Stephen Colbert on His Crazy Trip to Russia and Comedy’s Role in Politics Today
The offices of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert resemble the inside of a goldfish tank, the goldfish being young staffers who dart in and out of elevators holding everything from ancient DVDs to bagged lunches. They have an eager gleam to them, as if they’ve won some sort of prize to get in the door. An airy interior stairwell—next to a Lord of the Rings pinball machine—leads to Colbert’s office.
A visibly tired Colbert opens the door and asks his assistant for a coffee. “I’ll be all right after this,” he says genially, in the manner of someone who can reach zero to 60 with only fumes in the tank. His desk is full of tchotchkes, from a “Stephen Colbert”–engraved dog bone to a bright green plastic football. Behind the desk and a computer that constantly pings with email is a record player. “You’ll love this,” he says, placing the needle on a Sufjan Stevens album. “This is so good to sleep to.”
Earlier this summer Colbert and his team embarked on a secret trip to Russia (that even some CBS executives were not aware of), and this is their first week back. The idea to shoot episodes in Russia had come from his staff after the presidential election, but Colbert admits it took him some time to get his head around it. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t want to do that. I really don’t wanna do that.’ They’re like, ‘Why?’ ” He explains, “There’s enough pressure with these jobs. You know, I kind of like doing theater, doing my monologue, talking with guests, going home, having an old-fashioned, eating some cashews, and watching Anderson Cooper with my wife.”
Eventually Colbert got over it and flew to St. Petersburg, continuing on to Moscow. “It was the farthest north I’ve ever been. It was always dayglow at all times.” He has great photos, he says, but they’re on another phone. “I didn’t take anything out of the United States. I left my phone, my Apple watch, my iPad, and my laptop because you have to assume that the FSB [Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation] has complete control over your devices from the moment you get there.”
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Colbert and his crew shot for 13 hours a day, hitting the ground running. “American pharmaceutical companies are fantastic,” he jokes. “They give you pills so you can go to sleep at night, and there’s another pill so you’re awake the next day. The toxicology report on me is going to be fascinating.”
Of course, in Russia, Colbert had more than his producers as an audience. “You feel like you’re always on camera.” His crew was followed by American fans but also, more subtly, by Russian security. “We had a couple of people following us around all the time.”
While fatigued, Colbert is clearly proud of what his team produced—including a satirical run for the U.S. presidency announced on the Russian talk show Evening Urgant. After all, Colbert earned his stripes doing field pieces for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, followed by 10 years on The Colbert Report. The host threw himself, often physically, into everything from shaving his head in 2009 after visiting Iraqi troops to founding a super PAC in 2011. “That’s how I made my bones,” he explains. “When you’re hosting, it’s harder to get out in the field, but in some ways that’s more natural for me than ...” Standing in one spot? “Right, because it’s closer to performance as opposed to presentation. But I really love this form now. And we’ve tried to breathe new life, new urgency into doing a monologue.”
The coffee starts to kick in. “I care about the news, I care about what’s happening, and I love jokes, so to be able to say to the audience, ‘Come over here, and we’ll hopefully explain it to you in a different way and make you laugh about it’—that is an absolute joy.”
Performance has been Colbert’s food for 30 years. He got his start in 1987 with Chicago’s famed improv group Second City, answering phones before working his way up to understudying for fellow troupe member Steve Carell. He bounced through TV and writing gigs for the next decade, joining The Daily Show as a trial hire in 1997.
Though Colbert was earning his improvisational stripes, it wasn't easy. “In my late 20s, early 30s, I had a nervous breakdown,” he says. “I was subject to panic attacks and stuff like that except when I was onstage. I would curl up in a ball on a couch backstage, and then I’d hear my cue coming up, and I would uncurl, go onstage, do the show, and then go offstage and curl up again.”
This went on for a while. “Just a few months of fetal,” he says, laughing wryly. “And then it changed. I went to write a new show—I guess it opened a door in my brain, and it was over. I woke up one morning, and it didn’t feel like my skin was on fire. But then I thought, ‘Well, I can’t ever stop doing this because that skin-on-fire is always right behind the door.’ ”
Before his Russian invasion, we shot Colbert for this issue—the concept being something of a corporate centerfold (think Burt Reynolds crossed with Paul Ryan). Colbert arrived with his very own cut-off suit and white T-shirt and the sexiest possible dad jeans. As he grabbed a printout of abdominal muscles and tucked it into his pants, he hooted, “This is so dumb!”
“Dumb” is, in fact, one of Colbert’s highest forms of praise. “That’s so dumb,” he repeats, pleased. “Often when we are in the rewrite room, we don’t know how to write a joke about something, and there will be silence. Then someone will come up with an idea, and it’s just dumb enough. It’s a compliment. It takes a lot of mental provender to come up with something truly dumb, which is why I think Donald Trump must be a genius.”
Yes, Trump—the provender of The Late Show itself. The show’s nightly shots at Trump (often occupying the entire monologue) have hit a national chord, often winning the evening’s time slot against friendly rival Jimmy Fallon.
Notably, some of The Late Show’s greatest viewership increases have come from states that voted for Trump in November. In June Variety reported a finding from a Katz Media Group study that Colbert’s ratings went up in 18 of the 23 Nielsen-metered markets where Trump won a majority.
The growing numbers aren't limited to the ratings. “I’ve gained a lot of weight,” he says, sighing. “I think I’ve gained 15 pounds since Donald Trump became president.” On the night of the election, The Late Show was broadcast live. Like the media at large, they had planned for everything—apart from Trump actually winning. “I just drank,” Colbert remembers. “I drank a lot of bourbon onscreen. We didn't know what to do.” They lurched through the show, and then Colbert went home to New Jersey. He normally stays in the city when he is shooting, but “my wife was like, ‘I would prefer that you come home, please. I don’t want to sleep by myself tonight, you know?’ ”
Perhaps these circumstances, the added gravity and emotion of the world, are why Colbert is so keen to embrace the Dumb. It’s also how he modestly underscores his work on The Late Show. “Today you’ll feel better,” he says of his viewers, “but these shows are cotton candy dropping in water, and I don’t pretend otherwise. I used to joke to Jon [Stewart] that we are shouting jokes into an Altoids can and throwing them off an overpass. Nobody remembers.”
I’d argue otherwise—that in divided times, the pointed, intelligent voice of a late-night host is far more than just a balm. It’s not “just” comedy. Colbert has a lot of thoughts on this: “I don’t think anybody’s ‘just a comedian.’ I am a comedian. That’s a challenging thing to be. It’s a good job, and it’s a hard job. When you say you’re a comedian, you’re not trying to slough off a responsibility—you know your responsibility.” He grabs the football and squeezes it slowly while he’s thinking. “There’s a perception of journalists or the audience of getting something from us beyond the joke. But ... we’re just making jokes about people’s daily experiences. My show will have no effect on the world.”
Colbert prefers his Altoids-based position however the rest of us may see it. “It’s a privilege to have this perch to tweet from. Or to do a little bird song from. So I don’t diminish that. ‘Important’? How about ‘prominent’? You’re in a prominent position, but whether it’s important or not, I don’t know.” He shrugs. “I hope people enjoy it and it makes their day better, you know?”
Nearly two years and 400 episodes in, Colbert feels good about The Late Show on the whole. “Literally, it’s a day-to-day proposition. I feel as good as last night’s show. Last night’s show went well, and the night before went well, and when I feel good, I’m like, ‘I can do 10 years of this!’ Now, if tonight’s show for some reason doesn’t go well, you can ask me tomorrow and I’ll be like, ‘Yeah, there’s no way I can do this for another three years.’ ”
The way the show is going, he may be doing this for another 20. In July The Late Show received six Emmy nominations, including one for outstanding variety talk series as well as multiple nods for his team’s election-night coverage. In a jazzy twist, Colbert is also hosting the September 17 awards ceremony, which means that he could be the first emcee in television history to take home several statuettes while carrying out his on-air duties.
It’s all coming up roses for the man who once admitted to a reporter, “I’m a very uncomfortable person.” Repeat that to him and he pauses. “I can feel uncomfortable. This show has changed that in me to some degree. I played a character on the old show, so I never had to be myself in front of the camera. And I’m a big fan of me—it’s not like I’m a self-loathing person. I also like people. But I don’t know what it is about my past: I either want to have an immediate, intimate affection with you or I don’t want to talk to you at all. And it’s my fault if [the affection] doesn’t happen. So that’s my hesitancy, or that’s my discomfort with people. [Comedian] Maria Bamford has a great joke about riding in an elevator with someone she doesn’t know: ‘Crazy weather we’re having, huh?’ ‘Hold me ...’
“That’s exactly how I feel.” He smiles. “Can we just cut everything else out and lie next to each other on a hill and look at the stars?”
Or standing on a little mark in the Ed Sullivan Theater, throwing Altoids in a can off an overpass. “However tired you are when you get onstage, it’s all fine.” Colbert squeezes the football while another email pings. “I’m never sick onstage. I’m never sad onstage. I’m just onstage.”
For more stories like this, pick up the September issue of InStyle, available on newsstands and for digital download August 11.