“The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” executive producer Chris Licht admits he’s “about to collapse” – but that’s a good thing.
Licht says he’s “energized and exhausted at the same time” as “The Late Show” concludes two weeks of live broadcasts timed to the Republican and Democratic conventions. By all accounts, it’s been a success: Critics, some of whom had expressed disappointment with Colbert’s transition from Comedy Central to CBS, are raving about the shows.
And inside “The Late Show,” Licht says, “there’s a nice energy amongst Stephen and the staff. Especially Stephen, who doesn’t read press, he’s getting pure enjoyment out of the shows we’re doing.”
The live telecasts gave Colbert the opportunity to comment, in real time, on each evening’s main speeches and news, giving the show real freshness each night. Colbert also made headlines by dusting off his Comedy Central “Stephen Colbert” persona (more on that controversy in a moment), giving former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart a platform to give some commentary, and even quickly finding the perfect doppelganger for Melania Trump, in actress Laura Benanti.
IndieWire spoke with Licht a few hours before Colbert’s final live post-convention episode. Here’s his take on how the two weeks went.
Does this feel like a relaunch, with new eyes on the show? Was this a brand new opportunity to re-introduce the show to viewers?
I wouldn’t use the word “relaunch.” We approach this show as every night you might have someone tuning in for the first time. We also knew these shows would likely go on late, so you don’t know what the viewership might be. In doing the live shows, our goal was to be as topical as humanly possible. We can’t fulfill our stated mission if we tape before the news of the day.
What did you have to do in order to react so quickly? You had less than an hour to take all of the late speeches and find a way to react on the show.
It’s basically the operation on steroids. There’s a roomful of writers watching the conventions on a big screen TV, and they’re writing jokes off of everything they see. In another room there’s Stephen and some of us, and we’re looking at those and putting some in the monologue and taking others out. And [the footage team] is furiously cutting things. It’s unbelievable to watch it happen. When CBS News goes off the air, you know you have 35 minutes to read through it and perform in front of the audience.
You had to bleep a few guests but managed to catch it all. Have there been any hairy moments on the live broadcasts?
I know it would be better if we had some stories, but we have not had any close calls. I’m knocking on wood because we have one more show tonight. That’s what live does. There’s no room for error. We had little things like one day the air conditioning wasn’t working, so everyone was hot. But nothing that would make you scared.
You have a lot of experience doing live TV, with “CBS This Morning,” “Morning Joe” and other news programs. Was this second nature for you?
It’s very different. Even though news is live, the whole system is built to be live. [“Late Show”] is a system that’s built to tape in the late afternoon. You have to blow up a lot of systems. What I’m hoping for is to talk to everyone on the team, seeing what they’ve learned over these two weeks about doing the show this way, and seeing if there’s something in the machine that can be fixed or changed to capitalize on the energy going forward when we’re not live.
Have you considered going live again during the debates or on election night?
I think what we have learned is that, if we see an opportunity, we’ll take it. No one is talking about when we’ll do this again. But I would say the confidence that we have gained that we can do this means that we’ll look for opportunities to take chances. Structurally, having the attitude that you can’t edit anything may be something that we take away from this.
The reaction of the past two weeks has been overwhelmingly positive. Do you feel that the show has finally earned its due?
You don’t allow yourself to feel any of those emotions. When you’re doing a show like this, or even when we were doing “CBS This Morning” or “Morning Joe,” every experience you build on it. No one really has time for the gratification. I’m really happy with these two weeks because I have a host and a staff that feels really energized and confident, and whether they even consciously know it, have learned from these two weeks.
The DNC, not one frame was staged with security. That is all real. In Cleveland, he ran up on the stage and no one cared. It wasn’t a big deal. So we get to Philly and we were going to go with the flow. We didn’t have a script, and Stephen was just going to see how things developed, knowing that he eventually wanted to get on the stage.
There were two security guards — one at either end of the stage. And then 15 minutes later, I looked over, and there were four. And then there were six. I said to Stephen, “These guys are watching your every move!” I told him to walk over to the other end of the hall to see what happens. He did, and they followed him! I knew then, that this was going to be great. We had actually secured a real podium pass. He had the right to be up there. And they just wouldn’t let him up! It was fantastic.
Somewhere along the lines, someone must have said, “Colbert is not going to get on that stage.” And no one adjusted to that when it became apparent that this was a PR nightmare. Having Nancy Pelosi involved was fantastic. They did us such a favor by being so obtuse about it.
Did you ever find out who laid down the law?
I don’t want to speculate, but all I know is that there were some PR people from the DNC who were not happy about what was happening.
Stephen seemed to get a surprisingly positive reaction from Trump fans outside the arena in Cleveland, even as he made some fun of their candidate. Is that the power of the camera and his celebrity?
I was blown away by the reception he got there. We didn’t really make fun of them; it was not mean-spirited at all. They were loving him! He really fed off of that, and we ended up spending hours there. And there’s a whole bunch of stuff that we shot but we only used about 30 seconds of. But he went to the closing concert with Three Dog Night and there were fireworks, and they were putting him up on the Jumbotron and people were cheering, and he’s got a beer in his hand. He was having a blast, and he must have taken 500 selfies. Sure, there’s the power of the camera and the power of celebrity, but I’ve been in those crowds with celebrities and that group is not shy about telling you they don’t like you. It was really nice.
Apparently Viacom isn’t happy with Stephen using his Comedy Central character, which you addressed on Wednesday’s episode by bringing out a new “identical cousin” character. What can you say about what’s going on?
Absolutely nothing. Can’t talk about it at all.
That speaks volumes. Can you talk about the decision to bring back the character for the conventions?
Anytime Stephen does anything with the character, it’s a very personal decision and something he feels, and we take our cues from that. It’s not like we sit in the meeting and go, “Let’s have the character do this!”
Will we see him again?
I think Stephen is in the moment of these live shows as they relate to the political conventions, and the character is a tool in the toolbox.
Is Jon Stewart someone we might see again as we head toward the election?
He’s not a tool in my toolbox. He’s a friend of Stephen’s. They talk and it’s one of those things where I will get an email from Stephen and he says, “Hey, Jon is going to do this.” OK! I have no idea, he could pop up tonight for all I know. It’s a very private and personal friendship between the two of them. It’s not something I would ever plan on having. They’re friends and once in a while out of that friendship Jon volunteers to come on.
How did Laura Benanti wind up as Melania Trump?
She had been a guest a few months ago and Stephen picked up on the fact that she looked like Melania. When the whole plagiarism thing broke, one of our supervising producers remembered that and sent an email out. Next thing you knew, she was breaking free from her vacation to drive five hours and come do this. It was amazing.
Were you disappointed a few weeks ago not to receive an Emmy nomination?
Honestly, when you’re doing a show like this, you look up, say “OK,” and move on. It’s not something we lingered on.
As you ease back into a regular schedule, what’s next for “The Late Show”?
You’re going to notice a different in the normal shows. We’re seeing how this momentum and energy plays out on the shows going forward.