“Late Show” Host Stephen Colbert on Finding Focus and Embracing Stress

Stephen Colbert took over CBS’ The Late Show about a year ago, dropping the guise of the hot-headed character he played on The Colbert Report and introducing the audience to himself.

Last week, Colbert told Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross that he initially shied away from discussing political events on the show in order to distinguish himself from his old character, trading lengthy opening monologues about news and current affairs for high-kicks with bandleader Jon Batiste.

But that changed in recent months.

“It took me almost half a year to realize … that you can have a highly opinionated, highly topical show as yourself and not essentially fall back into the basket of The Colbert Report,” he says. “Now I have no qualms about being sharp and satirical and highly opinionated and saying whatever’s on my mind as quickly as I can.”

Colbert’s Tuesday evening show will be pre-empted by CBS News coverage, so he’ll be hosting a special: Stephen Colbert’s Live Election Night Democracy’s Series Finale: Who’s Going To Clean Up This S***? The segment promises guest starts, musical guests, election results, and more.

Interview Highlights:

Getting Rid of the High-Kicks
When the show first started, I thought, well, it’s a giant space, it’s a Broadway stage, what level of energy do I need to fill this space that is then captured by the camera? Because I used to do a show for the camera that the audience got to witness. Now I feel like I’m doing a show for the room that the cameras witness. My first choice was err on the side of energy, and then at a certain point I realized, that doesn’t actually translate over the camera and the audience is just as energetic whether I do that or not. So I started eliminating things and said, what’s left is you walking on the stage and doing jokes.

It’s an amazing space to be in, and you feel a great need to fill it. What you learn eventually—and this is something I knew intellectually but I had forgotten instinctually—is that you actually don’t need high energy to fill a large space. You need your own sense of presence and focus. You can bend an entire room by bending a paperclip if you’ve got the focus of the room and to accept that the audience, that you are their focus you don’t need to do high kicks, you just need to be there, present for them and then you’ve filled the entire room.

How Colbert Handles the Stress of the Job
You got to like the stress. … I don’t know how to attach a positive feeling to stress and pressure, but there is one. There’s a bulletproof feeling that comes over you, and it’s really a pleasant one, and you kind of have to like that. …

To do one of these jobs you got to kind of love the flaming toboggan ride of it.
—Stephen Colbert

To do one of these jobs, you got to kind of love the flaming toboggan ride of it. You got to like it because everybody else is in the toboggan with you. You’re doing it together, that’s the joy. Everybody is doing it together and at the end of it you go, ‘Hey! We survived! Pretty good show! Let’s do it again tomorrow.’

That’s it. It’s the movement forward, because it never stops. You gotta love the downhill hurtle. There’s no finish line. You got to just love missing all those trees that you could’ve hit today.

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