: I'm a Catholic, unironically. And what I like about Pope Francis is that is - the message, for the most part - much is made of his very inclusive message and there are aspects to his papacy that I'm sure are conservative in ways that his surprised American flock don't pay much attention to. But this is the church that I imagined as a child. And this is the church that I was raised in. The highly politicized Catholic Church of John Paul the II, how it was brought into the fold of the Republican coalition of the Reagan years always upset me because I think the church is larger than any political moment. And I've always enjoyed its century-long view of things.

I like that Francis has put the focus on the poor and humility of saying who am I to judge the love of a gay couple? Those two things alone are very hopeful that the church has a message that will resonate with the coming generations as the world slowly changes its opinion of certain social stories.

GROSS: So one more question - I have taken up a lot of your...

COLBERT: Whatever you want.

GROSS: ...Time this morning.

COLBERT: Whatever you want. No, I really - (laughter).

GROSS: No, no, that's part of my question. That's part of my question.

COLBERT: OK, yeah.

GROSS: We're recording this in the morning. You have a lot of work to do before your show airs. So...

COLBERT: It's 11:21 recording time...


COLBERT: ...Where I am.

GROSS: So what do you have to do to compensate for the fact that you were generous enough to give us this interview?

COLBERT: Breathe deeply and trust my staff, and I am capable of both. And then I'm ready for whatever the fresh wave of stress is because you've got to kind of like the stress, too. I don't know how to attach a positive feeling to stress and pressure, but there is one. There's a bullet-proof feeling that comes over you. And that's - it's really a pleasant one. And you kind of have to like that.

But to do one of these jobs, you've got to kind of learn to love the flaming toboggan ride of it. You've got to like it because everybody else is in the toboggan with you. You're doing it together. That's the joy. Everybody's doing it together. At the end of it when, hey, we survived, pretty good show. Let's do it again tomorrow. And that's - that's it. It's the movement forward because it never stops. You've got to love the downhill hurdle. There's no finish line. You've got to just love missing all those trees that you could've hit today.

GROSS: Stephen, I absolutely love talking with you. I'm so glad you came back to our show. And I'm so glad you're back on TV (laughter).

COLBERT: It is a pleasure talking to you, Terry, because when I found out I'd be talking to you again, I thought, oh, I'm talking to Terry. Maybe the show means something.

GROSS: (Laughter) I love the show. I'm so glad you're doing it.

COLBERT: Thanks.

GROSS: And I look forward to seeing what you're going to do election night. Stephen Colbert hosts CBS's "The Late Show." Our interview was recorded yesterday morning. Next Tuesday, when his show is preempted by election news coverage, Colbert will host a special on Showtime called "Stephen Colbert's Live Election Night Democracy's Series Finale: Who's Going To Clean Up This Stuff?" It will be on from 11 to midnight.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be George Packer, a staff writer for The New Yorker, who's been writing about why many downwardly mobile white voters support Donald Trump, how the Democrats lost some of the working class, how the white working class became an interest group in itself and how the disunity within both political parties helped lead to this presidential contest. I hope you'll join us.


JON BATISTE AND STAY HUMAN: (Singing) Hey, diddle, diddle, the cat and the fiddle, the cow jumped over the moon.

GROSS: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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