Two weeks ago, on June 14, the star of "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" returned to his workplace, the 400-person Ed Sullivan Theater in New York, whose seats had been empty for 460 days. More than 20,000 requested tickets. Attendance required proof of vaccination.
They were there for much more than just a laugh. Audience member Marissa Godfrey said, "I wrote to him, 'You have gotten me through this time.'"
The reunion was a mass echo of the smaller reunions among friends separated during quarantine.
Correspondent John Dickerson asked Stephen Colbert, "Tell me about June 14th. Nervous?"
"Yeah, very nervous," he replied. "I was nervous, not necessarily that I would forget how to perform in front of an audience, but a little bit."
"On June 14th, did you like look out the window and look at the line?"
"I didn't. I've got no time for looking out windows, John Dickerson! I'm a working man!"
Just your average working man, atop a staff of hundreds which, during lockdown, included his wife, Evie, deputized into Colbert's exacting routine of writing, rehearsing, rewriting right up until showtime.
His first line on re-opening night came to him just before he hit the stage: "I thought, 'Something's missing here.' And that was just checking in with the audience, because they've been through this, too."
"So, how ya' been?"
Chatty and familiar, just what you'd say to an old friend: "I don't know if I even remember how to pander to the Most Beautiful Crowd in the World!" he said, to rapturous cheers.
"The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" suspended production on March 12, 2020; from that point, Colbert was hosting a show without an audience. It was chaos for a performer who needs order.
Colbert told Dickerson, "I don't like things to change at all. Why do I have a blue pen? I used to have a white pen. I don't understand. What? Are you trying to kill me? I'll change. I don't mind changing what I say or what I do. But nothing around me can change."
Colbert soon began taping from his home in South Carolina. A library became a thicket of broadcast technology – a camera, a teleprompter, and plenty of wires.
He enlisted his three children as crew members. But the bulk of the heavy lifting was on the shoulders of a "mom-volunteer," his wife of 28 years, Evie.
Stephen said to her, "Your tough love is one of my favorite things that happened over the last 15 months. I finished one night, and I went, fell down like a tree face down on the sofa. And I said, 'I don't know how on Earth I'm gonna keep doing this.' You did not say, 'Oh, oh, I'm sorry about that.' You just looked at me and you said, 'You'll figure it out,' and walked out of the room! And I went, 'Yeah, she's right.' It was the right thing to do. It was true."
"Sometimes you gotta do that," Evie said. "And you did figure it out."
"We did figure it out, yes."
Dickerson asked, "Did you ever forget that this was your wife, Stephen?"
"Probably!" she interjected.
"No, no, I never forgot you were my wife."
"Yeah, there were a few times – "
"What did I do?"
" – where you'd be like, 'This isn't working.' And I'm like, 'I don't really work here. I kind of work here, don't yell at me!'"
"Okay. Guilty," Stephen said.
"That was when I had, like, the 'crew hat' on," Evie said. "When I had the 'audience hat' on, he was very nice to me, because he wanted me to laugh!"
Evie Colbert was her husband's audience of one, and a supporting player: "At first, I'd be like [chuckles quietly], but he couldn't hear that. So, I'd have to be more like, 'HA HA HA HA HA!!!' I said something like, 'Oh, that's very funny.' And you went, 'Oh, everybody says that's very funny. That's not a laugh!'"
Stephen said, dryly, "You said, 'Oh, that's very funny.' I said, 'You know what? You can work a lifetime as a comedian and never hear something so satisfying as an audience member saying, 'That's very funny.' That's what we go for! That's why I got into this business, is to have a room full of people go, 'That's very funny. Tell another.'"
"And, you know, I could also tell when it would help," she said. "And it was fun. I mean, being told to laugh for someone is great."
Stephens aid, "I used to think, 'If I could get an audience to laugh the way Evie laughs, I think I'll be okay.' And for the last 15 months that's the only laugh I had. And it just confirms that that's really the kind of laugh I always want."
In August of last year, Colbert then returned to the building with his name on it, for the first time since March 12. He showed Dickerson the desk calendar that still reads March 12. "Not only is March 12th on my calendar, but every day's March 12th in this room. Every single day is March 12th!"
But there was still no live audience, for a performer who built a craft around reading giggles and guffaws in the seats. "I started off in improv and cabaret and sketch, and that's all about relationship to the audience, especially improvisation. That's what you train your entire life to do, is to get a particular sound from the audience. Because that's the great thing about comedy, is that you know when it's working. The audience makes this 'sound,' and you go, 'Oh, that worked!'"
Dickerson said, "To me, it felt like you were playing catch in a field without somebody to play catch with."
"I've often talked about the show as a game of catch. As I like to say to the audience, that we do the show for you, and we do the show to you, but we really do the show with you. Because their energy makes the show. The clothes make the man, but the audience makes the show."
Like many of us returning to what we used to do, Colbert carries some portion of the last year-and-a-half with him, as he encounters the familiar, like his home state symbol, which marks his spot on stage.
"This is where I do the monologue every night. I love it. And nobody's ever noticed. No one's ever asked me about it. From the right angle, you can certainly see that it's there. But no one's ever said anything about it. It's just another reminder of who I am and where I'm from. And, now, it's a constant reminder of what we did down there."
A reminder of the essentials, even for a performer whose routine includes a reminder about the essentials.
"Why," Dickerson asked, "do you slap yourself before you go out on the stage?"
"Because you only have one shot to do those jokes," Colbert said. "And I want to be awake. I slap myself in the face, twice, and my own rule for myself is that I have to slap myself hard enough that I regret having done it! And that means I actually didn't hold back. And then I'm awake. And I say to myself: Don't blow this opportunity. You wanna go do these jokes, you actually really like the guests, act like it!"
For more info:
- "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" on CBS and Paramount+
- "The Late Show" on Twitter and Instagram
- StephenAtHome on Instagram
Story produced by Jay Kernis. Editor: Ed Givnish.