“Time to stand,” says Stephen Colbert, responding to a cue from his Apple Watch. He duly gets up from his desk and stretches. “Ahh,” says Colbert. “Now I’ll never die!” That, plus an interlude during which he grooves in silence to Sting’s melancholy 1991 jam “All This Time,” and a 10-minute pause to eat “tuna with some sort of sesame thing drizzled on it,” are Colbert’s only breaks on this show day in July.
Colbert’s mammoth office is several floors above the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York, formerly home to David Letterman, who probably didn’t have a Lord of the Rings blanket on his couch. As writers and producers stream in and out, Colbert sits behind his desk, making decisions. Should today’s show open with a laughing German newscaster, a fake Charlie Brown cartoon about Donald Trump’s “Space Force,” or a faux State Department advisory about Americans disguising themselves as Brits to stay safe during Trump’s U.K. visit? In the current, topical, time-slot-conquering version of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, the answer always comes down to “What’s the day’s biggest story?” (So, no Space Force.)
Not long ago, Colbert made it through one of the biggest artistic challenges of his life. The Colbert Report had seen 10 years of steady success, but his new show stumbled hard in its initial months, earning skeptical reviews and falling well behind Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show in the ratings. As Colbert explains over two hours of conversation the following day, he managed to turn the ship around midcourse, but not without some pain. Dampening his control-freak tendencies and belatedly hiring a showrunner, CBS News vet Chris Licht, was just the start.