It’s a few minutes after 6 p.m. on Thursday night, and as Donald Trump prepares to accept his nomination at the Republican National Convention, a weary-looking Stephen Colbert is rehearsing a few hundred miles away at the Ed Sullivan Theater.
Dressed in rumpled khakis and nursing a massive Starbucks coffee, the host runs lines ahead of what will be his fourth live broadcast this week. The jokes play up the vibe of loopy exhaustion in the room: “Hey, remember Monday?” he asks, setting up a clip package. “I don’t.”
As the nation has watched the surreal political theater unfolding in Cleveland, Colbert and his team at “The Late Show” have been pulling out all the stops each night at 11:35 p.m. (Or sometimes much later, thanks to RNC overruns). They’ll repeat the feat next week during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
Thursday’s show features a return appearance by Jon Stewart, who has come out of quasi-retirement on his New Jersey farm to lend his old Comedy Central buddy a hand.
He temporarily borrows Colbert’s desk to deliver a vintage, destined-to-go-viral “Daily Show”-style rant inspired by the news that his longtime nemesis, Fox News chief Roger Ailes, is resigning amid sexual harassment allegations.
So far, at least, the sleep deprivation seems to have been worth it. The live broadcasts enable Colbert to capitalize on his perceived strength as a political commentator and help “The Late Show” dominate online conversation throughout the convention.
“We really felt that we fulfilled the mission of what we’re trying to do as a late-night show this week,” says show runner Chris Licht in an interview Friday afternoon. The former executive producer of “CBS This Morning” was brought on board “The Late Show” in April. “One of the missions of this show is to be as topical and relevant as possible. We cannot do that during a convention week without being live.”’
“The Late Show” team is also leaning heavily on star power. Monday’s episode included an appearance by Colbert’s blowhard character from “The Colbert Report,” something that had previously been “verboten,” Licht notes. The decision to bring back “Stephen Colbert” is a reflection of Colbert’s growing comfort in his new role. “He’s really getting into his groove lately. It’s another tool in his toolbox he realized he could use in a limited way.”
Stewart’s two appearances create a feeling akin to a supergroup reunion.
At Thursday’s rehearsal, Stewart watches Colbert admiringly from a seat near the front of the Ed Sullivan Theater. In his off-duty beard and a backward FDNY baseball cap, Stewart occasionally weighs in with colorful words of encouragement and the odd reference to the Coen brothers film “The Hudsucker Proxy.”
Colbert runs through a monologue riffing on Trump’s NATO blunder and awkward air kiss with running mate Mike Pence, virtually all of which is scrapped for convention coverage in the live show. (Sadly, a graphic reimagining Russian President Vladimir Putin as “Game of Thrones” character Daenerys Targaryen doesn’t make it to air.)
Then it’s time to address the other big news of the day: Ailes’ ouster. Stewart is summoned to the stage, where the seasoned TV veteran feigns ignorance of production basics — “which way do I face?” he asks in an affected Jewish grandma voice — then crawls beneath Colbert’s desk.
When it’s finally time for him to emerge, Stewart uses Fox News personality Sean Hannity as the central example in a blistering critique of conservatives embracing Donald Trump.
The bit plays well in rehearsal, its success fueled by the obvious chemistry between Stewart and Colbert, who pops out from below the desk to explain the Taylor Swift-Kim Kardashian feud and to admonish Stewart for mocking Arby’s (a running gag from “The Daily Show”). The only problem is the episode is running long by about six minutes. As a sound guy removes his microphone, Stewart shakes Colbert’s hand. “We’ll tighten it down. We’ll get it good.”
Thanks to Trump’s lengthy acceptance speech, Thursday’s show doesn’t actually begin until Friday morning. At roughly 12:16 a.m., the show begins with a cold open featuring the night’s first guest, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and playing on the rumors she’ll be Hillary Clinton’s running mate.
Then Colbert takes to the Ed Sullivan stage. Despite the late hour, and in contrast to his subdued demeanor earlier in the evening, he is lively and energized. His monologue is fresh with jokes targeting Trump’s “acceptance shout” and Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus.
During a commercial break, a gaggle of producers distracts the audience by pretending to point at something awry in the ceiling while Stewart sneaks into position. Amazingly, it works.
Colbert sets up the Fox News segment by making the obviously disingenuous claim that Ailes’ resignation gives him no pleasure. Then he asks to have the camera taken off him for a moment. Safely out of view, Colbert rubs his nipples suggestively and arches his back. The audience eats it up.
Stewart’s appearance, moments later, is met with ecstatic applause. His takedown, though edited slightly, is an even bigger hit in the room at the Ed Sullivan Theater. Like many of “The Daily Show’s” greatest hits, it uses conservatives’ own words against them, in this case arguing that criticisms leveled at President Obama — for his supposed elitism and lack of experience, among other alleged shortcomings — apply even more directly to candidate Trump.
Stewart adds to the live version a pointed reference to the lack of Republican support for 9/11 first responders, and a pithy recap of the convention’s key themes. He also keeps the CBS censors on their toes with some basic cable-style profanity. (Luckily, they’re also well-caffeinated.)
The energy of Stewart’s appearance buoys the remainder of the show. In a conversation with his first guest, Warren, Colbert is gracious but pointed, asking the liberal firebrand to explain how her rhetoric differs from that of Trump. He also follows up on the vice-presidential rumors, which Warren all but shuts down.
It’s past 1 a.m. by the time Colbert greets the night’s second guest, the brash comedian Billy Eichner, who quips that Trump’s speech was “longer than ‘Finding Dory’ with half the nuance.” As the interview winds down, Eichner puts the jokes aside to compliment his host.
“This was your week,” he says. “You killed it.”