There's no denying that CBS' The Late Show with Stephen Colbert has seen success with Donald Trump as president. But in a conversation with New York magazine writer-at-large and Veep co-executive producer Frank Rich during Vulture Festival's State of the Union event, Stephen Colbert said his show's success isn't solely dependent on Trump. That doesn't mean that Colbert doesn't realize that Trump becoming President of the United States has helped his show. On the contrary, Colbert discussed how he had to adjust The Late Show to deal with covering the news as it exists now under President Trump.
In its first year, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert struggled to find its voice, something that Colbert openly discussed during Vulture Festival. He explained that when he abandoned the character he portrayed on The Colbert Report, he also left behind the simple structure of covering the news of the day with a personal take that had made him so famous on his Comedy Central show. Once The Late Show hired Chris Licht as showrunner, Colbert was able to focus more on the jokes and viewpoint he wanted to get across. It was just this fall when he fully realized, "I can't believe we were doing a show that wasn't about everything that happened that day. What's the purpose of one of these shows other than to talk about the national conversation?" Colbert said to the Vulture Fest audience.
Yet, he knows that Trump becoming president helped make his show relevant again after its first year. "He's such a huge figure that it's not why our show got better, but it's why people checked us out again, I think," Colbert said. "Trump is a figure of change, there's no doubt. But we made all these changes [to the show] and found our way to do it before he was reasonably considered a guy who could win."
With Colbert's 13-minute monologue each show typically focusing on the latest Trump news, Trump has made Colbert's job simultaneously easier and more strenuous. That's good for The Late Show, even though Colbert thinks that it isn't good for the U.S. "If you can put aside your concern for the country, as a performer, it's great that we all know what I'm about to talk to you about today because of the latest revelation from The Washington Post or The New York Times.", Colbert said. "There's a single story that is, for the most part, gobbling up the news cycle and so you can get straight to the joke all the time with the audience."
But on the flip side, "It feels like things are on fire," Colbert said. "And I'm not a fireman. I'm a guy who dances next to the fire and says, 'Let's all admit this is on fire. Do you think that should be on fire? Is that really something that we want to burn for fuel today for one man's ego?'"
Colbert continues: "Because what's in that fire that I'm dancing next to? It's really our norms and our standards and our principles. And are we willing to burn everything for a golden calf — who is Donald Trump — just for vindictiveness’s sake? Our politics have become just pure acts of vindictiveness." Colbert claimed. He then quoted his head writer, who had said when Trump was elected, "People who felt like they were being treated cruelly decided to respond with an act of cruelty themselves. Donald Trump is an act of cruelty. But there needs to be a reckoning."
He admitted that sometimes he does end up a bit too close to the fire. "The hard thing is to dance close to the fire and not get in the fire." When Rich asked him what constitutes getting into the fire, Colbert quickly and humorously addressed his recent controversy by saying, "I'd say calling the president a 'c*ck-holster.'"
It took Colbert being investigated by the FCC for Trump to address the comic's criticism of him. "We've been trying to get him to say my name for a year cause he'll attack anybody who talks smack about him," Colbert said. And he admitted that he was "kind of insulted" that it took this long for Trump to acknowledge him.
As for if Colbert can ever ignore Trump, that's not really an option. "No, no I professionally cannot tune it out," Colbert said. He described how in his years working in late night with The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, and even on The Late Show beforehand, whatever new story that occurred by 1 p.m. was what the shows covered since scripts were due then. Now, if news breaks at 5:15, they'll cover it as long as the writers can come up with three jokes (which is The Late Show's rule in order to make Colbert's monologue more of a story rather than single jokes with setups) — even though The Late Show tapes at 5:30. "That means you can never tune it out, just for a second." Otherwise, "We'll find out at 5:15 that we've been superseded by some story that is going to be the conversation by 11:30 that night."
Lately, these adjustments have had to happen after the actual taping of the show has already started. For instance, "[FBI Director James] Comey was fired during my monologue," Colbert said. After Colbert came off stage from finishing his May 2 show's monologue, The Late Show's showrunner Chris Licht informed him that Trump had just fired Comey. "We actually gave the writers 10 minutes to come up with at least three jokes and I think they came up with four," Colbert said.
Colbert then went back out and delivered more material on this late-breaking news.
These show revisions have become more frequent recently and Comey's firing was a learning experience for Colbert and his team. As you can hear above, the audience clapped about Comey being fired — something Colbert believed was because of how Comey had treated Hillary Clinton — rather than focusing on how Comey was supposed to be leading the investigation into Russia allegedly tampering with the 2016 election. Now if news breaks during the show, Colbert will go out and explain the news to the audience while the cameras aren't rolling. "This is how crazy the last two weeks have been," Colbert said. "That was two weeks ago, twice since then, news has broken while I was doing a monologue that I had to go tell the audience about so they would listen to the joke and not to the news." While this practice "feels sustainable from our end, [it] doesn't feel sustainable as a society," Colbert said.
Along with constantly paying attention to Trump comes constantly paying attention to Trump's Twitter feed, which is something else the crew at The Late Show does. Colbert described how they have video board on the wall with the show's script, but how the third tab is now Trump's Twitter feed, "just to make sure we're not missing the latest dispatch ... that could happen anytime night or day, 24 hours a day," Colbert said.
This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 18, 2017
"It's sort of hackneyed to say, 'Oh, I wish for the old, boring days,'" Colbert said. "But what they were is boring is stability. It's not so much the boring, it's you wish for the stability of saying, 'Well, tomorrow morning we'll learn something about our government that will allow time for us to react to — and other members of the government to react to.'"
He continues, "You don't know what's happening with Donald Trump. That's the scariest thing. It's not that I disagree with him, it's that I don't know what the f*ck he thinks."
Yet, Colbert and his team are trying to make something good out of the fear that Trump induces in many people. The day after Trump was elected, Colbert gave his team 30 minutes to be emotional about it. After that, "We clicked right in to our old survival mechanism, which is to make jokes about terrible things and immediately, felt a different response from the audience," Colbert said. "The audience didn't want to feel alone in the way they felt." He also had told his key people on The Late Show, "If you're ever wondering whether your work had purpose, don't worry anymore. It does. Because this is terrible and your job is to make people feel better about it every day."
All in all, Colbert said, "Really, we're an emotional release valve because, as I've quoted Frank Herbert before, 'Fear is the mind-killer.' And he got elected on anger and fear," Colbert said. "And you cannot laugh and be afraid at the same time. So let's go make people laugh and they'll be able to think again.' That's the value of what we do."