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

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Next week, for the first time in over a year, Stephen Colbert will be taping "The Late Show" in front of a live audience again. We thought we'd listen back to Terry's conversation with him in April about producing the show from home. Here's how she introduced their interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: One of the things that's kept me sane this past year is ending nearly every weekday by watching "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert." The most troubling things related to COVID and politics are typically what he focuses on in his monologues. Not only are they hilarious, but he nails just what makes the day's news disturbing or absurd. Those monologues are well researched, too. It's one of the ways I keep up with the news. I've been a fan of Colbert since he was a correspondent on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," where, among other things, he did a recurring segment called This Week In God in which he typically satirized the news related to religious extremism. He left "The Daily Show" to do his own show, "The Colbert Report," in which he satirized the news in persona as a right-wing blowhard TV cable news host, modeled in part on Bill O'Reilly.

He's been hosting "The Late Show" since September 2015, just a few months after Trump announced he was running for office. Colbert has joined us several times on FRESH AIR. The last time was the week before Trump won the election back in 2016. So you work so hard. You keep such crazy hours. And I always wondered, like, how do you find time to spend with your wife and children? But for several months, you were spending all your time at home, where your wife and two of your sons were. And your family became part of the show. And I want to play an example of that. And this is from last Mother's Day.

One of the bits that you do for certain holidays is that it's first draft. Like, you read a kind of corny greeting card for the holiday, and then you read a really funny version of what the first draft might have sounded like, which is always kind of nasty (laughter) and more honest. So you're asking - you know, you're at home, and you're asking for an assistant to help you read the first draft - to hand you the cards. And here's how that bit went.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT")

STEPHEN COLBERT: As always, when doing the first drafts for Mother's Day, I need a mom volunteer from the audience to come up and help me out. Oh, let's see. Yes, you, miss. Could you come join me up here?

EVELYN MCGEE-COLBERT: Yes.

COLBERT: Thank you very much.

MCGEE-COLBERT: OK. Oh, God.

COLBERT: There you go. Watch the tangle there. This is my wife, Evie (ph). Say hello.

MCGEE-COLBERT: Hello.

COLBERT: Hello. Hi. Now, happy Mother's Day...

MCGEE-COLBERT: Thanks.

COLBERT: ...First of all. Thank you. Normally, we would take you out for a Mother's Day brunch or something like that.

MCGEE-COLBERT: Not really. We never do that.

COLBERT: We've never done that. OK. I don't know why I said that. OK. What do we normally do?

MCGEE-COLBERT: Coffee in bed. That's all I ask for.

COLBERT: Coffee - breakfast in bed. Coffee, breakfast in bed. Yeah, exactly. For many years, I made you scones.

MCGEE-COLBERT: You did - and granola and fruit.

COLBERT: Exactly. Exactly. The girls and - the girls.

MCGEE-COLBERT: The girl - we have one girl, two boys.

COLBERT: The kids would bring you breakfast in bed. Yeah.

MCGEE-COLBERT: You're nervous.

COLBERT: I am a little nervous to have you on here. I'm a little nervous to have you on here. I want this to be a good experience for you.

MCGEE-COLBERT: I'll come back.

COLBERT: You'll come back? OK. Good. OK.

MCGEE-COLBERT: I live here.

COLBERT: Have you seen first drafts before...

GROSS: I thought that was so delightful. Evie's funny. Did she ever do comedy?

COLBERT: She was an actress. She was an actress. I mean, she wasn't a comedian. Like, that wasn't her specific calling. But she was an actress.

GROSS: So how do it change your family life to work at home and to work with your family?

COLBERT: Well, it's been great. It's been one of the few positive aspects of this whole thing. And I think this is a common experience for a lot of people. As hard as the COVID restrictions have been and the anxiety and the shock about how much it's spread in the United States, we've got to spend a lot of time with the people we love - with our family. Our youngest was about to go off to college, and he deferred for a year because of this. And we've got another year with him. He's actually still here with us. That's been an extraordinary thing.

But having them work on the show, we were all living together for that. My daughter was there, too. She's grown with a job, but she was doing her job, like, a couple of rooms over. I remember her coming over and going - because - is there any way you could be a little quieter? I'm like, no. I'm doing a television show.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: I'm - I can't whisper "The Late Show" tonight. And it's been great. Like, I've really kept - I mean, everybody in the family's done, like, bits on the shows over the years. But to have them intimately involved, like my eldest of my two boys - my elder of my two boys, he was there, like, every day running everything, like, the sound, the cameras, the lights, the satellite connection, the switching, all of the switching that we needed to do for the virtual control room. And he was just there for two weeks. And then my young - then he said, Dad, I'm not going to graduate from college if I keep helping you. I can't do this job. So then my younger son took over, and then he's like, I'm not going to graduate from high school if I keep helping you.

GROSS: (Laughter).

COLBERT: So then Evie took over. And it's been intimate and wonderful and something I would never experienced in another way, and in a very valuable way, erased my public life from - erased the line between my public life and my private life in a way that I think is - I don't know - maybe made them understand more what my life is like and made me appreciate that I don't have to live such an insular public life separated from my private life, which is actually kind of helpful to the kind of show that I do.

GROSS: What's it like having Evie when she sits right across from you...

COLBERT: The best.

GROSS: ...As the audience? Because, like, my husband's a critic. He's a tough crowd. So if he was sitting across from me while I was doing the show, it would really make me nervous.

COLBERT: Well, it does, as you saw in that clip. Like, I want this to be a good experience for her. And it's certainly - having somebody in the room with you while you're creating a show, especially a show under these conditions, where - it's not a natural way to do one of these shows. So it's very stop and start. The people at home have no idea how many takes it took me to do that monologue.

GROSS: Oh, really?

COLBERT: Because it's much harder without an audience.

GROSS: Yeah. Sure.

COLBERT: I'm much more likely to mess up and have to retake something, lose the rhythm of a joke, or even just misread the prompter without an audience there because there's some vital performance adrenaline spark that's missing that the audience provides. And so my wife and my kids have seen me absolutely shank monologues over and over again. And it's very humbling for them to realize that I'm not that good at this...

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: ...And that there's an editing process that really makes it look like I know what the hell I'm doing. And I remember thinking, God, if - I wish I could just find a way to do material that Evie would laugh at or that if I could make an audience laugh the way I can make Evie laugh, it gives me enormous joy when I hear her laugh. And I swear to God, if it was a good show that night, listen, you'll hear her laughing because I'd say I'm 75% better as a host of the show if she's sitting in her little red chair across the room.

GROSS: How have all the changes of the pandemic and the constant concerns about protecting yourself and your family from getting the virus - how has that affected your mood? I know you're vaccinated now, so I'm hoping Evie is, too and that, you know, the concern about that has hopefully diminished a little bit. But it's been a year of high anxiety. How has that affected your mood, your spirits?

COLBERT: I miss people. I really like the company of people. I miss going to dinner. I miss hugging people - I'm a hugger. I like hugging people randomly. I feel lonely a lot. When I'm in - I go to the theater to actually produce the show. We write everything from home. Everybody's at home. And myself and a very small group of people - matter of fact, I only see about four or five of them. They - others come in at staggered intervals throughout the day - come in to 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.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Stephen Colbert. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Stephen Colbert, the host of "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" on CBS.

I want to play a clip from the night of the insurrection, January 6. And I think you - basically threw out the show and did it live. And so this is the opening of your show that night.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT")

COLBERT: Hey, everybody. Welcome to an unexpectedly live "Late Show." I'm your host, Stephen Colbert. You know how you know it's live? If it wasn't live, they'd edit out all this dead space I'm giving you right now. But I - you know, I really want to do the show we're about to do, and I also really don't want to do the show we want to do because Lord have mercy. There are some dark subjects that we talk about on the show occasionally. But I've rarely been as upset as I am tonight, and I'm sure you are, too.

Hey, Republicans who supported this president, especially the ones in the joint session of Congress today, have you had enough? After five years of coddling this president's fascist rhetoric, guess whose followers want to burn down the Reichstag? Because today, the U.S. Capitol was overrun for the first time since 1814, and a woman died. Who could have seen this coming? Everyone, even dummies like me. This is the most shocking, most tragic, least surprising thing I've ever seen. For years now, people have been telling you cowards that if you let the president lie about our democracy over and over and then join him in that lie and say he's right when you know for a fact that he is not, there will be a terrible price to pay. But you just never thought you'd have to pay it, too. I really do hope you're enjoying those tax cuts.

GROSS: So what was it like that day, figuring out, what are you going to do on the show? How are you going to address this?

COLBERT: I was sitting at home. It was - when we start the rewrite of the show - it's a long process to how the monologue comes together. But we start the rewrite of the show around 1:30. And I'm sitting in my chair here. I had the TV on in the background just to keep track of what was happening after that rally they'd had that morning in The Ellipse there. And we'd gotten about 10 or 15 minutes into the rewrite, which usually takes about an hour and a half. And I looked up. And I said, hey, let's pause. We should all just watch TV for a minute. So we watched the news about five or 10 minutes, just watched what was happening of the storming of the Capitol.

They broke through the barricades. They were up on the steps. And I said I - this is all we should talk about. It hadn't even gotten that crazy yet. I mean, it was crazy, but not compared to where it went. And by the time I got into the city, and we saw the enormity of it, my showrunner, Chris Licht said, I think this is a live show. And I said, I agree.

It was funny. It was hard to hear it now for me. And I think that's, you know, I think it's really important that we stay upset about that. It's really important. I mean, one of the challenges with a kind of a low-key, competent administration is it makes you think that things are normal - and I guess they've always been normal - when, in fact, it's so easy to forget how much relief we are experiencing just to have a non-poisonous stream of information or lies coming at us constantly. And we mustn't ever forget what that leads to. You know, there's a desperate attempt to make us forget what all this leads to.

GROSS: So Joe Biden is the president now. You spoke with him in 2015, when he was vice president. So I think at the time, he was maybe still considering a possible run in 2016 when you interviewed him, but if he was considering it, he hadn't announced yet.

COLBERT: You know, he had actually considered it and come to the conclusion that he couldn't do it. And that's one of the things he talked about on the show.

GROSS: I want to play just a short clip from that interview. And just to set it up, you know, you were talking to him about the losses in his life, his son Beau, who had recently died, earlier in his life when his wife and his daughter were killed in a car crash, and his sons were hospitalized, and his whole life was turned upside down. And you were approaching too from the fact that you know loss because your father - when you were 10, your father and two of your brothers were killed in a plane crash. So Biden is talking here about how much advice his parents had given him over the years, about how you have to keep getting up and moving forward and how he admires people who, you know, with less means than he has are able to kind of get up and keep going after loss. So let's pick it up over there.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT")

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Who are going through horrible things, and they get up every morning and they put one foot in front of the other. And they don't have, like I said, anything like the support I have. I marvel - I marvel at the ability of people to absorb hurt and just get back up. And most of them do it with an incredible sense of empathy to other people. I mean, it's interesting. The people I find who I'm most drawn to are people who have been hurt and yet - I'm not going to embarrass you. But you're one of them, old buddy. No, no, no, no, no, no. Your mom, your family, losing your dad when you were a kid and three brothers, I mean, you know, it's just - it's like asking what made your mother do it every day? How did she get up every single day with, you know, 11 kids and stuff? I mean, it's just...

COLBERT: Well, she had to take care of me, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: Well, she did. You know, that's it. We were there for each other.

BIDEN: By the way, that must have been a hell of a job.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: And I had to take care of her. I had to take care of her.

(APPLAUSE)

BIDEN: That's the point.

COLBERT: You know? Yeah. Can I ask you something?

GROSS: So listening to that, you know, I'm thinking then Biden becomes president. You had - you shared this, like, really - you seemed to, like, really connect in that moment, both talking about your losses and how you admired each other for being able to carry on. And now you've shared that emotional moment. But now you're in the position of satirizing him. After that interview, did you say to Biden, like, and, you know, I'm going to have to keep doing jokes about you?

COLBERT: I did get a call from Biden. And I feel OK saying this because I - it was already in an - I told the story to Evan Osnos, who was doing an article about Biden. When he looked like he might be running for president, Jon Stewart, this past time - Jon Stewart came on and we do this things where we flip every so often and have the guests interview me. And we do it for, like, just for a special. And Jon Stewart said, well, when did you think you got a sense of how to interview people as yourself? And I said, oh, when I was talking to Joe Biden the first time in 2015.

Pretty early on, the interviews were the first thing that changed before I sort of learned how to do material as myself. And I said, and after Joe Biden came on, I - 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 you 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, dammit, he's going to see this, and he's not going to like that.

GROSS: (Laughter).

COLBERT: And sure enough, the next day, I got a call and I knew it was him because somebody said he's going to be calling you. 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 he - 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.

GROSS: Yes (laughter) because you make fun of his age all the time (laughter).

COLBERT: Right, and that's - you know, that's the sorbet for the jokes to come, I assume.

DAVIES: Stephen Colbert speaking with Terry Gross in April. He begins taping "The Late Show" in front of a live audience on Monday after over a year of COVID-restricted broadcasts from home. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews "In The Heights," the film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony Award-winning musical. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEBO VALDES TRIO'S "ROUTE 66") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.