After a successful run of live episodes during the Republican and Democratic conventions, Stephen Colbert will do it all again after the upcoming presidential debate — starting with this Monday’s first Trump vs. Clinton showdown. So how do you prepare for that? You don’t, the Late Show host tells us. We spoke to Colbert about the unique challenges of covering this year’s election cycle, his strategy for tackling the debates in real-time, and the best debate-night drinking game we’ve heard yet.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell me about the kind of preparation you do before these live episodes. Do you try to bank as much material beforehand?
STEPHEN COLBERT: Well, actually, there’s only so much you can do because, you know, the whole point is to do live-time reaction. You know, for the live shows that we did during the conventions, we had, like, a bit or two written for it. It really was, “How much of it can we make of what we just saw?” How fast can you turn the jokes? That’s really the joy for us because, otherwise, why not just pre-tape it?
Doing a live episode after a presidential debate sounds like a challenge as it is. I’d imagine that these debates would make your jobs even harder.
Right. One of the oddest things about it is that, you know, this is a regular presidential debate now. It’s like that’s the strangest part of this election, is that this is the new normal. Donald Trump is a major party candidate, and Hillary Clinton is a major party candidate, and this is what they’re like now. We’ve never had a female major-party candidate before, and we’ve never had a guy who seems to be winging the entire thing before. I mean, he’s a… he’s a great improviser, so I expect him to actually do a great job. I have high expectations for him.
That’s the big hurdle though, right? With another candidate, a debate might still be a little scripted — you know their talking points. But if Trump improvises, you guys will have to even more.
You have expectations of what his tone will be like, but you have no idea what he’s going to say because, you know. Even for most interviews on the show, if there’s a guest — especially if it’s a politician — you get a sense of what they’re going to say before you sit down with them, and so you can prep for that. But you have no idea what this guy’s going to do.
[As for Hillary], she’s going to have to be reactionary. So I think it’s going to be just as surprising on that side, but you have a little bit of an idea of…it’s really dependent on what Lester Holt does in terms of what subjects he’s going to hit. There’s national security. There’s economics. There’s social issues. So we don’t know what sort of territory Lester Holt’s going to carve out, and it’s going to be fun to see him try to rodeo the two of them — because Trump suggested on CNBC that there should be no moderator!
Yeah, he said having one would be unfair.
Right, because there’s an inherent bias there. “Why not just let us go up there and talk?” I don’t even know why there are words! Let’s just throw them in a pit and make them fight with sharpened sticks!
So doing those live convention episodes, what were some of the lessons after having done those that you’ll apply this time going forward? Or things that maybe surprised you?
One of the things that surprised me, but also didn’t surprise me, was how much information or how many jokes can be generated in a short period of time, because we go off the air with exactly one half hour. The convention would go off the air one half-hour before we had to be on. When they went off the air, we’d still be generating jokes. Five minutes after the conventions went off the air, we had 30 minutes to edit everything down, and like an actual news organization would do, we had to turn the footage from each of those night moments. I’m just so proud of my staff and my writers that they’re able to do it. I’m not entirely surprised because the people who did The Colbert Report with me, we did a bunch of live shows, but never this fast.
And it’s extraordinary how you’re going from cable to network, going from, you know, four days a week to five days a week, half an hour to an hour. It took us a while to realize, oh, this is like going from go-cart to NASCAR in terms of how fast the decisions have to be made. And that’s on any show, but on a live show, you’re going so fast that it’s like you’re drifting around corners. You have to just stay calm, stay loose, and be able to go with the flow.
Also, I drank so much coffee every night that I couldn’t go to sleep before 4 a.m.
Is there a temptation to reach for the harder stuff during these nights?
I do have a little drinking game I’m playing — whenever the candidates talk, I will be drinking. But no, I just drink a ton of black coffee all night long, and then I stay in the city for live shows rather than go out to the suburbs where I live with my wife and three khakis and my Volvo. [Laughs.] But even without the coffee, after doing a live show, there’s so much adrenaline that you can’t go to sleep. It would be fun to do it live every night, but I think it would kill us.
Does having Chris Licht on as showrunner now help in the respect, since he comes from CBS’ news division?
Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I don’t think we could’ve done at least — certainly not two weeks of live shows. We’ve done live shows before, but we couldn’t do it consistently with that quick turnaround for two weeks without somebody who had been doing live news. I mean, before he took the gig with me, he was prepping to be the producer for CBS of those convention shows. He goes, “I’m just changing the building I’m in.” I was already ready to do this live, and so he was instrumental to be able to do it. And now I know we can, because one night, while a challenge, is kind of cake compared to — knock wood — having to do two straight weeks of it with travel.
So, based on what we know now, which isn’t much, who do you think will come out of the first debate as the consensus winner?
It’s interesting. It’s rare there’s a consensus winner at one of these debates. The only one I can know for sure is…
Lloyd Bentsen doing a smack-down on Vice President Quayle was pretty good in ’88, but Obama got stomped by Romney in the first debate four years ago to the point where…I mean, people were shocked that Obama didn’t seem to show up for it. So it’s rare to know there’s going to be a consensus winner.
The interesting thing is that, because people are perceiving the problems with America from such radically different positions… the people who are behind Clinton are behind Clinton. The people behind Trump — he said he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and he would still keep them. So I don’t think there’s going to be a consensus. The only people who can be influenced are the 7.6 percent of the people in the country who haven’t made up their mind yet. And because Trump’s people will always say that he won, and even if he doesn’t win, they’ll say, well, it was rigged. That’s why he didn’t win. And I don’t think Hillary Clinton’s supporters can ever perceive Trump as having made a valid point.
So, really, it’s only 7.6 percent of America that gets to make this call or is even willing to change their mind about anything. I don’t think there can be a consensus, which is I think one of the hardest things about this year — that there’s no agreed reality. How about that? There’s no agreed reality, and an agreed reality is the only place where you can have a winner.