TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. This week, we're featuring interviews with Emmy nominees. The CBS show "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" is nominated for three Emmys - Outstanding Variety Talk Series, Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series and Outstanding Directing for a Variety Series. Colbert has won nine Emmys so far, six for his previous show "The Colbert Report" and three as a writer on "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart. We're going to hear an excerpt of the interview we recorded November 3, 2016, just a few days before the election. Colbert was preparing for a live election night special. If you watched that special, you probably remember how stunned he was when Trump was declared the winner.
When Colbert first took over "The Late Show" in 2015 following David Letterman's retirement, his opening monologue wasn't as political as it later became. Here's an excerpt from his monologue the day jury selection began on the Paul Manafort trial.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT")
STEPHEN COLBERT: Now, Manafort's - he's a tough guy. He seems like a tough guy. But I'm sure he's a little worried. One person who's apparently not worried about Mueller's investigation is Donald Trump. For over a year now, his catchphrase has been, no collusion.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: There was no collusion at all.
No collusion, no nothing.
No collusion, no nothing.
COLBERT: He uses it for every occasion. It's...
COLBERT: It's like his aloha.
COLBERT: It means both hello and I'm guilty.
COLBERT: But he - aloha, aloha. But he and his team have recently rebranded and are using a new phrase that Trump tweeted out this morning. Collusion is not a crime.
COLBERT: But that doesn't matter because there was no collusion except by crooked Hillary and the Democrats.
COLBERT: OK, so collusion isn't a crime, but it doesn't matter because he didn't do it anyway. Hillary did. It's really going to complicate the chants at his rallies. Lock her up, but collusion's not a crime. So what are we locking her up for? I am confused. We're living in a web of lies. But...
COLBERT: Woo, woo, woo.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: When you started doing "The Late Show" as opposed to "The Colbert Report" and you were able to drop "The Colbert Report" persona, did you know what your authentic voice was going to be, you know, what your voice is - like, the actual Stephen Colbert was going to be - 'cause you still have to have, like, a bit of a persona as an entertainer onstage.
COLBERT: I don't think so. I knew that it would be a little bit of a public discovery. You know, what's the - it's somebody else's joke, but life is like learning to play the violin in public. You don't know what you're doing until you do it. And I knew that there'd be a learning curve that had to happen in public on air. I would say that what I didn't anticipate was how much I would overcorrect for not doing the character.
GROSS: What do you mean?
COLBERT: I think - well, because I was not talking about politics. I wasn't doing a monologue on the day's events when we first started. I mean, I would still talk about what was happening, but it wasn't highly focused. It wasn't - it did not have intention. And I wasn't speaking all that honestly because I was attempting to do something different than I had done before. And the overcorrect, I would say, is that not realizing that through the character I was actually speaking very honestly. And you were hearing my voice a lot of the time. You know...
GROSS: I felt that way as a viewer.
COLBERT: There's a - yeah, there's a confessional aspect to wearing a mask - you know, the same reason why it's easier to confess behind a screen to a priest than face to face. And so by - the character was a 10-year confession perhaps of, you know, indulging ego and appetite through the person of this character. Then you go on stage as yourself, and you're responsible for everything you say.
And there's a natural - I think 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 and also that if you talk about politics all the time, well, isn't that what that other guy did? Why would I - or talk about the news all the time. Well, isn't that - then how am I changing in any way? And it took me - oh, gosh, I would say it took me almost half a year to realize that those two aren't mutually exclusive, that you can have a highly opinionated, highly topical show as yourself and not essentially fall back into the basket of "The Colbert Report."
And 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 and not worrying about that I was - I'm playing the same game. I know I'm not playing the same game. But it took me a little while to realize that the character was not in danger of re-emerging.
GROSS: Yeah, I was really glad when you added more political satire at the top of the show.
COLBERT: Yeah, me too. It's much more enjoyable. It's more honest, actually, 'cause it's what I consume all day.
GROSS: It seems to me one of the hard parts of doing an opening monologue is what to do when the audience is laughing.
COLBERT: What to do when the audience is laughing?
GROSS: Yeah. Like, do you say something?
COLBERT: Oh, my gosh.
GROSS: Do you repeat the punchline? Do you just keep your hands in your pockets? Do you...
COLBERT: Hide your erection?
COLBERT: Yeah, what do you do? What do I do while the audience is laughing? That is the hardest part of the job. What will I do...
COLBERT: ...While the audience is laughing? It's such a challenge, you know? How was the show last night? It was so hard. Why? The audience laughed so much. I didn't know what to do with myself, oh.
GROSS: No, but really, you got to do something.
COLBERT: What do you do?
GROSS: You do have to do something.
COLBERT: Levitate. Nail your feet to the floor because you'll just fly up into the rafters.
COLBERT: What do you do? You lean into it like it's a wind. It's the greatest feeling in the world. What do you do? That's the easiest part of the job. You smile, and you're happy that they're happy. That's it. And then you, like - oh, you know what the biggest challenge is?
COLBERT: It's, where do you jump back in to get to the next joke?
GROSS: Right, OK.
COLBERT: How do you ride that energy to the next joke? How then can I use what they've just given me to give them a better rhythm, a better joke the next time around? How can I slide down the front face of their wave to give them better energy back? It's like, how can I make this a reciprocal relationship? How can I make this good - this moment feel as good for them as it's feeling for me right now? What can I give back to them? And because comedy's about rhythm, it's, like, where you jump in on their laughter is really maybe the only decision you're making. And if you really feeling it, it's not a decision at all. So there's nothing to worry about while the audience is laughing.
GROSS: So you used to come in and make the nightly stage entrance doing a kick dance with your band leader, Jon Batiste. It was very manic.
GROSS: And you've taken that...
GROSS: ...Down a notch. And you're not doing the kick dance anymore.
GROSS: Can you talk about changing that?
COLBERT: Yeah. When the show first started, I thought, well, it's a giant space. It's a Broadway stage. What kind of energy - what level of energy do I need to fill this space that is then sort of captured by the camera? I used to very much do a show that was for the camera that the audience got to witness. I feel like now I'm doing the show for the room that the cameras witness.
GROSS: That's a really big difference.
COLBERT: Yeah. And you really feel it when you're doing it. My first choice was, well, err on the side of energy. And then at a certain point I realized, well, that actually doesn't translate over the camera, and the audience is just as energetic whether I do that or not. And so I started eliminating things and said, what's left? What's left is you walking on a stage and doing jokes.
It was just erring on the side of giving the audience more, giving more energy, knowing I had enough energy for that room because it's a Broadway stage. It's a big house. And it's even bigger than when Dave was there because the room had been choked down. I think a long time - maybe even in Ed Sullivan's days, they choked the whole room down with huge sound sails and baffles. And you couldn't even tell you were in a theater. It was all so choked down.
We've opened it up. It's a restored 1927 theater now. And it's an amazing space to be in. And you feel a great need to fill it. But what you learn eventually - and this is something I knew sort of intellectually but I had forgotten instinctually - is that you actually don't need high energy to fill a large space. You need your own sense of presence and focus. You know, you can bend an entire room by bending a paperclip if you've got the focus of the room. And to accept that the audience - you know, that you are their focus, you don't need to do high kicks. You just need to be there, present for them and then you fill the entire room.
GROSS: So one more question. I have taken up a lot of...
COLBERT: Whatever you want.
GROSS: ...Your time this morning.
COLBERT: Whatever you want.
COLBERT: No, I really (laughter)...
GROSS: No, no, that's part of my question. That's part of my question.
COLBERT: OK, yeah.
GROSS: It's - we're recording this in the morning. You have a lot of work to do before your show airs, so...
COLBERT: It's 11:21 recording time...
COLBERT: ...Where I am.
GROSS: So what do you have to do to compensate for the fact that you were generous enough to give us this interview?
COLBERT: Breath deeply...
COLBERT: ...And trust my staff. And I am capable of both. And then I'm ready for whatever the fresh wave of stress is because you got to like - you got to kind of like the stress, too. 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 that's - it's really a pleasant one. And you kind of have to like that.
But to do one of these jobs, you got to kind of learn to 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's going it together. At the end of it when - hey, we survived - pretty good show; let's do it again tomorrow. And that's it. It's the movement forward because it never stops. You've got to love the downhill hurdle. There's no finish line. You've got to just love missing all those trees that you could have hit today.
GROSS: Stephen Colbert recorded in 2016 just before the election. "Late Night With Stephen Colbert" is nominated for three Emmys. If you'd like to hear all the current nominees featured in our Emmy week series, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of interviews.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Fresh AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. On interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.