Stephen Colbert On Missing His Live Audience And Making Comedy A Family Business Colbert has been taping The Late Show without a live audience during the pandemic, but he's not always alone. Sometimes his wife, Evie, is in the room. If she laughs, he knows he's on the right track.

Stephen Colbert On Missing His Live Audience And Making Comedy A Family Business

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/991149701/991280423" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. One of the things that's kept me sane this past year is ending nearly every weekday by watching "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert." The most troubling things related to COVID and politics are typically what he focuses on in his monologues. Not only are they hilarious, but he nails just what makes the day's news disturbing or absurd. Those monologues are well researched, too. It's one of the ways I keep up with the news.

I've been a fan of Colbert's since he was a correspondent on "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," where, among other things, he did a recurring segment called This Week in God, in which he typically satirized the news related to religious extremism. He left "The Daily Show" to do his own show, "The Colbert Report," in which he satirized the news in persona as a right-wing blowhard TV cable news host modeled in part on Bill O'Reilly. He's been hosting "The Late Show" since September 2015, just a few months after Trump announced he was running for office.

Colbert has joined us several times on FRESH AIR. The last time was the week before Trump won the election back in 2016, so we have a lot of catching up to do.

STEPHEN COLBERT: (Laughter).

GROSS: Stephen Colbert, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I just love having you on the show. Thank you so much for coming back.

COLBERT: Well, I'm so happy to be here. As we were about to start the interview, I was thinking, when was the last time you and I spoke? I didn't realize it was that long ago. Yeah, there is - there's been a whole - a whole different kingdom of anxiety and distressing news has risen and fallen in those four years.

GROSS: So you work so hard. You keep such crazy hours. And I always wondered, like, how do you find time to spend with your wife and children? But for several months, you were spending all your time at home, where your wife and two of your sons were, and your family became part of the show. And I want to play an example of that.

And this is from last Mother's Day. One of the bits that you do for certain holidays is that - it's First Drafts. You - like, you read a kind of corny greeting card for the holiday, and then you read a really funny version of what the first draft might've sounded like, which is always kind of nasty (laughter) and more honest.

So you're asking - you know, you're at home, and you're asking for an assistant to help you read the first draft - to hand you the cards. And here's how that bit went.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT")

COLBERT: As always, when doing First Drafts for Mother's Day, I need a mom volunteer from the audience to come up and help me out. Let's see. Ah, yes. You, Miss. Could you come join me up here?

EVELYN MCGEE-COLBERT: Yes.

COLBERT: Thank you very much.

MCGEE-COLBERT: OK. Oh, God.

COLBERT: There you go. Watch that - watch the tangle there. This is my wife, Evie (ph). Say hello.

MCGEE-COLBERT: Hello.

COLBERT: Hello. Hi. Now, happy Mother's Day...

MCGEE-COLBERT: Thank you.

COLBERT: ...First of all.

MCGEE-COLBERT: Thank you.

COLBERT: I - normally we would take you out for a Mother's Day brunch or something like that.

MCGEE-COLBERT: Not really. We never do that.

COLBERT: Not - we've never done that. OK, I don't know why I said that. OK. What do we normally do?

MCGEE-COLBERT: Coffee in bed. That's all I ask for.

COLBERT: Coffee and breakfast in bed. Coffee and breakfast in bed.

MCGEE-COLBERT: Yeah, exactly.

COLBERT: Exactly. For many years, I made you scones.

MCGEE-COLBERT: You did.

COLBERT: Exactly.

MCGEE-COLBERT: And granola and fruit.

COLBERT: Exactly. And the girls - the girls...

MCGEE-COLBERT: Girl - we have one girl.

COLBERT: The kids...

MCGEE-COLBERT: Two boys.

COLBERT: The kids would bring you breakfast in bed, yeah.

MCGEE-COLBERT: You're nervous.

COLBERT: I am a little nervous to have you on here.

MCGEE-COLBERT: (Laughter).

COLBERT: I'm a little nervous to have you on here. I want it to be a good experience for you.

MCGEE-COLBERT: I'll come back.

COLBERT: You'll come back. OK, good. OK.

MCGEE-COLBERT: I live here.

COLBERT: Have you seen First Drafts before, young lady?

GROSS: I thought that was so delightful. Evie's funny. Did she ever do comedy?

COLBERT: Well, she was an actress. She was an actress. I mean, she wasn't a comedian. Like, that wasn't her specific calling. But she was an actress.

GROSS: So how did it change your family life to work at home and to work with your family?

COLBERT: Well, it's been great. It's been one of the few positive aspects of this whole thing. And I think this is a common experience for a lot of people. As hard as the COVID restrictions have been and the anxiety and the shock about how much it spread in the United States, we got to spend a lot of time with the people we love, with our family. Our youngest was about to go off to college, and he deferred for a year because of this, and we got another year with him. He's actually still here with us. That's been an extraordinary thing.

But having them work on the show - we were all living together for that. Even my daughter was there, too. She's grown with a job, and she was doing her job, like, a couple rooms over. I remember her coming over and going, could - is there any way you could be a little quieter? I'm like, no, I'm doing a television show.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: I'm - I can't whisper "The Late Show" tonight. And it's been great. Like, I've really kept - I mean, all - everybody in the family's done, like, bits on the shows over the years. But to have them intimately involved, like my eldest of my two boys, my elder of my two boys, he was there, like, every day running everything, like the sound, the cameras, the lights, the satellite connection, the switching - all the switching that we needed to do for the virtual control room. And he was just there for two weeks. And then my young - then he said, Dad, I'm not going to graduate from college if I keep helping you. I can't do this job. So then my younger son took over. And then he's like, I'm not going to graduate from high school if I keep helping you. So then Evie took over.

And it's been great. It felt very old-fashioned. Like, you know, the old days before everyone went off to work at factories - I mean, that's what the modern workplace is kind of based upon, the Industrial Revolution of, like, everybody leaves the home to go work at the central place. Actually, doing this show out of the home like it was kind of a cottage industry made it feel very much - very 19th century, like the kids are going to come help Dad cut the wood every day or something. And it was - it's been intimate and wonderful and something I would never experienced in another way and, in a very valuable way, erased my public life from my - erased the line between my public life and my private life in a way that I think has - I don't know - maybe made them understand more what my life is like and made me appreciate that I don't have to live such an insular public life separated from my private life, which is actually kind of helpful to the kind of show that I do.

GROSS: What's it like having Evie when she sits right across from you...

COLBERT: The best.

GROSS: ...As the audience? 'Cause, like, my husband's a critic. He's a tough crowd. So (laughter) if he was sitting across from me while I was doing the show, it would really make me nervous.

COLBERT: Well, it does, as you saw in that clip. Like, I want this to be a good experience for her. And it certainly - having somebody in the room with you while you're creating a show, especially a show under these conditions where it's not a natural way to do one of these shows - so it's very stop and start. The people at home have no idea how many takes it took me to do that monologue.

GROSS: Oh, really?

COLBERT: Because it's much harder without an audience.

GROSS: Yeah, sure.

COLBERT: I'm much more likely to mess up and have to retake something, lose the rhythm of a joke or even just misread the prompter without an audience there because there's some vital performance adrenaline spark that's missing that the audience provides. And so my wife and my kids have seen me absolutely shank monologues over and over again. And it's very humbling for them to realize that I'm not that good at this...

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: ...And that there's an editing process that really makes it look like I know what the hell I'm doing. And I remember thinking, God, if I could - I wish I could just find a way to do material that Evie would laugh at or that if I could make an audience laugh the way I can make Evie laugh, 'cause it felt real and genuine and a real connection - and that the intimacy and the genuine sort of, like, happy laugh that comes with joking around with Evie is something that I had always thought, if I could do that, I'll make it because that'll be something special.

And now - I'm not going to say at the end of my career, but deeply into my career, I finally have that opportunity for that to be the only concern when she's there is, I wonder if Evie's going to like this joke. I wonder if I could do this in a way that Evie will like. And it gives me enormous joy when I hear her laugh. And I swear to God, if it was a good show that night, listen. You'll hear her laughing 'cause I'd say I'm 75% better as a host of the show if she's sitting in her little red chair across the room.

GROSS: Yeah, that's great. And I feel like I'm laughing with her when she's laughing. So, yeah, that's...

COLBERT: Yeah, 'cause she - she does not suffer fools. You'll also - if you listen carefully, you'll hear her go, oh, no.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: She'll sometimes go like, oh, no. Because she's like, I'm not getting on board with that one. No.

GROSS: And what do you do? How do you respond to that?

COLBERT: I often - out loud, on air, I go, what? Now this is too far? That's what I like about it. What?

GROSS: How have all the changes of the pandemic and the constant concerns about protecting yourself and your family from getting the virus - how has that affected your mood? I know you're vaccinated now, so I'm hoping Evie is, too, and that, you know, the concern about that has hopefully diminished a little bit. But it's been a year of high anxiety. How's that affected your mood, your spirits?

COLBERT: I miss people. I really like the company of people. I miss going to dinner. I miss hugging people. I'm a hugger. I like hugging people randomly. I feel lonely a lot. When I'm in - I go to the theater to actually produce the show. We write everything from home. Everybody's at home. And myself and a very small group of people - matter of fact, I only see about four or five of them. They - others come in at staggered intervals throughout the day. Come in to this little storage closet where we do the show, and I do the show, and I leave as quickly as I can so we're all together for the shortest possible period of time, maybe a couple hours. And then we all go home and get ready to write the show from home again the next day. And it's lonely. I got into show business, in a way, to not be alone. Like a lot of comedians, I'm a bit of a broken toy.

GROSS: Your father worked in NIAID, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which Dr. Fauci is the head of now. Your father worked there as an associate director. He was a physician. He was an army epidemiologist, dean of university, of med schools, vice president of a med school. Do you think a lot about what he would be doing if he were alive and in one of those positions, if he were working at NIAID, for instance?

COLBERT: Yeah, I do because, yeah, he would've worked in Fauci's office. He would've been - I believe he was associate director of Allergy and Infectious Disease for - this isn't quite the word, but it's like global outreach. In other words, he coordinated with other central medical authorities around the world. So he would 100% be communicating. I know that he worked in India. He would be communicating right now with whoever is dealing with the crisis in India about how the United States can help and what we can learn from their experience, how they could help us, what they're learning about the variants they're dealing with. That would've been his job, and he would've been, I would like to think, very valuable to this cause.

GROSS: Did you grow up with any more awareness of or fear of infectious diseases because of his work? Did he talk with you a lot about, there might be a pandemic, or there's germs out there (laughter)?

COLBERT: No, my dad's specialty was leprosy, so that's the stuff we heard about. We heard about leprosy. He was still, you know, an immunologist. And his - he had become an academician and an administrator by the time I was sort of old enough to be aware of what he did. But his bench science was in fatal dermatological diseases, for lack of a better word, and leprosy being specific. If he had lived, my mother and my father were going to spend their retirement years in leper colonies. That's what my dad wanted to do.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Stephen Colbert. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYONE (INTRO)")

JON BATISTE AND STAY HUMAN: (Singing) Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Stephen Colbert. His CBS show, "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert," renamed "A Late Show With Stephen Colbert," is the top-rated late-night show.

Stephen, when we last spoke, it was just a week or less before Election Day in 2016. And you were, on Election Day - on Election Day night, you did a Showtime special 'cause there was live real election coverage on CBS. And as it became really clear that Trump was about to win 'cause he was getting enough electoral votes, you were on the air live with John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, who at the time were co-hosts of the political documentary series "The Circus." So I want to play a short clip of that night and how it sounded as it became clearer that Trump was going to be the winner. And Mark Halperin speaks first.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STEPHEN COLBERT'S LIVE ELECTION NIGHT DEMOCRACY'S SERIES FINALE: WHO'S GOING TO CLEAN UP THIS S***?")

MARK HALPERIN: This has been the sort of darkest presidential campaign I've covered. I've covered everyone since '88. And the aftermath now, because it's going to be so close, whoever wins, it's going to be a really challenging time for America.

JOHN HEILEMANN: I think the diagnosis would be...

HALPERIN: Good line for a comedy show, ay (ph)?

COLBERT: I'm not sure if it's a comedy show at this point.

HALPERIN: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: I think we're in the middle of a documentary right now. Am I in your [expletive] documentary right now?

(LAUGHTER)

HALPERIN: Do something...

COLBERT: Is this just for Showtime?

HALPERIN: Do something irresistible.

COLBERT: What?

HALPERIN: Do something irresistible. You'll make it. Or you mean are we making up the results?

COLBERT: Into the documentary?

HALPERIN: Yeah.

COLBERT: If Trump wins, how about bursting into tears and screaming [expletive] for the next 45 minutes?

(CHEERING)

COLBERT: What'd you want to say? What? Donald Trump has taken the state of Florida. OK, so that's been called.

HALPERIN: He is now on the doorstep of 270 electoral votes.

COLBERT: Wow. Wow. That's a horrifying prospect. I can't put - I cannot put a - I can't put a happy face on that, and that's my job.

GROSS: Stephen, were you really shocked that Trump was going to win? Like, what went through your mind live on the air, finding out that he was going to win?

COLBERT: I knew it was a possibility, so shocked - just because you know something is possible doesn't mean that it's not horrifying when you see it happen. What was going through my mind? Wow. I can't believe that I'm doing an hour live, and there are no commercial breaks to get the camera off of me. When I said there that moment, like, I can't put a happy face on this and that's my job, I've thought about what I meant by that over the years. I'm like, wow, that was interesting thing to say. Is that your job? Is that really your job, to put a happy face on things? Can I turn this just emotional experience into content that has an emotional heart to it, which is a very different thing? And I didn't have that time to do it. It felt extremely raw. I - and the one thing that I knew is that, well, you cannot begin to pretend to be anything than what you are right now, which is absolutely horrified for your country.

Because in a flash, I saw the next four years. And there was almost nothing, almost nothing on the next four years that felt too extreme to me because I felt it all in that - a sickening wave of reality of what the status of that office would convey upon this awful man, and how someone who craves attention above everything else is now not only going to get it, but rightfully get it. There is no argument that he is the most powerful person. Everything he says will be important. That is now presidential behavior. Like, the implications, the dignity and the import and the status that lays upon whoever gets into that office is what horrified me, and that suddenly, even though I knew that nothing about him would change, everything about him would now be conveyed the dignity of the great seal.

GROSS: Yeah. And I think something you really managed to do so well is to convey real anger in your monologues and convey how disturbing you were finding Trump's actions, his misstatements, his lies, to be - the explicit or implicit racism in many of his statements and policies. But at the same time, you were showing genuine anger and real concern for the future of our democracy. You also managed to be funny. And I think that is so hard. You'd gotten some practice during the campaign (laughter). But is that something you really had to figure out how to do more so once Trump became president?

COLBERT: I think the thing that took work when he became president was to remain sensitive to how bizarre this was because there was an attempt to - by the administration overtly to swamp the emotional boat of everyone so that you would sort of surrender to the new reality. And the job was to not surrender to the new reality.

You know, the whole thing about, you know, the kingdom that has a blight on their crop and everyone who eats the corn goes crazy. And so the king says, all right, we've got to eat the corn or else we'll die, but there's got to be some people whose job is to remind us that we've gone crazy, so we don't think that this is normal while we survive this period, that the crop is all poisoned. And that was sort of the job was to continually remind the audience that you're not crazy for the way you - the world is crazy, you're not that, you're being fed poison by the people who should be actually helping you. You're being fed lies. You're being gaslit about reality. You're literally being told not believe your eyes and ears. And that is a poison to your soul.

And we're going to talk about that - how that's a reality and make jokes at the same time because the other tool of authoritarianism besides lying is fear. And make no mistake, this is pure authoritarian handbook. And so - but if you laugh - I think I've said this to you before - when you laugh, you can't be afraid at the same time. So if you can laugh, you can think. And so we're going to talk about the attempt to lie to you, and we're going to make you laugh about it at the same time, so you're not afraid about the reality they're trying to spin around you with their lies. And then you'll feel better. And we can do it again tomorrow.

- So but to do any of that, you yourself had to stay shocked. Every so often, there was somebody in the staff would say, you know, one of the writers or one of the producers would say, hey, I think this is one of those times when we have to pull the car over, that - where we've gotten a little highway hypnotized here. And we would metaphorically pull the car over, get out, walk around, maybe throw up into a ditch and go, hey, so what actually happened today? We're not inured to how terrible this is, right? We have to actually keep our nerves raw to this.

And that was, in some ways, the second biggest challenge. I mean, jokes are always a challenge. The second biggest challenge is to come from an honest place of being horrified because that took discipline to do because nobody wants to titrate a little bit of poison every day. But that's also part of the job.

GROSS: Well, let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Stephen Colbert. We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded last Thursday with Stephen Colbert, the host of "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" on CBS.

You know, you said in that clip that we played from election night, like, how do I - I can't put a happy face on that after Trump won. And you didn't put a happy face on any of that. You made jokes. You made - you said funny things but without putting a happy face on it. But sometimes you were just appalled and angry and said so. And I want to play a clip from the night of the insurrection, January 6. And I think you - basically throughout the show and did it live. And so this is the opening of your show that night.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT")

COLBERT: Hey, everybody. Welcome to an unexpectedly live "Late Show." I'm your host, Stephen Colbert. You know how you know it's live? If it wasn't live, they would edit out all this dead space I'm giving you right now. But I - you know, I really want to do this show we're about to do, and I also really don't want to do the show - we want to do - because Lord have mercy. There are some dark subjects that we talk about on the show occasionally. But I've rarely been as upset as I am tonight. And I'm sure you are, too. Hey, Republicans who supported this president, especially the ones in the joint session of Congress today, have you had enough? After five years of coddling this president's fascist rhetoric, guess whose followers want to burn down the Reichstag? Because today the U.S. Capitol was overrun for the first time since 1814, and a woman died.

Who could have seen this coming? Everyone, even dummies like me. This is the most shocking, most tragic, least surprising thing I have ever seen. For years now, people have been telling you cowards that if you let the president lie about our democracy over and over and then join him in that lie and say he's right when you know for a fact that he is not, there will be a terrible price to pay. But you just never thought you'd have to pay it too. I really do hope you're enjoying those tax cuts.

GROSS: So what was it like that day figuring out what are you going to do on the show? How are you going to address this?

COLBERT: I was sitting at home. It was - we start the rewrite of the show. It's a long process to - how the monologue comes together. But we start the rewrite of the show around 1:30. And sitting in my chair here. I have a TV on in the background just to keep track of what was happening after that rally that had that morning in the Ellipse there. And we'd gotten about 10 or 15 minutes into the rewrite, which usually takes about an hour and a half. And I looked up, and I said, hey, let's pause. We should all just watch TV for a minute. So we watched the news about five or 10 minutes, just watched what was happening of the storming of the Capitol.

They broke through the barricades. They're up on the steps. And I said, this is all we should talk about. It hadn't even gotten that crazy yet. It was crazy, but not compared to where it went. And by the time I got into the city and we saw the enormity of it, my showrunner, Chris Licht, said, I think this is a live show. And I said, I agree. It was funny. It was hard to hear it now for me. And I think that's - you know, I think it's really important that we stay upset about that. It's really important.

I mean, one of the challenges with a kind of a low-key, competent administration is it makes you think that things are normal, and I guess they've always been normal when, in fact, it's so easy to forget how much relief we are experiencing just to have a non-poisonous stream of information or lies coming at us constantly. And we mustn't ever forget what that leads to. You know, there's a desperate attempt to make us forget what all this leads to.

GROSS: So Joe Biden is the president now. You spoke with him in 2015, when he was vice president. So I think at the time, he was maybe still considering a possible run in 2016 when you interviewed him. But if he was considering it, he hadn't announced yet.

COLBERT: You know, he had actually considered it and come to the conclusion that he couldn't do it. And that's one of the things he talked about on the show.

GROSS: I want to play just a short clip from that interview. And just to set it up, you know, you were talking to him about the losses in his life, his son Beau, who had recently died, earlier in his life when his wife and his daughter were killed in a car crash, and his sons were hospitalized, and his whole life was turned upside down.

And you were approaching it too from the fact that you know loss because your father - when you were 10, your father and two of your brothers were killed in a plane crash. So Biden is talking here about how much advice his parents had given him over the years, about how you have to keep getting up and moving forward, and how he admires people who, you know, with less means than he has are able to kind of get up and keep going after loss. So let's pick it up over there.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT")

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We're going through horrible things. And they get up every morning. And they put one foot in front of the other. And they don't have, like I said, anything like the support I have. I marvel at the ability of people to absorb hurt and just get back up. And most of them do it with an incredible sense of empathy to other people. I mean, it's interesting, the people I find who I'm most drawn to are people who have been hurt.

And yet - I'm not going to embarrass you, but you're one of them, old buddy. No, no, no, no, no, no. Your mom, your family - losing your dad when you're a kid - and three brothers. I mean, you know, it's just - it's like asking, what made your mother do it every day? How did she get up every single day with, you know, 11 kids and stuff? I mean, it's just...

COLBERT: Well, she had to take care of me, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: She did - you know, that's it. We were there for each other.

BIDEN: By that way, that must have been a hell of a job.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: And I had to take care of her.

BIDEN: That's the point.

COLBERT: I had to take care of her...

BIDEN: That's the point.

COLBERT: ...You know, yeah. Can I ask you something?

GROSS: So listening to that, you know, I'm thinking - then Biden becomes president. You shared this, like, really - you seemed to have, like, really connect in that moment, both talking about your losses and how you admired each other for being able to carry on. And now you've shared that emotional moment, but now you're in the position of satirizing him. After that interview, did you say to Biden, like, and, you know I'm going to have to keep doing jokes about you?

COLBERT: I did get a call from Biden. And I feel OK saying this because I - it was already in an - I told the story to Evan Osnos, who was doing an article about Biden. When he looked like he might be running for president, Joe - Jon Stewart - this past time, Jon Stewart came on. And we do this things where we flip every so often and have the guest interview me. And we do it for, like, just for a special. And Jon Stewart said, well, when did you think you got a sense of how to interview people as yourself? And I said, oh, when I was talking to Joe Biden the first time in 2015.

Pretty early on, the interviews were the first thing that changed before I sort of learned how to do material as myself. And I said, and after Joe Biden came on, I - he walked off stage. And I said to my executive producer, Tom Purcell, I said, I think that nice old man just gave me my show. And what I meant was how you actually talked to someone as myself, because what he was sharing with me in that moment was so intimate and speaking so specifically to my own experience that the only way to receive it was really as the real me. And it cracked something open for me when he was talking to me. And as soon as I said that nice old man, I went, oh, damn it. He's going to see this. And he's not going to like that.

GROSS: (Laughter).

COLBERT: And sure enough, the next day, I got a call. And I knew it was him because somebody said he's going to be calling you. And my assistant goes, what is he calling you about? And I said, he's calling me about the nice old man thing. And she goes, no. He's not going to care. I'm like, if he's running for president, he's really going to care. That's when I'll know if he's running for president. And so I got the call. And I put him on speaker. And he goes, listen, buddy, if you ever call me a nice old man again, I'm going to come down there and personally kick your ass.

GROSS: (Laughter).

COLBERT: And I said, I promise you, I won't, sir. You're clearly not that nice.

GROSS: Yes, (laughter) because you make fun of his age all the time.

COLBERT: Right. And that's - you know, that's the sorbet for the jokes to come, I assume.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Stephen Colbert. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON BATISTE AND STAY HUMAN'S "HUMANISM")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Stephen Colbert.

You're deep into science fiction and fantasy and talk about that all the time on your show, "Star Wars," Tolkien. Were those kind of alternate universes helpful to you as a kid, especially, like, when you were dealing with your grief and your mother's grief after your father and two brothers were killed?

COLBERT: Without a doubt. Without a doubt. I wasn't conscious of it at the time. I remember a teacher asking a friend of mine, why does he always read science fiction and fantasy? - because I was a very poor student. I barely graduated from high school. And I had basically - I was a terrible student from the moment that they died. I just didn't care anymore. But I read almost a book a day. Like, I read constantly, and all fantasy and science fiction. And I had an enormous amount of it because my oldest two brothers, Jim and Ed, had been born in the '40s, had been reading science fiction during a real golden age during the '50s and the early '60s. And I had all of their books.

So I had boxes and boxes of books they had left behind. So I was reading deep-cut stuff like L. Sprague de Camp and A. E. van Vogt and Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore and people nobody reads anymore. And - or rather, you know, you have to be really into it to know some of these names. And they were an escape, you know? They're still an escape. I still will go back to Roger Zelazny or Stephen R. Donaldson or some of the fantasy writers of my youth to have that sort of comfort food of a alternate world to soothe me.

GROSS: What did you find appealing about alternate universes?

COLBERT: I mean, they're great stories. They're - anything is possible. Often it's a young man who finds himself with extraordinary powers that he didn't have at the beginning of the story. There's a chosen one, who - in fantasy stories. Often there's a missing father figure or - if they're not just orphans outright. There - those are things that apply to a lot of genres. But they're certainly part of fantasy, at least, and a fair amount of science fiction. I think being able to make your own world, being in such a sad and kind of struck state all the time, you know, dealing or, rather, not dealing with the grief that you've gone through - an alternate world where there are new rules or the character who you identify with can make his own rules, maybe even bring back the dead or make things impossible possible, which is related to being able to bring back the dead.

I remember being attracted to stories where the characters could create their own realities, whether it was "The Dream Master" or "The Lathe Of Heaven" by Ursula K. Le Guin or the Amber series by Roger Zelazny. Those were all examples of characters who had a particular power to create their own - to create the reality that they wanted, whether it's in their dreams or in their conscious life. And I think that's related to being in a constant state of grief and anxiety and needing a place to be able to escape to. I remember the idea that - I wonder if I could do it in the real world. Could I actually change things?

I was 13 when "Star Wars" came out. And everybody my age had to have reached out at some point trying to make an object move with their hand. Is it possible I have the force? Like, everybody had to try that. In the same way, I used to try to create a new reality within the reality I was living it. And so I did things like, I wonder if I can convince myself that gravity goes the other way? Like, I would hold up something, try to forget which way it's going to go when I let go. And I knew I had it right if I could let go and be surprised by the fact that it went down. And I used to play those little tricks with myself to see whether I could actually change my perception of the world enough that it became second nature for me to see things from a fresh, non-inculcated into the physical laws of this world, and thereby attain a magic ability to actually change the world. Does that make any sense?

GROSS: Yes. But I'm wondering if you wanted the superpower to change yourself and to make yourself happier than you were.

COLBERT: I do not believe so. I think it probably had something to do with being able to pass through a thin veil and pull my father and my brothers back.

GROSS: Yeah.

COLBERT: But not - I never said that out loud. I don't remember ever thinking that. But I think that's what it's related to.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Stephen Colbert. We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON BATISTE AND STAY HUMAN'S "THE ART OF THE BUMPER (LIVE)")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Stephen Colbert, the host of "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" on CBS.

When your mother died and you did a really moving obit for her on your show, you mentioned that she had trained to be an actress. And she used to do, like, stage falls in the kitchen...

COLBERT: Yeah.

GROSS: ...And, like, make believe she was fainting.

COLBERT: Yes.

GROSS: So did that help you - did it help inspire you to want to be an actor?

COLBERT: Sure. Well, she was enthusiastic about the idea, which was helpful.

GROSS: Yeah, most parents aren't (laughter).

COLBERT: Right. Exactly. She was enthusiastic, as she used to - as she said to me after I had a certain amount of success, she said, you know, I was never worried about you. And she said, I don't know why because there's plenty of reasons to worry. But I wasn't worried about you. And I think that lack of worry, that enthusiasm, that, no, you go do that, go be what you want to be - I remember reading her the lyrics to "Finishing A Hat" from "Sunday In The Park," and which I had just seen on, probably, "Great Performances." And I'm reading it to her and saying, I don't know how, but in some way, I have to do this, but I don't know in what way.

But this - the way - the same way that the song talks about the hat, looking through the world of the hat like a window from this world to that, like the hat itself is a window into this greater possibility of creating. That song was a window. That musical, which is, you know, not the prettiest image of what that life is like - same thing for "All That Jazz," a very warts-and-all image of what it's like to being a creative artist. But knowing, when I saw that movie - going, oh, I want to do that. I don't know why, but I want to do that, warts and all, darkness and all, death and all. And I think that my mother wanting to be an actress said to me that this is a valuable thing to want to be. I think that's the way. And then later, I came to realize that I think I knew how happy it made her to see this dream playing out through someone else. But I didn't feel any pressure in that way, just the invitation.

GROSS: So - you know, you were the youngest of all of her children. And you were living with her. Your other siblings had grown up and left home already, I think, when your father died. And, you know, you've talked about how she helped you through it. And you helped her through it. Was it hard for you to leave and go out of town when you first did, whether it was for college or to go to New York to act? Was it hard for you to leave her because you'd been so close and helped each other so much? And you were the last child, so there was going to be nobody left.

COLBERT: Sure, without a doubt. I - without a doubt. Talk about a good laugh - my mom had a great laugh and a great sense of humor, and I think maybe because she had wanted to be an actress and studied to be an actress. She wasn't a prude (laughter). So she was game for jokes about a lot of different things. But I could tell when she didn't mean her laughter. I could tell when she was actually very sad and the laughter was just to cover it. And I remember shortly before I went off to college listening to her talking to someone. And I could tell - and I don't know what it was. But she was not emotionally well in that moment.

And the laughter she used to cover that in that conversation in the next room was painful to hear because I knew the difference. And I thought, oh, when I go off, no one else will hear the difference. And I worried. That there'd be no one around to - well, to care for her in that moment, that no one would - because she was very good at laughing to cover it. She was very socialized and a wonderful, gracious hostess and extraordinarily charming. But I could tell the difference. And I was just - I was brokenhearted for her that I knew there would be times that that would be happening, and no one would know that she wasn't OK.

GROSS: Did she have a life after you left out - you know, she raised so many children.

COLBERT: She did.

GROSS: What was her life after you left?

COLBERT: She did. I remember she - you know, she dated and stuff.

GROSS: Really?

COLBERT: Yeah.

GROSS: Wow.

COLBERT: She dated after a while, you know? And my brothers and sisters - or my sisters mostly would say, like, Mom's, you know, out on a date tonight. And you really are happy for her (laughter), and you really like this guy. And I'm like, who is this guy? It doesn't matter. You really like this guy. And also, I remember when she showed up to my graduation from college - and she has jet black hair. She had jet black hair her whole life and, you know, from when she was a little girl and, of course, kept it going into her 60s. And she showed up to my graduation, and my - one of my sisters, maybe my sister Lulu, got to me first because my three sisters showed up for the graduation. She said, Mom's a blonde, and you love it.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: I said, Mom's a blonde? Yes, and you love it. And I said, you know what? I do. And then it's hard for me to remember any other way because I saw her, and I loved it. But obviously, that's not the change of your life. But that's kind of indicative that she - me going out into the world was the last vestige of something she had been, which was a mother caring for these children. Not that a mother ever stops caring, ever stops worrying, but after that, she sold the house, and she moved. And she had her involvement with her church and with her friends and her own social circle in her life. And, yeah, she changed.

My sister Mary said to Evie once - Evie said, oh, your mother is so easygoing. She just breezes along with what everybody wants. There's not a moment of friction. She's just the most malleable, flexible person I know. And my sister Mary said, you never met my mother.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: She goes, my mother, I believe, had a nervous breakdown when the sixth child arrived, a nervous breakdown from which she did not emerge until Stephen graduated from college. And now there's this third woman that we all know and love, and she goes, but she's not the one who raised any of us.

GROSS: Did you feel that way, too?

COLBERT: Oh, totally, totally. You know, I mean, I think there was a different Mom after Dad and the boys died. That's natural. There's some sort of psychic implosion and a sense of regrouping as a survival mechanism, if nothing else - I mean, my God, you have to - and a deepening of her faith in many ways. But I had a slightly - I had a mom like everybody else's mom up until I was 10. Then I had a slightly different mom or dramatically different but still much of the core still there until I, you know, was out of the house fully.

And then there was this other woman who, as my mother used to say, oh, I love your father so much. We had so many happy years together. I would be anything - do anything to be with him again. But he wouldn't know what to do with me. I'm a different person, you know? He - they - he would not know what to do with the level of self-knowledge, self-actualization, will. I want my way. You know, I had to be - she had to become her own woman who made all of her own decisions and had to live with all of them with confidence after she was by herself. Yeah.

GROSS: That's really interesting. How did you feel when you heard that?

COLBERT: I totally understood.

GROSS: Yeah.

COLBERT: I totally understood. It doesn't mean you don't love the person just as much, but of course, people change. Of course, people change.

GROSS: Well, Stephen Colbert, it's just been great to talk with you again. Thank you so much for your show and for coming back to our show.

COLBERT: I've so enjoyed talking to you. It's always great to talk to you. And you remain, in my mind, the greatest interviewer working today.

GROSS: Stephen Colbert hosts "The Late Show" on CBS. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll celebrate the 50th anniversary of NPR and All Things Considered. With me to share their memories of those early days will be Bill Siemering, NPR's first director of programming who created All Things Considered, and Susan Stamberg, who co-hosted the show from 1972 to '86, making history as America's first woman anchor of a daily news program in America. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON BATISTE AND STAY HUMAN'S "HUMANISM")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON BATISTE AND STAY HUMAN'S "HUMANISM")

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.