In July, I interviewed Stephen Colbert as he was preparing for live telecasts of CBS' Late Show for the political conventions. He was still less than a year into his tenure as David Letterman's replacement, and both ratings and buzz remained far behind the frontrunning Tonight Show on NBC. A hot rumor at the time was that his slot would be flip-flopped with his lead-out, James Corden. In conversation, Colbert was more upbeat than the public narrative would suggest. But criticism about his performance — "I'm a human being. Yeah, I care," he said at the time — clearly was wounding.
What a difference eight months and the election of a reality TV star makes.
As I sit with Colbert in early April in his 12th-floor corner office above the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City, he has just notched his ninth consecutive week as the most watched late-night show on television. He's animated, focused and much more relaxed, like a man who has rediscovered his purpose. "What a privilege to be on TV right now," he says.
Do you owe Donald Trump a thank-you note?
(Long pause.) No. I would trade good ratings for a better president. How about that? The interesting thing is that when we were prepping all that time, we weren't waiting for Donald Trump. We were waiting for something that everybody cared about. Do you know what I mean? Donald Trump is epoch-making; he changes everything. And so we were ready for something that galvanized people's attention and changed their priorities. The thank-you note is to my staff for being ready — that's the thank-you note. Because if it's not Donald Trump, it's something else. There will be something else that we care about, hopefully happy, possibly tragic. But we're ready to talk about what just happened, whenever it happens now. And that's what we've learned. And so my thank-you note is not to Donald Trump. He can go with God.