Stephen Colbert is sitting at a conference table, poring over a dossier on the first and most mysterious celebrity who will appear on CBS’s Late Show when he takes over on Sept. 8–Stephen Colbert.
The research is part of a planned series of Late Show segments titled “Who Am Me?,” a takeoff on the question people have been asking since Colbert was named David Letterman’s successor last year, after playing conservative pundit “Stephen Colbert” for nearly a decade on The Colbert Report: Who is the real Stephen Colbert?
So he asked his staffers to find out. They sent a crew to his hometown, Charleston, S.C., tracking down childhood friends to ask about his early years. (Another idea: having Colbert investigated by a private eye.) If they move forward with the piece, Colbert will go down himself, but first he’s sitting down with associate producer Megan Gearheart and senior segment producer Liz Levin, trying to find out if Past Stephen gave Future Stephen any good material.
Turns out Past Stephen was a bit of a rascal, in a red-blooded Americana way. There are stories of fender benders, doing doughnuts in a Waffle House parking lot, the time he threw a football that wrecked his mother’s crystal chandelier while she was out of town. “So I took all the crystals off,” he says, “hundreds of crystals, and rehung them in a new pattern. She never noticed. I told her 30 years later. She was like, ‘I’m so proud of you!'”
Colbert shuffles through the papers, riffing lines to use when he goes down to interview his old cronies. He practices a question for an old girlfriend in a stentorian Report-esque voice: “How have I destroyed you for other men?” Then he overrules himself: “No, I can’t do that.” He reminisces about a girl with whom he used to sit on the school lawn, talking backward. “‘Eyb-eyb, Ycul!’ That’s how I’d say, ‘Bye-bye, Lucy.'” Gearheart and Levin awwwww over this, but he quickly nixes himself again. “No, that’s too adorable for television.”
It’s tricky, this being-yourself business. This isn’t like “Better Know a District,” the old Report segment in which he used to spring excruciating questions on members of Congress. (In 2006 he asked Georgia Republican Lynn Westmoreland, who supported a bill requiring the Ten Commandments to be displayed in Congress, to recite them on air. The Congressman was able to come up with three.) This is more like “Better Know Thyself,” and he doesn’t want to embarrass on camera people he knows and loves.
“We’ll just have to keep going up to the line, and I can say, ‘We’ll edit that out,'” he says finally–Stephen the nice guy compromising with Stephen the comedian. Ultimately, he says, “Who Am Me?” will probably have to be an unsolved mystery. “There’s a level of this,” he tells his producers, “where it’s addressing a question without an answer, that can’t be answered. Like ‘Who am cares?'”
We am care, and here’s why. It’s not as if anyone cares that much about network late-night shows anymore. The audiences and the profits are smaller; the influence has waned. Johnny Carson used to be like a fourth branch of government. Now more people experience the shows as five-minute viral clips, if at all. When Letterman and Jay Leno battled to succeed Carson, it was like a comedic and cultural civil war. When Jimmy Fallon took over The Tonight Show, it was fine and people were generally happy. We all got some fun lip-sync videos out of it.
So it doesn’t matter per se that CBS’s Late Show is getting a new host. What matters is that Colbert is getting a new job. After all, he’s part of the reason the old-school talk shows became less relevant–political-comedy shows like the Report and Last Week Tonight, both offshoots of Jon Stewart’s 16-year run on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, have influence far outstripping their audience size. If there’s one person who could make a network late show really matter again, it’s Colbert. Whoever he is.
In one sense, Colbert is among the best-known entities in late night. Launched in 2005, The Colbert Report was the most revolutionary talk show since Letterman’s Late Night on NBC. Colbert rode his vainglorious character into cultural history on a screaming eagle, playing a swaggering, know-nothing, feel-everything conservative pundit devoted to America, himself and the truth–or rather the “truthiness” (an epoch-defining coinage for the belief that if something feels true in your gut, then it is true).
Some critics doubted the performance could last more than a few weeks. It went almost a decade, becoming a multiplatform, immersive improv piece that outlasted any Andy Kaufman stunt. On air, he jousted with politicians, actors and authors in the persona of an impassioned idiot. Off air, he lacerated the press and President George W. Bush in a White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech that went viral, ran a favorite-son presidential campaign in the South Carolina Democratic primary and created his own campaign super PAC, teaching a civics lesson on how those bodies funnel millions of anonymous dollars into elections.
But Colbert himself–the person, himself, out of character–has almost never appeared on TV outside of a few interviews. In this sense, he’s coming into the job less as a Letterman and more as a Conan O’Brien, who took over Late Night as an obscure former writer for The Simpsons. We know Colbert well, yet we have no idea who is going to show up.
The traditional way to answer that question is biography: you probe someone’s childhood and résumé and, Rumpelstiltskin’s-your-name, you’ve unlocked the real person. Quickly then: Colbert, 51, was born into a big South Carolina family, the youngest of 11. He suffered an early tragedy when his father, a medical-school dean, and two brothers were killed in a plane crash. He found escape in books, Dungeons & Dragons and vintage pulp sci-fi. (“I was a nerd when nerd was nerd,” he says. “I went to gaming conventions. I’m glad that it’s popular now. But I was a nerd when it had a cost.”) He studied acting in Chicago, gravitated to improv and became a regular with the Second City troupe. “He was always funny, always a good partner, always a ‘Yes, and’ person,” remembers fellow cast member and longtime friend Amy Sedaris. That led to TV writing, to making the surreal sitcom Strangers With Candy with Sedaris, to The Daily Show, to the Report, to this.
So, yes, there is a real Colbert, by all accounts delightful. His off-camera manner is warm, soft-spoken and earnest. Unlike his pinstripe-armored Comedy Central alter ego, he prefers a suburban-dad uniform of khakis, deck shoes and oxford shirts, befitting the suburban New Jersey dad he is. He tends to be the smartest guy in any room he’s in, even if it’s the size of the Ed Sullivan Theater. (Did you know that the original 1950s CBS eye logo was designed by William Golden? Colbert does! Did you know that Abe Lincoln was once a wrestler, who would yell “I’m the big buck of this lick!” and challenge anyone in the crowd to fight him after a match? Colbert does!)
But who am we kidding? You’re not going to see this guy on TV–not all of him anyway, not all the time. Because real people don’t host talk shows. You didn’t watch the real Letterman or Carson, who were intensely private men, however much they might have peppered their desk chat with off-camera anecdotes. Even nonentertainers create personae for different situations; constructing an identity is part of growing up. When Colbert was a kid, for instance, before he ever stepped in front of a TV camera, his parents gave him the choice of pronouncing his surname “COAL-bert” or “col-BEAR.” He picked the latter–a little more worldly, a little less Southern–just as he deliberately worked to drop his Southern accent and speak like mid-Atlantic news anchors on TV.
Even Colbert’s tongue-in-cheek “Who Am Me?” research gets at the absurdity of the question. There are several versions of any of us, depending on whom you ask, and–just as is already happening in the producers’ meetings–you’ll get a curated edit of Colbert that he chooses to put on the air. You’ll get an entertaining performance, which is informed by an actual, complicated person but is not that person exactly. That’s not a lie. It’s show business.
This Summer, Colbert and his team are working in purgatory, in a cube farm of temporary offices on the far, far west side of Manhattan, above a BMW dealership. (“It feels like you’re selling insurance in here,” Colbert says.) Eventually they’ll have several floors of spiffy, glass-walled offices over the Ed Sullivan Theater in Times Square. For now, though, the door of Colbert’s new office is marked by a sheet of printer paper that reads “Stephen Colbert’s New Office.” The mail bins still have The Colbert Report labels. The anonymous workspace bears the detritus of the many productions that squatted here before. “There is serious gum under this chair!” Colbert exclaims during a meeting. “This is Bethenny Frankel gum!”
Launching a talk show is like starting a new job and renovating a mansion all at once–there are hundreds of tiny decisions to make that may stick with you for years. This afternoon, there’s a review of final renderings of the set; a Skype call to Buenos Aires with the director of the title sequence, which is supposed to create the impression of “a toy chest version of New York”; picking out swatches for the guest chairs. (Pro tip: Don’t pick the velvet. It doesn’t pop on camera.) Colbert weighs in on the exposed brick of the new set and the distance between the mirrors in the guest makeup room. “I’m a complete obsessive-compulsive control freak,” he says. “I like to know where the data cable is coming in from the street.”
The Colbert Report had a mere eight weeks to prep and launch. The Late Show With Stephen Colbert has had eight months since its predecessor went off the air. For the writers, that means months of what Colbert called “shouting jokes into a sock and throwing it off a bridge.” You pitch, you conceive bits, you write jokes and scripts. Maybe a few are evergreen enough to save for the actual show; most will never make it out of these rooms.
Yet they’re all important, because they’ll set the tone of the new show, and that in turn will help create Colbert 2.0. One wall of Colbert’s office is covered with note cards bearing the names of segments that might or might not ever come to be: “Saddest Thing on Wikipedia,” “Manufactured Controversy,” “The Fault in Our Divergent Hunger Stars.” One says, simply, “Prossible.”
To keep the comedy muscles limber and to remind America that he existed, Colbert began putting videos online early in the summer. After Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign, he whipped up one wearing a toupee and speaking in blustering Trumpisms. A week of “Lunch With Stephen” shorts unspooled a bizarre five-minute story of Colbert as a co-worker on the run from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Most audaciously and bizarrely, Colbert did an entire “first show” from a small-town cable-access studio in Monroe, Mich.: a full 41 minutes including a monologue, an interview with bewildered Detroit native Eminem (whom Colbert pretended never to have heard of) and hyperlocal comedy bits about a Yelp review of an area restaurant and a rare local delicacy, muskrat. (Disclosure: coincidentally, I was born and raised in Monroe. The muskrat is no joke.)
The pieces feel like a kind of audition reel, playing with new ways of being “Stephen Colbert” for a new show–“finding different colors in his voice,” as Tom Purcell, executive producer for both the Report and The Late Show, puts it. Which of these hosts will we see in September–the one-man repertory of characters? The deliberately clueless interviewer? The political satirist? The genuinely curious mensch? “I have no doubt all of them will exist,” Colbert says, “because you’ve got to fill an hour every night.”
But if you want a big hint of what Colbert the Late Show host will be like, you could also just rewatch the Report, whose fake-pundit host–“the Character,” Colbert and his producers call him–was much more real than he gets credit for.
The Character didn’t share Colbert’s politics. (Colbert claims “a liberal bent,” having absorbed politics early via his older siblings in the Watergate era.) But he had many of the same nerd passions. (Colbert had a cameo in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and speaks passable Elvish.) He was just as seriously Catholic. When Stanford psychology professor Philip Zimbardo argued on the Report that God created hell and evil, Colbert shot back, “Hell was created by Satan’s disobedience to God and his purposeful removal from God’s love, which is what hell is … You send yourself to hell; God doesn’t send you there.” Zimbardo congratulated his interlocutor on learning well in Sunday school. “I teach Sunday school, motherf-cker!” Colbert retorted, with a huge grin. (He actually does.)
In other ways, the Report simply reflected Colbert’s taste for surreal, twisted humor–like the finale, in which the host murdered Death, became immortal and flew off on Santa’s sleigh with a unicorn Abraham Lincoln and Alex Trebek. “He has a genuine love of stupid, silly joy,” says Purcell. The Character implied the actual Colbert in the negative space around him: he’s not that guy, but he’s the guy who found that guy funny. Even the off-kilter grammar play of “Who Am Me?” recalls the title of his Report-era best-selling book, I Am America (And So Can You!).
On the old show, says Purcell, when Colbert and Co. would have an idea–say, a feud with the band the Decemberists or the Character’s paranoia about bears–they’d have to figure out how to filter it through “the voice of this archconservative.” Now they can simply do it. Says Colbert’s head writer, Opus Moreschi: “People already know this guy more than they think they do.”
But one way or another, he won’t be the Character, and that’s going to be an adjustment for ardent fans. The Report spoofed the cult of personality around cable-news messiahs–the ritual “Stephen! Stephen! Stephen!” audience chant–but it also reproduced it. When he asked the members of “Colbert Nation” to falsify the Wikipedia entry on elephants (to illustrate “wikiality,” the idea that Internet-age truth is malleable) or to write to NASA to ask for a space-station module to be named for him, they did. To a lot of his audience, liberals especially, he was not just an entertainer but a political folk hero. Stepping off that bunting-draped pedestal will be a risk. It may also be a relief. “People had [political] expectations early on in that show following the Correspondents’ Dinner, which is why I almost never spoke about that,” Colbert says. “I didn’t want people’s expectation that I was anyone’s champion to overcome our intention, which was comedy. I don’t want to be anybody’s champion. That doesn’t sound funny.”
In fact, Colbert had decided to quit the Report anyway when CBS came calling. “I still enjoyed it,” he says, “but to model that behavior, you have to consume that behavior on a regular basis. It became very hard to watch punditry of any kind. And I wouldn’t want anyone to mistake my comedy for punditry itself.”
Then again, that show was the reason CBS came calling. It may not want the Report itself, but it would like its younger audience–at an average age of around 42, one of the youngest in late night, whereas Letterman had one of the oldest, at 60. Advertisers pay more to reach young viewers, meaning that even if Colbert doesn’t catch Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel in overall ratings, he could still earn more money. “You advertisers want young eyeballs,” Colbert said at a CBS ad-sales presentation in May, “and not just the ones Rupert Murdoch buys on the black market.”
Time was, if a comic stepped up to a big network stage, it meant giving up any specific points of view to appeal to a broad audience–Jay Leno, for instance, was scathingly political before he took over Tonight. But specificity, not being for everyone, is exactly what brought Colbert that platinum audience. Maybe for that reason, CBS chief Leslie Moonves doesn’t sound worried that viewers might associate Colbert with polarizing comedy. And not just polarizing to conservatives. In 2014 progressives started a #CancelColbert campaign after the Character announced the “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever,” a parody of the Washington Redskins’ attempts to defend their team’s racist mascot. “He’s going to step on a lot of toes,” Moonves says. “There’s no question that part of his success is that he’s been controversial, and I’m sure that on CBS, he’ll be controversial again.”
But first, there’s a show to build, literally from the ground up. On a Friday afternoon in mid-July, we climb five stories of scaffolding to the ceiling of the under-construction Ed Sullivan Theater. It’s breathtaking even if you don’t look down the creaky metal stairs–a massive neo-Gothic dome with baroque grillwork and original stained glass from 1927. There’s history in the basement too, where Colbert points out some chunky wooden posts. “The elephant columns,” he says. “Ed Sullivan put them there for [support] when the Ringling Brothers circus came to town.” (I have not independently verified this claim, but it feels true in my gut.)
When Letterman moved here in 1993, he narrowed the space with lighting and sound equipment to make it more like a typical TV studio. Colbert’s renovation is opening it back up, which is partly a statement of purpose. “On [the Report], there was a need not to let people in, not to see backstage,” he says. “My character couldn’t admit that it was a comedy show. We would edit any mistake I ever did, because part of the character was that he wasn’t a f-ckup. In this show, I don’t care what you see.”
If television had a St. Peter’s Basilica, this would be it. This was Letterman’s stage, of course, but the Beatles played here too, and Elvis, Merv Griffin and Jackie Gleason. Physically, at least, Colbert will be, in Sullivan’s words, putting on a really big show. Colbert can’t help seeming awed by the space. Yet he’s aware that awe and reverence kill comedy dead. The first time he toured the place with co–executive producer Barry Julien, Colbert recalls, he was struck by how different this Broadway temple would be from the Report studio, a modest functional box on the far west side of Manhattan. “And Barry said, ‘Yeah, but the thing is, those idiots–us, the people who did that show–would look at this space as an opportunity to exploit to do their comedy.’ That’s exactly how we have to look at it. Those idiots got us this job.”
That was the challenge Letterman had when he ported his cult show over to CBS in 1993, taking something niche and revolutionary and making it big. It didn’t entirely work, not at first. Letterman was still Letterman–he even beat Leno in the ratings for a brief run–but it was years, maybe not until his 2000 heart surgery, before he seemed truly comfortable having gone from stunt pilot to 747 captain.
If there’s an artist out there who can solve this puzzle–create popular yet idiosyncratic genius, on CBS, the most mass of the few remaining mass broadcasters–it’s Colbert. His defining feature as a performer is how he combines subversiveness with normality–hypernormality, really, an almost unsettling, David Lynchian, stock-photo clean-cutness.
“I am a white, male, straight, Christian–Catholic, so, you know, Microsoft Christian–American who enjoys McDonald’s and Coca-Cola,” Colbert says. “For a lot of American history, I am American neutral. It makes me wonder why that is or whether that’s a good thing, but it’s also a great place to do comedy from because it oddly separates me from what I imagine a comedian is supposed to be. I am comfortably integrated into American society, and yet I am in a business that’s full of outsiders.”
Letterman and Carson both had a Midwestern-neighbor charm. Colbert seems as if he was born inside a television, built from an archetypal idea of what A Guy From TV looks like–when he smiles, you half expect a CGI gleam to flash from his teeth with a sound-effects chime. And even though he’s dropped the Character’s voice-of-God bluster, in his Late Show videos and promos he still affects an exaggerated, camera-perfect manner. He’s TV’s inside man, a guy who can comfortably be given the controls of a network battleship yet cheerfully steer it off the map, humming a chipper little tune.
Likewise, Colbert’s Late Show is shaping up to be outwardly typical. There will be a monologue and sketches and interviews. There will be a bandstand and a bandleader, New Orleans jazz-funk multi-instrumentalist Jon Batiste. And there will be–as there has been ever since the first lungfish crawled onto land, put on a suit and interviewed a trilobite–a desk. “I don’t want to strap dynamite to the wheel and have to reinvent it on a nightly basis,” Colbert says. “The desk is not a limitation. The desk can be Snoopy’s doghouse.”
The show could distinguish itself, though, with the people it puts next to the desk. On CBS, Colbert won’t eschew the celeb rodeo entirely, but he’s looking to balance it with newsmakers: his first guests are George Clooney and Jeb Bush, with subsequent shows mixing Scarlett Johansson and rapper Kendrick Lamar with the likes of Tesla founder Elon Musk and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. His most memorable interviews on the Report were with scientists, politicians and authors. (He was one of the biggest things to happen to publishing since Oprah.) Much as Fallon gets actors to play games on his Celebrities Are Awesome Funtime Hour, Colbert brought out the smart-fun side of thinkers like astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Being the talk show of ideas might be a practical choice too. Colbert will compete for bookings with Fallon’s top-rated Tonight, which is also in New York and whose executive producer, Lorne Michaels, has the leverage of controlling NBC’s Saturday Night Live and Late Night With Seth Meyers as well. Colbert and Fallon are friendly–Colbert was on Fallon’s first Tonight show and says he’d be glad to have him on Late Show or vice versa–but business is business.
Colbert’s other distinction, of course, is Colbert himself. Kimmel has his pranks, Fallon his rap battles. Colbert, who spent a decade doing in-character improv on nightly TV, relies more on his quick intellect, twisted humor and malleability as an entertainer, something Stewart points to as his protégé’s ultimate strength. “He’s a better person than he is a performer, and he’s the best performer I’ve ever worked with,” Stewart says. “I think he’s a far more open performer than some of the greats of the past. The idea that we knew Johnny Carson as a person was ludicrous. But somehow it’s a demand we have of Stephen, that we understand who he is underneath all of this. Fortunately for him, the foundation of it is wonderful.”
And there will inevitably be the unforeseen events–big news, tributes, tragedies–when the introspective, soulful, actual Colbert could connect with America, for real. We got a glimpse of that guy on Stewart’s last Daily Show, giving a funny but heartfelt thank-you to his mentor (the Frodo to his Sam, in Middle-earth-speak): “We learned from you by example how to do a show with intention, how to work with clarity, how to treat people with respect.”
In the meantime, there’s a lot of waiting, writing and listening to speculation about whether Colbert can make a network talk show as vital and exciting as The Colbert Report. That show drew its strength from the power of a specific concept and point of view. Network talk shows are by definition about everything; they’re the last variety shows, and variety is the opposite of specificity. Even if Colbert is everyman enough to be something to everyone, should he try to be?
All of which is amusing to someone who heard the same sort of questions, in reverse, about the Report a decade ago. “They said, ‘You can’t do a nightly show in character–it won’t last until Christmas,'” Colbert remembers. “And now there’s a lot of ‘You can’t do the show not in character.’ Evidently nobody has any belief that I can do anything.”
Just before Letterman went off the air, Colbert stopped by to sit with the host in his office. “We had a very lovely evening,” he says. “We had a couple bottles of water, and he answered questions. It was two guys with similar jobs talking shop. And at the end of the night, he showed me how to run the freight elevator, which is how you get down to the theater.
“After that, I went across the street, got myself a cup of coffee and looked at the theater from the outside for about an hour, and I realized that nothing we do right now really matters. I mean, we’ll do our best to have a good design and a good logo and a good marquee and hire all the right people and have the right sound and the right guests. But it doesn’t really matter until you go and do it. Everything is theory. As Yogi Berra beautifully said, ‘In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.'”
It’s an improv guy’s answer: You find your character when you’re onstage and on the spot. Maybe especially if that character is you. Viewers will find Stephen Colbert. Now he just has to find himself.
This appears in the September 07, 2015 issue of TIME.