By Ellen Gray, Philadelphia Daily News (TNS)
A small group of reporters clustered around Stephen Colbert at a CBS press party in Los Angeles last month, digital recorders already running, but the future host of CBS’ “Late Show” wasn’t taking questions yet.
“I’ll say hi to everyone first,” he told us. “Before we go around, I’ll say hi. Nice to meet you.”
His late mother, who raised him as well as 10 older children, might have been proud. But there’s more at work than old-fashioned courtesy as Colbert prepares to take the stage of Broadway’s Ed Sullivan Theater on Tuesday.
After 1,447 episodes as the host of Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report and a nearly nine-month gap between shows that’s left him “twitching,” Colbert’s stepping away from the hilariously obtuse persona he created for his last show to play himself.
And because both the character and the comedian shared a name — and because, let’s face it, not everyone in the world watched him on Comedy Central — introductions may be in order.
A few hours earlier, Colbert had broken convention at the Television Critics Association’s summer meetings by introducing himself: “Our next contestant hails from South Carolina by way of Chicago, Illinois, and basic-cable news parody. Weighing in at 181 pounds, the next host of The Late Show, please welcome Stephen Colbert, the man talking into the mic right now. Thank you very much.”
It was a news conference, not a performance — reporters at TCA don’t applaud, often to the consternation of actors who haven’t been briefed — but it would be silly to pretend that Colbert didn’t kill, hitting the perfect mix of being funny and actually answering questions. Afterward, anticipating the usual rush for follow-ups, he simply walked to the edge of the stage and plopped himself down amid a tangle of outstretched arms and recorders and answered even more.
When I asked him later if he’d picked up anything since The Colbert Report ended that he might use on The Late Show, he joked that he’d learned “that I become mentally unwell when I’m not performing in front of an audience. The TCA audience today is not exactly, you know, a ‘live television studio audience,’ but I couldn’t have been happier to be out there. Just anything to be talking to people.”
Talking to people, and with people, is something the faux Colbert did surprisingly well, considering that his interviews were conducted from a place of what he liked to describe as willful ignorance.
“It became my favorite part,” he said. “I thought it was going to be the jokes, but it became the interviews.”
Going into an interview, he said, “I want to have a point of view about what the project is, or what their position is, if it’s political, or what the idea of their book is, or whatever it is. But, I’m honestly interested in them. And I find, as much as I’m a satirist, I’m not ironically detached from anything I talk about or anybody I talk to.
“The nice thing about having done it as a character is that I learned as a performer at all times to be passionately attached to what you’re talking about. Because then the conversation has legs. You’re not pretending.”
And, like David Letterman before him, he expects to be serious when the occasion calls for it.
On the Report, “I wore the character as lightly as a cap, dependent upon who I was talking to… I’m very interested in my guests, and I’m looking forward to being able to be sincerely interested in what they have to say without regard to having to translate it through an idiot’s mouth. So, if that leads to some serious conversations, I’d be very happy. We had them before on the last show, and the audience came with us. So, I don’t see any reason why it should stop.”
The Colbert Report attracted big stars — though never George Clooney, who’s scheduled to be on Colbert’s first Late Show — but it also showcased the work and opinions of people who were far less famous.
“Naquasia LeGrand, who was the head of the fast-food workers’ strike in New York… she was one of my favorite guests of all time,” Colbert told reporters. “She was fierce. She was funny. She was energetic. She didn’t back down at all. All I really want from a guest is somebody who has something to say so I can play with them.”
He also talked to writers, and tried to read as many books as he could while keeping up with the news, he said.
“I actually will have, hopefully, more time to read on this new show, though the balance of authors to musicians or politicians or actors, I don’t know what it’s going to be. I hope we keep them because I like people that have something that they really want to talk about.”
How will CBS feel about that?
He insisted there had been “no instructions” or limits placed on non-celebrity guests for the new show.
“I think they like what we did and are hoping we do more, and certainly, we have the opportunity. I’m going from three, four guests a week to 15, I think.”
He did seem hyper-aware of the difference between his previous half-hour gig and this one, mentioning more than once that he’d be doing 202 shows a year. (This week, CBS announced his premiere would run nine minutes beyond the usual hour.)
He was eager to get started.
“I don’t like comedy in theory. That’s just theology. I want to get to the religion. I want to get in front of the audience and hear the laughter, you know. The emotion I have right now is not anxiety over doing the show. It’s anxiety about the eagerness to get onstage.”
Where he expects to have fun is in a refurbished Ed Sullivan Theater that’s been stripped down to its 1927 bones, with some of the equipment that separated Letterman from the studio audience apparently removed
“I find it a very intimate space now,” he said.
When I asked if it would be as freezing a space as it famously was on Letterman’s watch, he dashed one of my hopes, at least.
“I believe that the comedy weather is cold. Because if your teeth are chattering, you’re that close to laughing,” he declared gleefully.
Close to laughing is where we can expect to find Colbert, too, apparently.
“If you’re wondering who the real Stephen Colbert is, there’s a supercut online of me laughing, me breaking character the entire time. That’s me,” he told reporters.
“That guy who can’t stop laughing, that’s the real Stephen Colbert. I can’t wait for him to be the only guy you see.”
Photo: The new Marquee on Broadway for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” (John Paul Filo/CBS)