An evening with Stephen Colbert

Entertainment | The audience gets glimpses of his Catholic faith at a taping in the first week of his new show
by Emily Belz
Posted 9/16/15, 09:00 am

NEW YORK– Before the cameras started rolling on Sept. 11, Stephen Colbert danced out on stage as the new Late Show band, Jon Batiste and Stay Human, jammed. “My first Friday show ever!” he told the crowd. 

The taping to close out the first week of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert showed a man who wanted to engage the people in the room, not just the viewers at home. He threw in small references to his Catholic faith throughout the night.  

“Please be seated,” he told the crowd, then paused and recognized our solemnity as we sat down together. 

“The Lord be with you,” he said. 

“And also with you,” a few voices replied. 

Colbert had nightly shows Monday through Thursday when he was host of Comedy Central’s Colbert Report. “I used to play a narcissistic conservative pundit—now I’m just a narcissist,” he told presidential candidate Jeb Bush, his first guest on the show. Now he’s on every weeknight, taking over David Letterman’s spot as host of the Late Show. He led ratings among the late night shows last week.

The staff and crew are still working out technical glitches and figuring out how to fit everything into the hour-long time slot. They cut material from interviews with the guests that night, comedian Amy Schumer and author Stephen King. The show has its crude moments, as all late-night shows do. But Colbert is smartly funny, and he has a depth that showed in his interview last week with Vice President Joe Biden. He likes to sing and dance and even whistle. 

The superb New Orleans-rooted band, Batiste and Stay Human, jammed on stage and prowled through the crowd with their melodica and saxophone whenever Colbert was busy. At one point they played a jazzed-up version of the gospel tune “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” 

At the Report tapings, Colbert was famous for taking substantial time talking with the in-studio audience. At one taping I attended, an audience member asked him to recite a poem from Lord of the Rings, which he did on the spot. He’s a J.R.R. Tolkien nerd.

I wondered if he would still take audience questions when he moved up to network television. Other late-night hosts such as Jimmy Fallon don’t set aside that time. But that Friday night, Colbert took two rounds of questions from the audience, once before the show got rolling and again at the end. 

One man asked why the set said only, “Late Night with” and not his name. Colbert said he thought it was funny that way. He quickly listed off the names of all the late night shows over the last decades and then said he and his staff played around with other prepositions, like Late Night Despite Stephen Colbert.

Between takes, Colbert would entertain too. He recorded a sketch called “Yesterday’s Coffee” about a new brand of coffee you make the day before you drink it, “but it tastes like you made it today.” When the cameras cut, Colbert turned to the audience and told the story about the origins of the sketch. He and his wife had that coffee conversation years before. His wife, Evelyn McGee-Colbert, was in the audience, and he thanked her for coming up with the joke.

Colbert’s time interacting with the live audience is intentional. 

“What does anybody want?” Colbert said in a recent interview with Father Thomas Rosica from the Holy See Press Office. “Not to be alone. And I think a performer gets onstage and says the things that are in his mind, in his own particular way, to make a connection with an audience so he doesn’t feel so alone. And hopefully the audience feels the same way. … That connection has got to be the goal.”

Also in the lineup for the evening was a band called Troubled Waters that covers Paul Simon songs. Colbert apologized several times that the show couldn’t get Simon himself. But when Troubled Waters finally took the stage at the end of the taping, Simon walked out as the lead singer. Colbert never acknowledged Simon as himself, referring to him as Allen and then asking, “Can I call you Al?” in reference to Simon’s hit song, “You Can Call Me Al.” A deadpan Simon played it through, talking about the bar mitzvah Troubled Waters was going to play that got canceled. 

Unfortunately the show had to cut Simon’s final song of the night, “American Tune,” a poignant song for an occasion like 9/11. The tune riffs off the melody to the hymn, “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” The song didn’t go on the television show, but the audience in the theater was rapt.

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.

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