After A Year On The Job, Stephen Colbert Finds His Voice On 'The Late Show'

Dec 10, 2016
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

"The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" made headlines earlier this week. Vice President Joe Biden sat for his first TV interview after the election. It was a bright spot for a show that once struggled to find its voice. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans spoke to Colbert's executive producer and writers during Biden's visit to discover how they turned the show around.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Vice President Joe Biden seemed pretty relaxed when he stopped by Colbert's "Late Show" on Tuesday. In fact, he was so relaxed, he let a little profanity slip during a sketch where he and Colbert played America's dads, delivering a pep talk to the camera during a family meeting at the end of an emotional election season.

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

JOE BIDEN: We don't want to hear those swear words from you - hogwash, baloney, malarkey, you know?

STEPHEN COLBERT: Joe - Joe, we're on CBS, they're going to have to bleep half of that.

BIDEN: Hey look, I'm sorry, I'm so gosh damn - oh, darn disappointed.

DEGGANS: Of course, that might have also happened because Biden didn't rehearse the sketch earlier that day with Colbert. Instead, the host practiced his lines with writer, performer Brian Stack, playing Biden.

COLBERT: We overheard you using some pretty salty language, mister.

BRIAN STACK: (As Joe Biden) You're better than that. I don't want to hear any more swear words from you, like hogwash or baloney or malarkey.

COLBERT: Joe - Joe, we're on CBS.

DEGGANS: Then Colbert got an idea.

COLBERT: Does this need to have any little life to it? Like, 'cause we're using steadicam for a reason, right? So we'll probably want...

DEGGANS: He asked the camera operator, using a device called a steadicam, to move up and down during the skit to make the audience watching on TV feel as if they were briefly walking away. Head writer Opus Moreschi says such hands-on feedback from Colbert was pretty common.

OPUS MORESCHI: He's very specific about the way he wants the show to be. And if we're doing our job perfectly, we'd basically be, like, outsourced versions of Stephen's brain.

DEGGANS: But when Colbert first debuted as host of "The Late Show" last year on CBS, that level of involvement presented some problems. The show could be uneven. Colbert, who had played a character on his Comedy Central show "The Colbert Report," didn't seem as comfortable hosting "The Late Show" as himself. He hadn't really found his authentic voice.

CHRIS LICHT: He didn't have time to find his voice because before I got here, he really was running the show and every element of it.

DEGGANS: That's Chris Licht, who moved from a job as executive producer of "CBS This Morning" to become the executive producer and showrunner for Colbert's "Late Show" earlier this year. His job - to handle all the non-comedy stuff so Colbert could focus on the funny.

LICHT: He was able to find his voice because he had a second to think about what his voice was. And then the conventions came at a perfect time.

DEGGANS: The show found new energy with live shows during the Republican and Democratic conventions. That included the return of a character who acted suspiciously like the guy who used to host "The Colbert Report."

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

COLBERT: Truthiness has to feel true, but Trumpiness doesn't even have to do that. In fact, many Trump supporters don't believe his wildest promises. And they don't care.

DEGGANS: Then came their live election night special on Showtime. At times, that show felt a bit like a wake as Colbert, who had regularly skewered Trump on air, tried to process the results in real time.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SPECIAL, STEPHEN COLBERT'S LIVE ELECTION NIGHT - DEMOCRACY'S SERIES FINALE: WHO'S GOING TO CLEAN UP THIS S***"

COLBERT: So how did our politics get so poisonous? I think it's because we overdosed, especially this year. We drank too much of the poison.

DEGGANS: The show hadn't prepared much for the option that Trump would be declared the winner while they were on air. Sensing the audience's gloom, Licht said he turned to Colbert with three words - no more funny.

LICHT: The great thing about that Election Night was you peeled away everything and you were left with just him. And it was pretty compelling.

DEGGANS: Viewership for Colbert's "Late Show" often lags behind Jimmy Fallon's "Tonight Show" on NBC. But Colbert's show is seeing growth. CBS says the Biden episode beat Fallon with their best Tuesday ratings in more than a year. Licht laughed off the idea floated in a New York Post story earlier this week that CBS might flip Colbert with James Corden.

Corden hosts "The Late Late Show," which now follows Colbert at 12:30 a.m. on CBS. Licht said Colbert has found his footing and will focus on calling out hypocrisy, no matter who's in charge.

LICHT: And whether it's in politics or whether it's in just day to day institutional life, that's our villain. So that's an apolitical villain.

DEGGANS: Colbert's new challenge may be continuing to grow his audience when the thrill of a singular election is long past. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.