We chatted with the comedian and newly appointed Late Show host about his connection to the Windy City, what David Letterman gave him as a parting gift, and why he cares about Donald Trump's well-being.
After 10 seasons of feeling the news at us, Stephen Colbert said goodbye to his blowhard Colbert Report persona to take over The Late Show on CBS. On September 8, it’s time to say hello to the real Colbert, whip-smart Star Wars fanboy and Tolkein geek, as he takes his seat on David Letterman’s late-night throne; that's not bad for the man who spent nearly five years waiting tables at Scoozi in River North. “I heard they closed,” Colbert said about the Italian eatery that recently shut down. “The zucchini haystack,” he sighed. “I’ll miss it.”
We caught up with Colbert at the Television Critics Association summer press tour in California, where the Northwestern University grad and Second City alum talked about his new gig, his Chicago ties, and why he hopes Donald Trump is taking his vitamins.
Colbert Cultivates Homegrown Humor "While I’m culturally and emotionally from Charleston, South Carolina, professionally, there’s no doubt I’m from Chicago. My executive producer, Tom Purcell, we met at Second City 25 years ago. I love Chicago, I miss it."
He Hired Writers Exclusively From the Windy City "Over the last couple of years, I lost a couple of writers to other projects. I didn’t replace them because I knew the show was coming to an end. I had to hire four more writers for the new show to get back up to the number I like, which is 12. I didn’t know—because I didn’t look at their résumés, I only read their jokes—I hired all Chicago people."
The Funny Gene Runs in the Family "I'm from a big family, I’m one of 11 kids. I’m the baby of the family, so I always had an audience [and] I wanted to make them laugh. My wife always says, 'You’re so quiet when your brothers and sisters are around.' I’m like, 'Because they’re so funny!' Also, it stopped people from beating me up in high school."
Why Interviewing Others Lets Colbert Be Himself "Well, I’m a comedian, but I have to say very quickly that my favorite thing on the show became doing the interviews because I got into comedy, as I said before, through improvisation. And when we’re doing the jokes, which I love writing, and I love producing, and I like doing them straight down the pipe I can only get those wrong, you know... But when you’re interviewing people, you don’t know what’s going to happen.'
Letterman's Parting Gift to Colbert Was an Imaginary Key "About 10 days before Dave went off the air, I asked if I could come hang out just to spend a little time with him up at his office. We spent about an hour and a half together. Had a couple bottles of water, the hard stuff. Two hydrogen, one oxygen... Dave used to get down to the [Ed Sullivan] theater in an old, brass-handled manual freight elevator, which he asked them not to change back in ’93 when they renovated the theater. I said the same: Please don’t change that. After we talked for an hour and a half—he was very gracious with his time—I said, 'Just one last thing. Would you show me how to run the elevator?' It felt like a guy teaching you how to use the tool before he leaves. It was really lovely. He left me with the keys, you might say."
Why He Chose His Bandleader "Jon Batiste is from a noble jazz lineage in New Orleans, so his music is all rooted in jazz, but he can play anything and with equal joy and facility. I had him on [The Colbert Report]. The minute he sat down across from me and challenged me on whether I could improvise, and I threw away my cards and pulled my chair right up to his so we were knee-to-knee, he didn’t back away at all and kept playing with me. I thought, 'I could spend a few years on stage with this guy.' I can’t wait to play off his energy."
And About His Emotional Speech to Jon Stewart: It Was His Favorite Memory on the Show "One of the producers said, 'Would you mind, we'd like to say thank you to him. Would you come up with something?' I said, 'Sure but, you know, he's going to flop around like a fish on the dock, he's not going to want me to do that.' So I felt like a rodeo clown trying to keep him on that stage, I thought he was honestly going to leave. And when Steve Carrell, all the rest of the correspondents came out at the end, and we all jumped around Jon, you can't hear it on the recording unfortunately, but we're all chanting, 'Made him cry, made him cry.' I think that might be my favorite thing I ever did on The Daily Show, because it was true. He never let you thank him."
His Thoughts on Trump Running For President "I just want to say that every little boy grows up believing that they could be president of the United States, and I’m so happy that that little boy is Donald Trump. I just hope he’s taking his vitamins. Please stay healthy until I get on the air. Don’t do anything dangerous. Don’t ride any motorcycles because every night before I go to bed, I light a candle and pray that he stays in the race. I also pray that no one puts that candle anywhere near his hair."
The Late Show with Stephen Colbert premieres at 10:35 pm CT on September 8 on CBS.