Last November, during the final minutes of Stephen Colbert’s Showtime election special, the late-night host veered off script. He had planned to conclude with a message of unity in light of the polarizing US election. But the results made the cataclysmic divide even more evident.
“How did our politics get so poisonous?” Colbert said. “I think it’s because we overdosed, especially this year. We drank too much of the poison. You take a little bit of it so you can hate the other side, and it tastes kind of good, and you like how it feels, and there’s a gentle high to the condemnation.”
Colbert talked about growing up during Watergate. (“That was a great dividing moment, I think, in American politics. That’s the ur-moment where we all stopped trusting each other.”) He talked about how his mother, who was born two days before women could first vote in a US presidential election, told him before she died that she would have voted for Hillary Clinton. He said she only ever voted for one other Democrat in her life, John F. Kennedy. And he talked about how he thought this day would go differently for her.
In those sobering, spontaneous moments of live TV, Colbert mastered the art of late-night TV. There was no Colbert Report schtick. No John Stewart. And no outlandish, Hunger Games-inspired get up. It was just Colbert speaking frankly to his viewers. “That’s when it changed for us,” he told the New York Times (paywall). “And that’s when it started to feel like when you walk off the stage and say, ‘God, what a great freaking job, that I get to do this!’”
Colbert stepped into The Late Show shoes of David Letterman more than a year earlier, in September 2015, before politics had fully eclipsed the country. It took awhile for him, coming from the scrappy, Comedy Central political satire, The Colbert Report, to find his footing on the broadcast giant CBS and take over Letterman’s millions of mainstream fans.
Colbert was used to having a hand in every aspect of the show. CBS’ longtime boss Les Moonves thought the host was worrying over too many “trivial details, from the stage lighting down to the color of the dressing rooms,” the Times reported. “On the old show, all of us handled all those responsibilities,” Colbert told the publication. “And I’m a control freak, and everything, everything, went through my skull.”
But with the CBS show, he had to let go. With some hesitation, Colbert handed off his management duties to executive producer Chris Licht. And Colbert focused on writing, performing, and building a relationship with his new audience. That all culminated during the election-night special. The show ran 20 minutes longer than expected. And it gave Showtime’s streaming service, where it aired online, a nice subscriber boost.
In recent weeks, Colbert’s The Late Show has overtaken rival Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show in total US viewership, which is a feat given that the NBC show is usually the late-night leader and has been since the days of Jay Leno.
It’s helped that the nation has gravitated toward politics, a speciality of Colbert’s, since the election. Against the backdrop of a Trump presidency, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert seems to finally have found its stride.