But while moving to “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” means that Colbert will be shedding his Comedy Central persona, interviews have long been an important part of the late-night format, whether it’s satirical or not. And so I was curious to ask Colbert at the Television Critics Association press tour in August how his style would change once he steps out as himself on the show, which premieres on CBS tonight.
Though he’ll be presenting himself in a very different way, Colbert was quick to explain that there are similarities between being a good interviewer, even one operating from a genuine point of inquiry, and being a comedian.
“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. I’ve been one of the composers of the music, and I might play the notes wrong,” he explained. “But when you’re interviewing people, you don’t know what’s going to happen. That’s much closer to how I learned my craft.”
But Colbert suggested that interviews were one of the things that made him realize he was ready to move on from the Stephen Colbert character to a more straightforward role.
“All I really want from a guest is somebody who has something to say so I can play with them. We have some common topic to be talking about. My character was actively ignorant about them. I think one of the reasons why I most wanted to drop the character is that I felt I had done everything I could with him or everything I could do with that show, other than have my honest interest in my guest, which is almost constant,” Colbert suggested. “And so now I feel actually more freed up. That was, in some ways, the most energetic, the most exciting part of the show, to me. And now I don’t have to hold back at all. I had to put everything through, like, an occipital [central processing unit] up here to live render what my character would think about what the person just said, but still have my intention behind it. Now I can just talk.”
One of the things “The Colbert Report” taught him, Colbert said, was that “you can have big stars or important politicians or impressive thinkers, but it’s sometimes the people you don’t expect to impress you who can be your best guests. Naquasia LeGrand, who was the head of the fast-food workers’ strike in New York, who worked, I think, two shifts at two different Burger Kings, she was one of my favorite guests of all time. She was fierce. She was funny. She was energetic. She didn’t back down at all.”
I asked if even given his bigger platform, Colbert might consider inviting non-celebrities with distinctive voices to “The Late Show.”
“Anybody who is interesting and has something to say, that’s what I’m interested in,” he said. “I love artists, whether they’re actors or musicians. I want to have politicians of all stripes on the show. I like intellectuals, writers, people in sports. But if somebody is not famous and they’ve got something to say and they can present themselves on camera, I think that would be a perfect guest to have.”