In today’s tumultuous political climate, the job of providing the world with clarity and perspective, once reserved for news anchors, has somehow fallen to late night talk show hosts. One of the people at the forefront of that movement is Stephen Colbert. This role he’s taken on, and the climate that led to it, were core themes throughout his panel at PaleyFest on Saturday night, March 16, 2019.
While most PaleyFest panels feature nine or ten cast members, creators, writers, etc. from a particular show, this one was just Mr. Colbert, talking with comedian, writer, and frequent Late Show guest, Pete Holmes. The result was less of a formal panel and more of a casual conversation between friends—a casual conversation in front of over 3,000 people at the Dolby Theatre. There were a few specific questions, but, mostly, the two just talked and made jokes, and it was amazing to watch.
After an extended reel of clips of some of the funniest lines, most iconic interviews, and overall most important moments from The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the two got to talking about the show’s audience—both at home and in the studio—and the process of entertaining them night after night. Colbert talked about his routine at the start of each show, and how a few small tricks (which he didn’t elaborate on) could give him an idea of what kind of audience he was performing for and help guide the rest of the episode.
This then brought them to that core theme of the role of late night TV in today’s world. The ability to make people laugh, night after night, is more important than it’s ever been. “When you’re laughing, you’re not alone,” Colbert said. “When you’re laughing, you’re not afraid.”
Things were a lot simpler for the previous generation of late night. Jay Leno recently summed up the political coverage he once provided with, “Clinton was horny. Bush was dumb.” But now it’s no longer enough to turn our political leaders into stock characters. For one thing, the line between comedy and reality in politics is becoming increasingly blurred. Colbert pointed out some things that he said on his previous show, The Colbert Report, as satire, which Donald Trump has since said as serious points. He also talked about how, when he used to go home to South Carolina, where he grew up, there were always people who genuinely didn’t get that The Colbert Report was meant to be satire and would tell him how much they agreed with some of the ridiculous points he had made.
That blurring of the line is a big part of what drives The Late Show. When practically every day yields some new bit of insanity, it’s easy for us, the people, to wonder, “Is this all actually normal? Am I the one that’s insane?” So, Colbert’s job is to show us that no, this isn’t normal, and no, we’re not insane. And, more importantly, that amid all this turmoil, we’re not alone.
It can be a difficult task, though. Another thing Colbert discussed, which I’ve heard him talk about before, was the process of finding the right rhythm for The Late Show. Previously, his entire career was built on playing characters, from his time on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (where he once did an interview as Al Sharpton, completely on the spur of the moment), to its spinoff, The Colbert Report, where he spun faux far-right political rhetoric. Hosting The Late Show was the first time he actually got to address the audience as himself and being able to do that comfortably took some time and experimentation.
Even today, three and a half years later, the prospect can be nerve-wracking. What if the audience doesn’t like it? What if they don’t respond? In dealing with these fears, Colbert makes a distinction between anxiety and urgency. The two are very similar emotions, which come from the same place. But anxiety serves to hold you back, while urgency spurs you forward, to do what needs to be done. By channeling his fears into urgency, rather than anxiety, he’s able to give the audience what they need—and hopefully inspire us to the same urgency.
Another thing that Colbert discusses frequently in public settings is his faith, and the PaleyFest panel was no exception. Pete Holmes being a Christian himself, the two were able to talk extensively and respectfully about religion—while also ribbing each other a bit, since Colbert is Catholic and Holmes is Protestant.
I’ve always liked the way Stephen Colbert talks about his Catholicism and what it means to him. Before the panel, just outside the Dolby Theatre, a man stood on Hollywood Blvd. yelling into a microphone about how this country was going to burn to the ground for its sin, and how when it did, he was going to sit back, have a beer, and laugh about it. In the wake of that, it was refreshing to hear Colbert talk sincerely and unabashedly about things like love and acceptance. Likewise, in a world where many politicians and pundits advocate for horrifying things in the name of their faith, it’s nice to see someone who understands that faith and what it’s really supposed to be about, hold them accountable.
Colbert and Holmes got so caught up in their conversation that they ended up with very little time for audience questions at the end; however, there was just enough time for one audience member to bring up Colbert’s brief career in musical theatre. While not a trained singer or stage actor, he is a big fan of musicals, and, in fact, once appeared at the personal request of Stephen Sondheim himself in a production of Company, alongside such powerhouses as Neil Patrick Harris and Patti LuPone. Colbert assured us that his career on the stage is probably through, but that there’s one more part he’d love to play: Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar. He even favored us with a few bars from Judas’ big song. Mr. Colbert may not be classically trained, but he’s still pretty talented.
This panel was an incredible experience from beginning to end. Colbert is intelligent, well-informed, and, of course, hilarious. He also impresses me as a genuinely nice person. But, more importantly than that, as the world continues to go crazy, Stephen Colbert is the voice we need to keep us grounded, to make us laugh, and to show us that we’re not alone.
*Photo credit: Host and EP Stephen Colbert and Moderator Pete Holmes at PaleyFest LA 2019 honoring The Late Show with Stephen Colbert at the DOLBY THEATRE on March 16, 2019, in Hollywood, California. © Brian To for The Paley Center for Media