In the last couple of years, the world of late night shows has seen a tremendous amount of turnover. From Jimmy Fallon replacing Jay Leno to James Corden replacing Craig Ferguson, there are a lot of new faces out there interviewing celebs. And now, the last of the late night stalwarts has left, and Stephen Colbert is preparing to take over from David Letterman.
Colbert begins his show with an extra bit of difficulty, in that people have never really gotten to know him as himself. Instead, he’s been playing the part of “Stephen Colbert” for well over a decade now, a problem that has popped up for him in his new gig.
“When I interviewed the first person, the first time I did it, [the "Colbert Report"] character sat on my shoulder and said, ‘Shut up. Let me do this one. I know what to say next.’ And I eventually got him to quiet down,” Colbert says with a laugh.
But he thinks that the general public is having bigger issues with his old persona than he is, in response to the ongoing question if people will be ready to get to know the real him. “The you that I am, he’s been there the whole time. I’ve been wearing that mask lighter and lighter as the years go on.”
One thing Colbert won’t worry about too much is talking to guests on the new show, since he loved doing it as part of “The Colbert Report.”
“It became my favorite part. I thought it was going to be the jokes, but it became the interviews,” he says.
He’s got quite a list of guests coming up for the first couple of weeks on his show, with everyone from Jeb Bush to Emily Blunt to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stopping by. He sounds excited about the prospect of talking to all of those VIPs.
“I want to have a point of view about what their project is, or what their position is if it’s political, or what the idea of their book is, or whatever it is, but I’m honestly interested in them,” says Colbert.
“As much as I’m a satirist, I’m not ironically detached from anything I talk about or anybody I talk to. The nice thing about having done it as a character is that I learned as a performer at all times to be passionately attached to what you’re talking about, because then the conversation has legs. You’re not pretending,” he explains, before pausing and adding, “I don’t fake my orgasms.”
And while Jimmy Fallon found a new way to take on late night by trying out funny games with celebrities, Colbert doesn’t seem inclined to be a YouTube-focused host. “I think viral is fun if it’s worth it, but we’re not going to produce viral videos. I’m going to do a show, and hopefully people will share it.”
That’s not to say he’s set in his ways, however. “We’ve got 202 [shows] a year. We’re going to find what’s right for me. I don’t feel like I have to come out of the gate knowing everything. I’d like to have enough humility to find it as I go," says Colbert.
Of course, the same political satirist is still in there, despite his move to a different venue. When asked about the prospect of how Donald Trump would be as a president, Colbert answers, “There have been some great presidents, there have been some bad presidents, and having a giant swinging set of balls isn’t the worst thing in the world.”
Advice from the expert
Colbert and Letterman had a nice long chat about the gig before Colbert started production, but he picked up one last piece of advice from the man before he left. The building the show films in has an old freight elevator that Letterman had saved from rebuilding after renovations, and Colbert decided to keep it as well.
"After we talked for about an hour and a half – and he was very gracious with his time – I said, just one last thing. Would you show me how to run the elevator? And he goes, oh, it’s the best thing in the building! And he showed me how to run it, then he showed me how to open the door so the elevator would be right there, and he said, there, now it’s waiting for you. And that felt like a guy teaching you how to use the tool before he leaves," says Colbert. "It was really lovely, he couldn’t have been more gracious. He left me with the keys, you might say."