Stephen Colbert appeared on TV on Friday much as he does five nights a week — mugging on “The Late Show,” cracking pre-written jokes about the latest President Trump spectacle.
“I hear when he returns there’s a chance he’ll still be president,” Colbert quipped in his monologue.
But the next night, a weekend, he walked into a room with a much smaller audience and no broadcast schedule — and described the professional and emotional exhaustion of trying to perform nightly comedy in the chaos of the Trump era.
“It’s all so petty and venal, and there’s nothing grand about it,” he said in his appearance at the Vulture Festival — a one-on-one conversation before a live crowd of a few hundred people. “It’s not Shakespearean at all. It’s ‘Veep.’ ”
Led through the interview by Frank Rich, an executive producer of “Veep,” Colbert recalled the night of the election as some of “the most bizarre live television I’ve ever been a part of.”
Like much of the country, Colbert said, he, his writers and producers had expected Hillary Clinton to win. They’d gone into a live special on Showtime with a slew of pre-recorded sketches at the ready.
“Great stuff,” Colbert said: like 20 naked men with Clinton’s campaign slogan written on their buttocks — “We’re with her.”
Instead, as the Hollywood Reporter noted, the audience grew nervous even before Colbert took the stage, as early election results hinted at Trump’s victory. “What are you, f—ing dead inside?” an exasperated warm-up comic asked the crowd.
About 20 minutes into the show, Colbert recalled, he had an off-screen conversation with a producer.
“No more jokes,” the producer said. “Stop with the jokes.”
The rest of the night was interrupted by sobs from the crowd and humorless conversations with guests, Colbert recalled — “in front of an audience full of Chilean villagers who just pulled into the soccer stadium to see their friends and neighbors executed by the junta. That’s what it felt like.”
“The last 10 minutes was me making s — t up and trying to get to a joke about ‘What do we do now?’ ” he said.
Before he wrapped up the night, he said, he observed to a colleague: “We’ve got our emotional skegs in the water now, and we can’t ever take them out again.”
The day after election night
That was a Tuesday. They had jokes to write the next morning.
“We came to work weak-kneed and watery boweled, and really afraid for the country,” Colbert recalled.
He gathered his staff and they briefly reflected on the path ahead.
One of his writers remarked: “It felt like people who felt the culture had treated them cruelly decided to respond with cruelty in return by electing this person.”
The comedian recalled trying to buck up his show runners: “Well you’re forever wondering whether your work has purpose. Don’t worry anymore. It does. Because this is terrible. And your job is to make people feel better about it every day.”
This heart-to-heart lasted about half an hour, Colbert said. “Then we went, okay, that’s it. Jokes.”
Country on fire
Since then, the volatile administration has provided no end of monologues material, and helped boost “The Late Show” to No. 1 in late-night ratings.
At the Vulture Festival, Rich asked Colbert if a small part of him was secretly glad Trump won.
“No,” Colbert replied. “We don’t approach Donald Trump as, like, ‘What a wonderful, cheesy gravy meal we have for you today.’ ”
He described the country, under Trump, as on fire. The comedian, in this analogy, was “a guy who dances next to the fire and says, ‘Let’s all admit this is on fire.’ ”
It was difficult to keep his balance, Colbert said. He told Rich he’d fallen into the flames once: When he called Trump “Vladmir Putin’s c— holster” this month and ignited a movement to take him off the air.
Keeping up with the latest Trump crisis
But making “The Late Show” has become difficult simply as a matter of logistics, Colbert said.
He described a typical production day: finishing a script at 5 p.m. and sending it off for review, only for the latest Trump crisis to force a rewrite at 5:15.
Or even during taping, as Colbert said happened three times this month.
“I’d finished a monologue,” he recalled. “It went pretty well. It was little overstuffed. I go over to John and he goes: ‘Okay. We’re two minutes long and Trump just fired Comey.’”
So Colbert informed his studio audience that FBI Director James B. Comey had been terminated, he said, and gave his writers 10 minutes to write a new bit.
It was another mixture of humor and emotion.
“My heart is thumping, my heart is racing,” Colbert said in his new monologue that night. A picture of Attorney General Jeff Sessions flashed on the screen. “I think he was fired because he couldn’t guess the name of Rumpelstiltskin.”
On Saturday, Colbert shared a bit of behind-the-scenes gossip from past interviews — like when, he said, Ted Cruz asked him to “humanize me.”
“I said, ‘Don’t go to the stump speech and you will be a human being,” Colbert recalled. “He said, ‘That’s hard.’ I said, ‘So is being human.’ ”
Not many Republicans have agreed to come on since the election, he said. “They’re a little gun shy.”
‘Pissing into the wind’
Trump himself hasn’t appeared as president, of course, although he did call the comedian a “no talent guy” in a Time magazine interview this month — to Colbert’s evident delight.
Trump talked smack about me in TIME mag. If only I had a nightly show to respond on…oh yeah, I do! Join us, won't you? 11:35 #briarpatch
— Stephen Colbert (@StephenAtHome) May 12, 2017
He recalled being informed in a phone call of what the president had said — and being “surprised it took him so long.”
“He’ll attack anyone who talks back about him,” Colbert said.
“He will not submit himself to any measurement, because any measurement is false. Only his victory — only his golden chariot — is the only possible depiction of him that is available. And so you know you’re pissing into the wind when you do criticism of him, so you have to let that go.”
He was just a comedian, he said over and over on Saturday — “shouting into an Altoid tin and throwing it off an overpass every day.”
But at the very least, he said, he and his writers had learned to keep up with the chaos since Election Day.
“That feels stable from our end,” he said. “It doesn’t feel so stable as a society.”
Zachary Pincus-Roth in New York contributed to this report.