Fifteen months after he abruptly left the Ed Sullivan Theater and started hosting A Late Show from first his bathtub and later a small office, Stephen Colbert made his triumphant return Monday night, with a fully vaccinated audience in their seats and his old friend Jon Stewart by his side.
After walking on stage—in pants!—to an exuberant standing ovation and “Stephen! Stephen! Stephen!” chant, Colbert grinned widely as he embraced his band leader Jon Batiste and welcomed viewers to The Late Show for the first time since COVID-19 upended everything last March. “We never really left, but we certainly weren’t here,” he explained, comparing it to the “first day back at school.”
“I am so really happy!” Stewart said when he joined Colbert at the desk. “And I know we’re all vaccinated and I’m not going to get COVID, but I’m going to get something. These people did not take good care of themselves during the pandemic.”
Asked how he’s feeling about the state of the scientific response to COVID-19, Stewart added, “So, I will say this—and I honestly mean this—I think we owe a great debt of gratitude to science. Science has, in many ways, helped ease the suffering of this pandemic, which was more than likely caused by science.”
Taken aback, Colbert asked his friend, “Do you mean perhaps there’s a chance that this was created in a lab?” referring to the ongoing investigation into the so-called “lab leak” theory that started as a right-wing conspiracy.
“A chance?” Stewart asked. “Oh my god, there’s a novel respiratory coronavirus overtaking Wuhan, China, what do we do? Oh, you know who we could ask? The Wuhan novel respiratory coronavirus lab. The disease is the same name as the lab. That’s just a little too weird!”
Then, when they asked the scientists who worked in that lab how the pandemic might have started, he joked that their response was, “Uhh, a pangolin kissed a turtle?” or “Maybe a bat flew into the cloaca of a turkey and then it sneezed into my chili and now we all have coronavirus?”
As an analogy, he added, “There’s been an outbreak of chocolatey goodness near Hershey, Pennsylvania, what do you think happened? I don’t know, maybe a steam shovel made it with a cocoa bean. Or it’s the fucking chocolate factory!”
“That could very well be,” Colbert allowed, noting that Dr. Anthony Fauci among others have said that it would be investigated. But he also pushed back, telling Stewart, “It could be possible that they have the lab in Wuhan to study the novel coronavirus diseases because in Wuhan there are a lot of coronavirus diseases because of the bat population there.”
But Stewart didn’t want to hear any of it, repeatedly making his point before Colbert finally asked him, “And how long have you worked for Senator Ron Johnson?”
“This is not a conspiracy!” Stewart shot back. “But this is the problem with science. Science is incredible, but they don’t know when to stop and no one in the room with those cats ever goes, ‘I don’t know if we should do that.’ They’re like, ‘curiosity killed the cat, so let’s kill 10,000 cats to find out why.’”
When he realized he may have gone too far, Stewart walked down stage and spoke directly into the camera: “I have been alone so long. And when I realized that the laboratory was having the same name—first name and last name—of the evil that had been plaguing us, I thought to myself, that’s fucked up.”
After a break, given the chance to move on, Stewart doubled down one last time. “Can I say this about scientists?” he asked. “I love them and they do such good work but they are going to kill us all.”
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