Steven Colbert behind the scenes
Updated: Sep 14, 2022
I recently crossed another item off my bucket list by attending a live taping of a national network television show, and it did not disappoint. Many shows tape in New York City, and I was able to get free tickets to see The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on his first day back from vacation. (Get there early and be prepared to stand in line for over an hour if you want to get in). Talk show television is a mixture of reality and illusion, with carefully crafted monologues combined with sometimes touching, unscripted interviews. Being there in person magnifies and intensifies the entire experience and gives you a better picture of how the pixels on your television come to be every night.
David Letterman hosted the Late Show for many years in the old, historic Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway, retiring in 2015. His mantle was picked up by Stephen Colbert, an intelligent and sarcastic comedian from Comedy Central whose Colbert Report had run for nearly a decade. His old show was a farcical look at a fake conservative talking head, who mocked himself and politics with clever, ironic bits and guests. It was great. The new show is a mixture of the old late night formula of interviews and monologues, heavily influenced by politics- specifically left-of-center politics. (Though that term has little meaning today- in our polarized age there appears to be no center.)
I'm old enough to remember the king of late night- Johnny Carson, and his show for the most part stayed away from politics. Today's hosts revel in making fun of political figures, most of who deserve the mocking, but it still makes me yearn for the times when things weren't so polarized. Colbert is a master at what he does, and he seems to do it all with a sense of joy, in contrast to Letterman, whose self-loathing and insecurity were well-known.
The taping itself brought a few surprises that I hadn't expected.
- We were treated to a stand-up comic who did the audience warmup, telling jokes and talking to folks in the audience to get them involved and psyched up. Though you can barely see the audience on the broadcast version, you can definitely hear them, as they've been coached to clap, yell, and make noise when prompted.
- The band was great, and we were treated to a brief concert before the show began, along with more music during the intermissions between segments. Colbert had a new bandleader, Louis Cato, starting that day, and he did a great job. He also has one of the few bands with a professional bongo player, and she was entertaining to watch.
- Stephen came out before the monologue to greet the audience and take a few questions. He comes off as an energetic, intelligent man who has really mastered his craft. He also showed his human side by greeting the new bandleader's elderly parents, helping them on and off the stage.
- Camera's were huge and everywhere. Stephen had one camera that he spoke into for the monologue that had a huge screen on top of it for the teleprompter. There was another camera on a long boom structure that could rotate and reach all corners of the studio, from the balcony to the band to the back of the mezzanine. It was in constant motion. And there were both handheld cameras and stationary cameras that were put into place whenever the action demanded it.
- The live show is different from the version that you see later on. The Late Show is taped at 5:30-7:30, but broadcast around 11:30, some four hours later. In that time period they edit more than I had previously thought. Cuss words are bleeped out, bloopers and mistakes are removed, interviews are broken up into segments,(Colbert performs his interviews in one sitting, and then the network looks for breaking points to add commercials), and lead-ins are added. It's was refreshing to see Stephen mess up from time to time and laugh at himself, which made me appreciate him more. He spent a full five minutes apologizing for mispronouncing one of his guest's names, but that was never broadcast. Thankfully, we were provided with monitors that we could watch for segments that were pre-taped.
- While we were there on a Tuesday, they taped both Tuesday and Thursday segments in front of the same audience. Thus we got to see Alex Wagner from MSNBC for Tuesday and Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney for Thursday's show. I knew that he often taped Friday shows on Thursdays, but apparently they are very flexible with interview segments, basing the timing on star's availability.
Most of what we see on television is a carefully curated illusion. Scripted shows are shot over weeks and heavily edited. "Reality" shows are edited heavily to emphasize stories that the producers think will be of interest. Even live shows can be heavily scripted. Talk shows are edited as well, but for the most part what you see on the air is what really happened. Reality is real, but it also can be boring, so I take entertainment content with a grain of salt and and appreciate it for what it is.
Comedians notoriously struggle with depression, sadness and substance abuse. Stephen Colbert appears at least on the outside to be a happy, well-adjusted person. Colbert is happily married, bringing his wife on the show regularly, and his interviews show a great sensitivity and intelligence that most talk show hosts can only dream of. He can conduct intelligent interviews and hold his own, he can be goofy at times, and he can be passionate when the times call for it. For over a year during the pandemic he did the show with only his wife in the room, brightening the days of many who feared for their lives in that dark time. During the Donald Trump years, he was a beacon of jokes for those who feared for the future of democracy and truth.
The only thing I would change about his show is that I'd like to see more interaction between Stephen and regular people. Most talk show hosts like Carson and Letterman interacted with people in the audience or even out on the street, and those were some of the most memorable moments to me. The guests that the show brings on are fine, but they are all there to promote things, and getting them to go off-script and be real can be a challenge. The Late Show has 19 writers, only two of whom are women, and their segments are the strength of the show. Apparently CBS has little power over the show, and that lets Colbert be himself to a great degree, which is what we want- authenticity and humor.
Ed Sullivan would be proud of what's going on in his old building.
Here is the most watched segment of the show on You Tube. It shows both the silliness and decency of the man, as he helps an actress struggling mightily against a network tv nip slip.
And here is another popular segment when Deadpool took over the monologue.
And finally, here he is with America's treasure- Dolly Parton, in an interview with songs and tears during the pandemic.