Stephen Colbert has become one of the biggest names on the late night scene thanks to his job as host of The Late Show on CBS. He scored the CBS gig after proving himself as a late night personality on The Colbert Report. He was a fixture on Comedy Central for nearly a decade, playing a wildly and hilariously conservative version of himself. The move to CBS was a big promotion, but it turns out that Colbert had trouble leaving his fictionalized self behind. He had this to say about bailing on the Stephen Colbert character:
There's a confessional aspect to wearing a mask, the same reason why it's easier to confess behind a screen to a priest than face to face. So the character was a 10-year confession, perhaps indulging ego and appetite through the person of this character. Then you go onstage as yourself and you're responsible for everything you say and there's a natural inclination to pull your punch because you have to be responsible for what you're saying. You cannot hide behind the mask. ... It took me a little while to realize that the character was not in danger of re-emerging.
The former Colbert Report host has been open about his thoughts on making the move from Comedy Central to CBS prior to this. Before the changeover, he was looking to end The Colbert Report because he believed that it was no longer what the American people needed from late night comedy, and he wasn't entirely confident about taking on hosting duties on The Late Show because he just wasn't sure if he'd enjoy it enough to sell it to viewers. It was a big move, and it was pretty messy for a while. Chelsea Handler was publicly critical of his take on the series, and ratings were far from phenomenal. His first episode very nearly didn't even make it to the air, and his time on The Late Show didn't get much easier for some time. He now says this is because he was grappling with the "mask" or the personality he used to use during his time on Comedy Central and trying to figure out how to be his own person in a more buttoned up late night environment.
The Late Show has gone through several major shakeups ever since Stephen Colbert took the reins. CBS brought in former CBS This Morning producer Chris Licht to lift some of the production responsibilities from Colbert's shoulders and allow him to focus more on his role in front of the camera. Then, executive producer Meredith Bennett left The Late Show. Huge changes behind the scenes may have resulted in an upswing in the quality of the series.
It might have been easy for Stephen Colbert to fall back on his character from The Colbert Report in the face of so many difficulties. The lukewarm reception had to be discouraging, and he was a huge hit on The Colbert Report, although his reach on Comedy Central was much more limited than on CBS. Still, The Late Show almost certainly wouldn't have worked if Colbert went back to his political lampooning roots, and his performance as he moved out of his comfort zone has gotten better and better. He even felt comfortable playing his Colbert Report character at one point during his coverage of the 2016 presidential election, and he managed to slip in and out of the role with ease. His posit that he struggled with the transition, as noted in the interview with The Fresh, helps explain why The Late Show got off to a slow start, but his decision to move to CBS seems to be starting to pay off.
Tune in to CBS on weeknights at 11:35 p.m. ET to see what Stephen Colbert has in store next on The Late Show.