It has been more than a year since Stephen Colbert took over as host of CBS' The Late Show, and he's finally feeling comfortable being himself and not a character.
Before The Late Show, Colbert spent nine years playing the role of a self-important blowhard on Comedy Central's The Colbert Report. He tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that he initially shied away from discussing politics or current events on The Late Show in an effort to differentiate himself from his Colbert persona.
"It took me almost half a year to realize ... that you can have a highly opinionated, highly topical show as yourself and not essentially fall back into the basket of The Colbert Report," he says. "Now I have no qualms about being sharp and satirical and highly opinionated and saying whatever's on my mind as quickly as I can."
This fall, Colbert's mind has been on the election. He's been doing political comedy nearly every night, but don't expect him to be at his Late Show desk on election night. Colbert's Nov. 8 show will be pre-empted by CBS News coverage, so instead he'll be hosting the Showtime special Stephen Colbert's Live Election Night Democracy's Series Finale: Who's Going To Clean Up This S***? He promises guest stars, special political commercials, musical guests and, of course, election results.
On why he decided to end The Colbert Report
The idea of "truthiness" — that was the thesis statement for the entire show, that how you feel is more important than what the facts are, and that the truth that you feel is correct is more important than anything that the facts could support. ... We embodied it satirically, though it's not really a new idea. ... But I didn't want to play that game anymore. ... I just couldn't take playing that character anymore. ... I began to feel like I was stumbling downhill with an armful of bottles and that I couldn't actually keep up the discipline, because it took discipline to remind myself every day to be the character, don't be yourself. ...
And so I decided a couple years before the show ended that I was going to end the show. ... It wasn't because I didn't like it anymore — I still liked it — but I just thought, I'm not sure if I can actually keep this up without hurting someone. ...
I thought maybe I would make some big mistake with the character because he would say terrible things. And I got away with some of the terrible things he would say or do because it was all filtered through his mask, but if I didn't maintain the mask, it would just be me being terrible.
On getting The Late Show offer
It fell out of the sky. It was absolutely no part of my plans when I decided to end The Colbert Report. It was a complete surprise to me. It hadn't been an ambition of mine, and I had just been an enormous fan of [David Letterman] and so I had great respect for what he had built. But when they called and said, "OK, how about you?" I was shocked. ...
I love a live audience, I love the grind of every day and I love the people I work with. And it gave me all the things that I loved, and that was not a hard decision. ... To know that I could continue that was the greatest draw, and I also couldn't think of anything after The Colbert Report that would seem like a promotion other than taking over for Dave.
On leaving his Colbert character behind and finding his authentic voice on The Late Show
There's a confessional aspect to wearing a mask, the same reason why it's easier to confess behind a screen to a priest than face to face. So the character was a 10-year confession, perhaps indulging ego and appetite through the person of this character. Then you go onstage as yourself and you're responsible for everything you say and there's a natural inclination to pull your punch because you have to be responsible for what you're saying. You cannot hide behind the mask. ... It took me a little while to realize that the character was not in danger of re-emerging.
On the work pace of The Late Show compared to The Colbert Report
We would talk about a single subject maybe for a week, or we would think about one idea that we might do three or four days from now, or maybe two weeks from now as we developed the idea and how my character might put himself in that news story.
Now, it's how fast can you talk about everything that happened in the news or in popular culture in the last 24 hours, and it's much faster than we used to work.
The joke I've made is that we went from go-kart to NASCAR, with all the advertising stickers on the side of our car, too. But it's a different, much faster way of working than we used to. It's less essay; it's more like reportage with jokes than a columnist. I used be like a columnist and now I'm writing daily headlines.
On how he handles the stress of the job
You got to like the stress. ... I don't know how to attach a positive feeling to stress and pressure, but there is one. There's a bulletproof feeling that comes over you, and it's really a pleasant one, and you kind of have to like that. ...
To do one of these jobs, you got to kind of love the flaming toboggan ride of it. You got to like it because everybody else is in the toboggan with you. You're doing it together, that's the joy. Everybody is doing it together and at the end of it you go, 'Hey! We survived! Pretty good show! Let's do it again tomorrow.'
That's it. It's the movement forward, because it never stops. You gotta love the downhill hurtle. There's no finish line. You got to just love missing all those trees that you could've hit today.