Interviews

Getting To Know Stephen Colbert

Suit and shirt by Ermenegildo Zegna. Tie by Prada.

Photography by David Needleman. Styled by Antonia Xereas.

The Late Show's Stephen Colbert has a radical idea about what America needs right now: love and kindness.

By Marion Greene

The Late Show With Stephen Colbert airs Weeknights at 11:35/10:35c on CBS. Stream full episodes on CBS All Access.

Editor's Note: This interview took place in February, before COVID-19 took hold in the United States.

Stephen Colbert in a blue suit kneeling on a stool for a magazine cover.

Suit and shirt by Ermenegildo Zegna. Tie by Giorgio Armani. Shoes by To Boot New York.

Photography by David Needleman. Styled by Antonia Xereas.

It's a Friday afternoon at the Ed Sullivan Theater in Midtown Manhattan. The Late Show With Stephen Colbert has been off the air for a few nights, but the busy offices still hum with staff preparations for next week's episodes. Stephen Colbert—clad in a soft sweater and chinos, hair slightly tousled under a baseball cap—grins as he admits he was getting a little restless during the time off. "I love being with the audience," he says. "And it's the work that I like. I like to be with everyone else who is paying attention in the same way and together trying to craft a comedic response."

Certainly 2020 has not given us a lot to laugh about, but The Late Show has nimbly been finding the funny in even the darkest of times. Colbert sat down to talk politics, Lana Del Rey, and how The Late Show is really a show about love.

Stephen Colbert in a navy blue suit sitting on a stool.

Suit and shirt by Ermenegildo Zegna. Tie by Giorgio Armani. Shoes by To Boot New York.

Photography by David Needleman. Styled by Antonia Xereas.

You are currently in the middle of Season 5. What's been the biggest surprise about doing this show?

The first one that comes to mind is that I don't have to make every decision. Part of the success of the show is me trusting the staff. Don't get me wrong: I'm a huge fan of me. [Laughs.] And a huge fan of control. But at [The Colbert Report], I'd look at a pen and be like, Why is that part blue? Shouldn't it be clear?

It was that level of control about everything, and that's simply impossible with this kind of show. Earlier this week my wife, Evie, said to me, "Are you OK not being in the office?" I said yes. I haven't the slightest doubt that everything that needs to be done is being done. Not that it wasn't true before; I just didn't allow it, and people couldn't do their best work because I wasn't allowing them to. I work here. I'm one of the people who gets to work at this show. I also get to have my name on the front of the building. But I really do feel lucky to be one of the people who gets to work here and be a part of this team.

Close-up portrait of Stephen Colbert making expressive face.

Suit and shirt by Ermenegildo Zegna. Tie by Prada.

Photography by David Needleman. Styled by Antonia Xereas.

When the show began in 2015, I'm guessing you could not have foreseen where it would be today and what so much of the show would be focused on.

No. I couldn't have imagined where we are now from where we started, because I specifically remember thinking: I wonder if I could do a show like this that isn't about the news. And by that, I don't mean could I do it—could anybody do it. It was crazy to think you could leave politics out of that, because it's so consuming our culture right now. It's become the most common subject: politics and sports.

I don't know if I remember a time when politics was all anyone talked about.

I think paying this much attention to politics—not by me, but by the American people—is not a good idea. I really don't think it's a good idea. [In the show] I'm not breaking news or setting an agenda. I go up there every night and talk about what people have been talking about all day. And all day this is what people are talking about. I think it's unhealthy. In some ways our show is a pressure valve to that internal anxiety. We're lancing the boil. We're not curing anything: We're cortisone.

Stephen Colbert in a gray suit with a spotlight behind him.

Suit and shirt by Ermenegildo Zegna. Tie by Prada.

Photography by David Needleman. Styled by Antonia Xereas.

Does a heavy sense of responsibility come along with that?

I don't know. I have a responsibility to do my job the best I can. I'm really grateful to learn the show means something to people, because it means a lot to us. But in some ways my responsibility isn't to the audience, it's to the show—and to do the best we can and to do it an honest way. I was going to say truthful way, but that's a little highfalutin'. [Laughs.] Just an honest way. It takes a lot to know the truth. It takes very little to know if you're being honest.

Stephen Colbert in a gray suit holding a small dog.

Suit and shirt by Ermenegildo Zegna. Tie by Prada.

Photography by David Needleman. Styled by Antonia Xereas.

Do you look forward to whatever happens in November being over and the show no longer being entangled in an election cycle?

No, I'm indifferent, because I don't do the show for what happens in November. I do it for yesterday and today and what might happen tomorrow. So whatever happens in November is what happens in November. We'll write our jokes then. Personally, I look forward to him being dragged out in leg irons, and if it happens, fantastic. If it doesn't, we'll be here doing what we do.

The audience has a chance to talk to you before the show begins. Do you tend to get the same questions?

They ask me about religion, about South Carolina. They ask me marriage advice and sometimes about The Lord of the Rings. These are things that I talk about! And they ask me about grief. Those are rarer, but it happens.

I'd imagine it's hard to be a spokesperson for grief, especially when grief is such a private thing.

It is. I think of myself less as a spokesperson for grief than someone who is willing to speak about it at all. People mostly don't want to talk about it. Who would want to? It's terrible!

But it must be comforting if you are going through it to be understood.

That's the most important thing.

Stephen Colbert sitting in a chair against a pink backdrop.

Suit and shirt by Ermenegildo Zegna. Tie by Prada. Pocket Square by Tom Ford. Shoes by To Boot New York.

Photography by David Needleman. Styled by Antonia Xereas.

Last year you did an interview with Anderson Cooper, and you both spoke quite candidly about grief, and the reaction to it was overwhelming.

I was quite surprised by the reaction. I don't do interviews that often, but I really like him and he's such a great guest and he's been so good to us. I knew his mother had passed shortly before [our interview]. It was just a good conversation.

When it was over, my publicist—my dear friend, Carrie Byalick—said: "Are you OK?" I was like oh, yeah, fine. I think that went well! She said, "I think so too. I think people will like it." And then I went and did the show. I had no idea it would be resonant for so many people. But why not? Why shouldn't it be? Everybody dies. Everybody knows loss. Which is kind of the nature of the conversation that we were having. So I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was, I really was.

Stephen Colbert in a tan suit.

Suit and shirt by Ermenegildo Zegna. Tie by Prada. Pocket Square by Tom Ford.

Photography by David Needleman. Styled by Antonia Xereas.

I think, especially within the world of celebrity, seeing you and Anderson Cooper having such an intimate and honest conversation was surprising.

There's such fear of weakness, and kindness. Softness can be perceived as weakness. It's what you said: It's comforting to people to know they are not alone. That's everything we're trying to do here.

These shows are traditionally nighttime companions before you go to bed—a joke before sleep! Especially now in such a fractured social and entertainment space, it's nice to provide some place where people have a sense of community, and to know that you're not crazy. We can try to remove the thorn of today's news.

Stephen Colbert in a gray suit with a spotlight behind him.

Suit and shirt by Ermenegildo Zegna. Tie by Prada.

Photography by David Needleman. Styled by Antonia Xereas.

There is a comfort in that—to know others feel the same.

Before I did the show, back in 2015, a mutual friend told me that [director] Spike Jonze was interested in helping in any way he could. I'm a fan of his, of his art and ambition. He came and interviewed me. One of the things he asked me was, "What do you want to do?" I said: "I don't know how to do it, but I want to do a show about love. I don't know how to do a comedy show, let alone a late night comedy show, about love."

I also had this conversation with [writer] George Saunders, too. He talks about radical kindness: to try and love, and radical kindness being an expression of that. Radical in that kindness is an act of grace because it's not necessary or expected. I was talking to him about it, and I said, "I don't know how to do that with the show. I know how to do the show but not that." And he said, essentially, you're being kind to the thing that is threatened by talking about it, and doing jokes about the gaslighting of the American people. You are being kind to their sanity. Kindness doesn't mean rolling over and accepting what anybody says.

Stephen Colbert in a gray suit with a spotlight behind him.

Suit and shirt by Ermenegildo Zegna. Tie by Prada.

Photography by David Needleman. Styled by Antonia Xereas.

This past summer I was on a trip with my family. We picked my daughter up at the airport, and she got in the car and said: "Nobody talk. We're all going to listen to Norman F***cking Rockwell! by Lana Del Rey, and then we're going to talk about it." One of those songs was "The Greatest."

[Plays the song.]

That line: "We didn't know that we had it all, but nobody warns you before the fall/… I'm facing the greatest/The greatest loss of them all/The culture is lit and I had a ball."

It's a really interesting idea to me. I wanted to do a show about love, but I'm really doing a show about loss. And how can anything truly be a loss unless you love it? The people who support the president feel like something's being lost and that's why they voted for him and they want it back. The people that didn't vote for him see him as a loss, see what he's doing as a greater loss.

Close-up portrait of Stephen Colbert with his index finger to his lips.

Suit and shirt by Ermenegildo Zegna. Tie by Giorgio Armani.

Photography by David Needleman. Styled by Antonia Xereas.

The song is, as far as I can tell, about certain aspects of the culture that the narrator doesn't feel connected to anymore. One of the lines is: "The culture is lit and I had a ball/I guess that I'm burnt out after all/… I hope the live stream's almost on." And that's the end of the song. It's about, again to me, someone trying to remove themselves or being removed from the culture but sucked back in, the live stream is almost on. They can't leave it—even in the face of all this loss.

So, our generation is faced with enormous loss in America. Through this president—a loss of moral and ethical supremacy. Something is changing in the world, and we don't like it. And that's what leads to Donald Trump—this loss. Donald Trump is a panic. Donald Trump is a panicky response to the world changing. It's a response made out of fear, and that's why he continues to stoke fear, because fear is the fuel that drives the enthusiasm for him. And our job is to make people laugh so they aren't afraid. It doesn't mean the loss doesn't happen.

Stephen Colbert in a navy blue suit.

Suit and shirt by Ermenegildo Zegna. Tie by Giorgio Armani. Shoes by To Boot New York.

Photography by David Needleman. Styled by Antonia Xereas.

How hard is it to face the current ugliness and terror in the world with love and kindness daily?

I don't really respond with love and kindness with my jokes. We try to make those as sharp as we can. But in some ways, that's trying to be kind and show love to what is being lost by the attempts to get us to accept that something bad is good. This morning I was reading Isaiah, Chapter 5, Verse 20: "Woe to the wicked, woe to those who call good evil and evil good. Who call the bitter sweet and the sweet bitter and the darkness light." It's such a simple thesis for the show: There is a reality, things can be known, facts do exist. This show is not in resistance or in opposition to anything. We are counterprogramming to the bullshit. It gives us a simple place to stand—on the dry land of reality.

Do you feel hopeful for the future?

Sure.

Do you usually consider yourself a glass-half-full person?

I think I'm a half-full kind of guy. [Laughs.] Not sure what that liquid is though.

Stephen Colbert sitting in chair in a tan suit.

Suit and shirt by Ermenegildo Zegna. Tie by Prada. Pocket Square by Tom Ford.

Photography by David Needleman. Styled by Antonia Xereas.

Originally published in Watch Magazine, May-June 2020.

Photographer: David Needleman

Stylist: Antonia Xereas

Hair: Jenna Robinson

Makeup: Jesse Lindholm

The Late Show With Stephen Colbert airs Weeknights at 11:35/10:35c on CBS. Stream full episodes on CBS All Access.

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