THE LATE-NIGHT KING
Stephen Colbert Opens Up About the President: ‘Donald Trump Is An Act of Cruelty’
The ‘Late Show’ host explained his deepest and darkest thoughts on President Trump in conversation with Frank Rich at Vulture Fest.
On Saturday night, the Late Show with Stephen Colbert host sat down with New York’s Frank Rich, who also works as an executive producer on the critically acclaimed Veep. The event was billed as a “State of the Union,” and fittingly began with Colbert complimenting Rich on Veep’s gallows humor, explaining that, “I think it’s the truest show on television right now, because it’s ego and incompetence and panic.”
All that panic can, of course, be traced back to one fateful night in November—a night that Colbert spent processing the presidential election results live on air. “That night was a completely raw experience,” he recalls, ruefully. “We had so much material, man.”
According to Colbert, they were planning on feting the country’s first female president with a barrage of content, including but not limited to an eight-minute Katy Perry piece about “your new feminist overlords,” and 20 naked men boasting the “We’re with her” motto on their backsides. Instead, Colbert found himself performing in a room that he compares to “an audience full of Chilean villagers who have just been pulled into the soccer stadium to see their friends and neighbors executed,” complete with fans openly weeping in the front row.
After the election, Colbert gave his staff time to cope and readjust—thirty minutes, to be exact. Attempting to explain why they only took half an hour the day after the election before getting back to work, the comedian concludes, “We don’t do this job because we had happy childhoods. And we click back in to our old survival mechanism, which is to make jokes about terrible things.”
Still, it wasn’t exactly business as usual. Colbert recalls approaching his staff after election night and offering them this silver lining: “Well if you’ve ever wondered if 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. We’re an emotional release valve.” These days, Colbert has a new metric for success, one that combines humor and emotional honesty: “The question that we ask ourselves now when we go to rewrite the monologue every night is, ‘Am I expressing how I feel?’”
While proud of his work and his creative aims, Colbert is quick to admit that the Trump administration has thrown its own, never-ending series of obstacles at the Late Show staff. He explains that on four separate occasions over the past two weeks, he’s had to add material to the show when news broke in the middle of filming. One of those instances was the fateful day when James Comey was fired—in the middle of the monologue, no less. “We actually gave the writers ten minutes to come up with at least three jokes,” Colbert laughs. “I think they came up with four.”
“It’s sort of hackney to say ‘I wish for the old boring days,’” Colbert admits. “But boring is stability. We don’t know what’s going on with Donald Trump, that’s the scariest thing. It’s not that I disagree with him, it’s that I don’t know what the fuck he thinks.” Still, he notes, “If you can put aside your concern for the country, as a performer it’s great.”
The entire nation is, more or less, engrossed in the news, meaning that Colbert can spend less time explaining his source material and go straight for the punchline. And that far-reaching humor is at the heart of Colbert’s entertainment ethos: “Fear is the mind-killer. And he got elected on anger and fear. And you cannot laugh and be afraid at the same time. So let’s go make people laugh, and then they’ll be able to think. That’s the value of what we do.”
But when Rich asks Colbert if he’s ever grateful for the comedic opportunity that President Trump has presented, the Daily Show alum gets serious. “The emotional state is an honest one, which is ‘I wish this wasn’t happening, now let’s make a joke about the thing that’s on fire.’ Because that’s what it feels like. It feels like things are on fire…and I’m not a fireman. I’m a guy who dances next to the fire and says, ‘Let’s all admit this is on fire—do you think that should be on fire? Is that really something that we want to burn for fuel today?’…the hard thing is to dance close to the fire and not get burned by the fire.” When Rich asks, “What would constitute getting into the fire?” Colbert promptly retorts, “I’d say, calling the President a cock holster.”
Raging against the madness of the Trump administration day in and day out can often feel, to borrow Colbert’s descriptive phrasing, like “you’re shouting into an Altoids tin and throwing it off an overpass.” Still, he comforts himself with the knowledge that Trump is getting “absolutely sack-punched every day by information—by firm investigative journalism,” and he genuinely feels like the past couple of weeks have heralded a shift in which damning evidence is continuing to stack up against the President.
In terms of Trumpian guests, Colbert says that he would welcome “anyone from the administration” on his show—but “maybe not Kellyanne Conway.” More specifically, he adds later on, “I’d like to interview [Melania], that would be nice…I love the pictures of her and Barron, that’s really sweet and human. And it seems like the most honest thing I see from that entire family is that she’s not with him and that she’s with her son.”
Discussing past guests, Colbert decides that he doesn’t have any moral qualms about sharing a Ted Cruz anecdote. “I had Ted Cruz on early on in this present gig, and we were back stage,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Thanks for coming on, I like having Republicans on.’ And he goes, ‘I was hoping we could humanize me.’ And I thought, ‘Well step one, don’t ask anyone to humanize you. That’s something humans don’t ask…’” He remembers telling Cruz, “If you want to be humanized, don’t ever let me recognize one sentence that comes out of your mouth. Don’t go to the stump speech, and you will be a human being…And he says, ‘That’s hard.’ And I said, ‘So is being human.’” Naturally, Colbert adds, Cruz ended up reverting to his stump speech anyway.
Next, Rich asks Colbert about how he felt when he learned that Trump had specifically called him out. Mostly, it seems, Colbert was elated. “I’ve been trying to get him to say my name for a year,” he remembers thinking, and adds that, “That was one of our highest-rated shows.” He recalls in a pre-interview that “I can’t really tell you about” when Trump was a guest on his show, and that the future President was “remarkably transactional.” The interaction boiled down to, “Ask me this, don’t ask me that…it’ll be great for me, it’ll be great for you,” Colbert explains. “He understands what the audience is going to like, and he understands how we’re going to play out this relationship a coin at a time for both of our benefits. And so it surprised me that he would throw me such a bag of coins.”
Turning the conversation towards a true state of the union, Colbert shares his semi-optimistic predictions for the very near future. “It seems like the best thing you could hope for is just sort of this grinding, innervating status quo that gets you to the 2018 midterm elections,” he posits, “And then if the Democrats have just two saltine crackers in their skull to rub together, and they can get control of either house of Congress, then you can have a serious investigation that is public…there needs to be a public coming to Jesus on what Trump means, and what we are willing to accept as governance, what we’re willing to accept as our standards. Because what’s in that pile, that fire that I’m dancing next to? It’s really our norms and our standards and our principles. Are we willing to burn everything for a golden calf who is Donald Trump? Just for vindictiveness’ sake? You know, our politics have become these pure acts of vindictiveness… People who felt like they were being treated cruelly decided to respond with an act of cruelty themselves. Donald Trump is an act of cruelty. But there needs to be a reckoning.”
Citing the Iraq War as an example of an atrocity that too quickly escaped our collective conscience, he muses that, “The one good thing that could come out of Donald Trump is that he himself is such a redolent turd, that we have to examine how we allowed that thing in the food chain.”
In addition to the Democrats in general, who Colbert describes as “terrible at their jobs,” the late-night host also has words for Hillary Clinton. “I have tremendous respect for secretary Clinton,” he offers, “and I think that she is a dedicated public servant. But I think her coming back into public life would be a terrible idea right now. There will be time for that, she has a lot to contribute still, but I think that [the resistance] is already happening… And all she can do right now is galvanize Republicans to have a common enemy when they’re tearing themselves apart publicly.”
On a personal note, Colbert seems more than ready to put his year of “fucking agony” and late-night growing pains behind him. “Now, as hard as it is,” he grins, “I can’t wait to get on stage. What a privilege it is to do a show like this, especially right now.”