The year’s end brought me, as usual, an opportunity to publish a list of what I think were the best TV shows. (HBO’s “Watchmen” was my top pick.) ¶ But those lists often don’t contain the stray scene or televised moment that will stick with me long after I’ve forgotten most of what I watched. It’s not about cultural criticism so much as it’s about life — and, in this case, death. One famous man answered another famous man’s question about grief and thereby gave my heart and my mind an unexpected jolt. Part of it was release. Part of it was hope. Part of it stirred my remaining notions of the divine. ¶ In other words, the best thing I saw on TV this year aired on Thursday, Aug. 15, on CNN. It happened near the end of an hour-long conversation between anchor Anderson Cooper and CBS “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert. ¶ You probably know the part I’m talking about, because the clip of it went viral. It had to. ¶ Writing about this exchange — reducing it to words on a page — is hardly as effective as watching it, but here goes.
Cooper, at 52, was still processing the loss of his mother, the one and only Gloria Vanderbilt, who died in June at 95. Together, yet on separate emotional tracks, Vanderbilt and Cooper had grieved the death of Anderson’s father, Wyatt Cooper, in 1978. A decade later, Anderson’s older brother, Carter Cooper, leaped to his death from Gloria’s apartment terrace. These two events perhaps in some way explain Anderson Cooper’s public persona over the next 30 years, which is that of a guarded yet amiable man keeping a lock on his emotions (so as to better present the news), but who also acknowledges and tries to laugh off his own inhibitions and awkwardness. He’s come a long way.
Colbert, at 55, is by contrast exceptionally comfortable in his own skin, each weeknight demonstrating an intellectual and physical skill honed by years of comedy improv and empathetic interviewing. He also happens to be, without piety or elaboration, one of America’s best-known practicing Catholics. And, as nearly all his fans know, Colbert’s childhood was also defined by a tragic loss — a 1974 plane crash that killed his father and two of his brothers. (“Dad and the Boys,” Colbert said. “That’s how they were called [after] — Dad and the Boys.”) As the youngest of 11 siblings, Colbert, at 10, had the closest seat to his mother’s grief.
Once Cooper and Colbert had talked about the state of the world in 2019 — especially about President Trump and the relentless pace with which the general absurdity grows incrementally more absurd, whether one is covering the news or lampooning it — Cooper brought up the subject of grief.
“You wrote me a letter after my mom died,” he reminded Colbert. “In it you said, ‘I hope you find peace in your grief.’ One of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about is how we don’t really talk about grief and loss. People are not comfortable talking about it. . . . And you’ve spoken very publicly about what you experienced as a kid — a lot of it I didn’t know. I think a lot of people don’t know. So if you don’t mind, I wanted to talk to you a little about it and sort of how it has shaped who you are now.”
"I was personally shattered, and then you kind of reform yourself in this quiet, grieving world that was created in the house."— Anderson Cooper 360° (@AC360) August 16, 2019
Comedian Stephen Colbert opens up to @andersoncooper about grief and the death of his dad and brothers in a plane crash when he was 10 years old. pic.twitter.com/dUnc5CXSs5
The words that followed did not unfold in a linear fashion (the best conversations never do), as Cooper described the sensation of having his life cleaved into two distinct parts, before his father’s death (Wyatt Cooper died during heart surgery) and after.
Colbert related to that; in the summer weeks just before his father and brothers died, he recalled that the Paul McCartney and Wings song “Band on the Run” had been a big radio hit — to this day, he said, “Do not play ‘Band on the Run’ around me, you know? . . . Yes. You become a different person. . . . You kind of re-form yourself in this quiet, grieving world. . . . It became a very quiet house and very dark. And ordinary concerns of childhood suddenly kind of disappeared. . . . I had certainly a different point of view than the children around me.”
Cooper talked about the lifelong, protective instinct he had for his mother, whom he “always viewed . . . as a space alien who had landed on this planet and whose ship was immobilized and I had to protect her and show her how to live in this world.”
“Because my mom was so shattered by the loss,” Colbert said, “we used to joke that I raised my mom after the age of 10.”
Colbert’s mother, Lorna, who had been an aspiring actress before she married and became a mother, died in 2013 at age 92. Only then, Colbert recalled, were he and his siblings also able to complete their grieving for Dad and the Boys. A friend who lost a child asked Colbert how his mother managed her grief.
Faith, replied the late-night TV host who only rarely brings up his own devotion. “If God is everywhere, and God is in everything, then the world as it is is all just an expression of God and his love. And you have to accept it with gratitude, because what is the option?”
The conversation then drifted, beautifully so, along the contours of deep grief, the kind that lasts decades. Cooper asked Colbert if he remembered telling another interviewer that he had learned to “love the thing that I most wish had not happened. ... You went on to say, ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” Cooper verged on tears. “Do you really believe that?”
You said "what punishment of gods are not gifts. Do you really believe that?" @andersoncooper, choking back tears, asks Stephen Colbert, as they discuss grief.— Anderson Cooper 360° (@AC360) August 16, 2019
"Yes," replies the comedian. "It's a gift to exist and with existence comes suffering. There's no escaping that." pic.twitter.com/p5rUUhZKxq
“Yes,” Colbert said, and he went on to talk about the gift of loss. By knowing grief, he has grown into an adult who can understand it in others. “I want to be the most human I can be, and that involves acknowledging and ultimately being grateful for the things that I wish didn’t happen, because they gave me a gift. . . .”
“I think that’s another thing that has helped me think, yeah, of course, why not me?” Cooper said. “This is part of being alive. . . . Sadness, suffering, these are all — you can’t have happiness without having loss and suffering.”
“And in my tradition,” Colbert said, “that’s the great gift of the sacrifice of Christ — is that God does it, too. That you’re really not alone. God does it, too.”
They talked more — and stopped to consider whether it’s truly possible to love one’s enemies. They came back to the subject everyone always circles back to: the president. “People have come on [the “Late Show”] and said ‘I know you hate Trump,’ ” Colbert said. “I’m, like, no — I just don’t trust the cat.”
And like that, the interview began to once more resemble a television interview in its format, returning to quips of pleasantries, over and done with, beamed out into space. Those minutes the two men spent understanding each other’s grief were a great and rare gift to the rest of us, particularly those coping with loss. In a din of so much stupidity and chaos, it was a reminder that television’s most sublime power often rests in the act of two people taking a minute to slow down and open up.