Talking to Stephen Colbert over Zoom is not unlike having a private version of the Late Show With Stephen Colbert. He’s alone in a room, live from his home office, only a twinkle in his eye and shelves of sci-fi and fantasy books behind him. Wearing a baseball cap and black vest over a plaid button-down, he looks like the Elvis Costello of Elmer Fudds, his dowdy suburban dadness a kind of comic exclamation point. During the weekend before the election, he’s developed a condition called “benign positional vertigo,” which means when he stands up, the world goes off-kilter.
“It’s almost entertaining, until I forget,” he says. “And then I go to stand up, and then I just fall down. So, I’m coming to you right now from a very weird angle, slightly listing to port.”
From off camera, his wife, Evie McGee, enters the room to remind Colbert to do his prescribed vertigo exercises and ask what kind of sandwich he wants for lunch (egg, avocado, bacon, he says, and while she’s at it, “throw some cheese in the mother-fucker”). In recent months, McGee has become a familiar if invisible presence on his show, giggling at his jokes—or not, as when Colbert’s pained grin makes clear she disapproves. “None of that shit’s made up,” Colbert says.
After the nation went into lockdown last March, Colbert spent five months broadcasting from his home office in Charleston, South Carolina (where he grew up and still has a home), squeezing laughs from the daily horrors of sickness, fear, death, and Trump—and with only dead air for company. In these disorienting times, he has righted himself—and his audience—by becoming part comic first responder, part neighbor next door who can’t believe this shit is happening. “It’s brought me and you, my audience, closer together,” he had said the previous week, before pivoting to a photoshopped image of himself in a lingerie ad: “Stephen Colbert’s Intimate Secrets.” It’s all a reminder of how little distance there is now between Colbert the CBS entertainer and Colbert the guy stuck inside a room like us, no happy-clappy circus at the Ed Sullivan Theater to buoy him. The Zoomification of Colbert’s show has made him essential viewing during 2020 chaos, from the long-form interviews—putting John Bolton in the hot seat, for instance—to the unexpected moments of grace, like when he cried as Dolly Parton sang “Bury Me Beneath the Willow” in split screen (“Like a lot of Americans, I’m under a lot of stress right now,” he said, dabbing his eyes). But the main ingredient has simply been Colbert himself, a one-man stage show of his elastic mind. “And so now,” observes his friend Jon Stewart, “you’re just watching Astaire and a broom. You know what I mean? Ginger Rogers left the building.”
Colbert seemed made for this era. He was also prepared for it. Unlike the Trump administration, the producers of the Late Show had been paying close attention to the reports from Wuhan, China, and began whispering that they needed a contingency plan. “They were like, ‘It’s 100 percent going to happen, we have to leave this building,’ ” Colbert recalls. “ ‘And we just want to be ready when it happens.’ So we were; we had a plan in place.”
In recent years, Colbert’s executive producer, Chris Licht, along with the producers of the other major late shows—including The Tonight Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, and Trevor Noah’s Daily Show—have created an informal club, meeting over dinner to socialize and talk shop. The prospect of a pandemic ripping everybody’s programs apart began percolating in emails and texts in February. Late-night wars were shunted aside—Colbert and Licht insist ratings battles have largely ceased, but for the record, Colbert has firmly won them—and now they banded together. “We were all talking to each other in March like, ‘What the fuck are you guys going to do?’ ” recalls Licht. “We were all lost in the wilderness, and we all shared as much information as possible.”
So the producers prepared Zoom accounts, health protocols, plans for staying networked. In many ways, a MASH-unit style broadcast played to their strengths as comedians. “Because we are, by nature, improvisers,” says Colbert.
The night of March 12 was the last for late-night broadcasts from theaters. Colbert decamped to his home in Charleston, where a satellite truck idled on his lawn. Since no crew members were allowed inside, Colbert’s sons, Peter and John, home from school, and his daughter Madeleine and his wife became the de facto crew, managing the broadcast feed on laptops and using an iPad for a teleprompter. “It felt much like the 19th century,” says Colbert. “Daddy’s got a woodshop, and the kids are going to come in and help me cut the pine today.”
He did the first remote show from his bathtub—wearing a suit and tie under soap suds—with McGee holding the iPad and the producers punching in clips and comic slides remotely. McGee says she felt like Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible, trying to defuse a virtual bomb with only the faintest idea of which wires did what: “I’m on the headset and [the producers] are like, ‘No, it’s the small red one. Pull the small red one.’ I’m going, ‘There are two red ones.’ ”
But the biggest mission impossible fell to Colbert himself, who found himself alone in front of an unsmiling camera. The second night (“Live on tape from a safe distance!” declared the announcer), he sat on a deck chair on his back patio, under overcast skies, stoking a fire pit and discussing the election primaries, with jokes like “This year we’ll be awarding the presidency to the person with the most toilet paper.”
“At first, it was terrible,” Colbert says, recalling a quote from his beloved Lord of the Rings: “As Tom Bombadil says to Frodo, ‘Who are you, alone, yourself and nameless?’ ” After taping a show, he would flop down on his couch and admit, “I have no idea how to keep doing this.”
“You’ll figure it out,” Evie told him.
In some ways, this was a return to 2015, when Colbert first took over the show from David Letterman. The question that hung over him then was: Without the mask of “Stephen Colbert,” the right-wing caricature of unearned privilege and toxic masculinity he’d performed on his Comedy Central show, The Colbert Report, who was he? And how could he turn his actual self—the earnest and erudite Catholic with the theater-nerd giddiness—into something millions would want to scarf up like a bowl of Americone Dream ice cream at midnight? It was disorienting, a kind of performer’s version of vertigo. “Oh, it was physically painful at times to know that it’s possible, and not have the answer in your hand,” he says. “And to figure out what part of you, and how much, to put out there.”