Stephen Colbert is riding high as the current king of late night TV, but there was a moment four years ago when he believed he’d never return to television. The Late Show With Stephen Colbert host reflected on his decades-long career with Rolling Stone, and included the story that had people petitioning to #CancelColbert.
In 2014, Colbert was attempting to mock Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder, who announced he was starting a charity for Native Americans called the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation. The official Twitter account for Colbert’s Comedy Central show at the time, The Colbert Report, tweeted: “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” But the show only tweeted that punchline, not the setup.
“I was getting in a car to go home, and I saw that it exploded,” Colbert recalled. “And I went, ‘Uh-oh.’ What happened was, just that one line, absent any context, was tweeted out by someone who the week before had been an intern. There was nothing I could do; I wasn’t on the air for three days. And I went, ‘I’ve lost complete control of the context of my joke, and maybe I’ve lost a 25-year career with a single line.’”
Yes, Colbert was that worried.
“Oh, I thought it was absolutely terrible. It was the only time I ever really got mad at the network,” he said. “Because they took the tweet down, and I go, ‘What’re you thinking? Now you’ve apologized before I can contextualize my response, and now I’m 100 percent f*****. By putting that thing up there without the context of the character — and the story being that the Redskins were starting the [Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation] — without that context, you’ve given people who really would like to stick a knife in me a place to stand, and an 11-inch bowie knife.’”
He continued, “And I had no control, and because I did the show in character, I couldn’t respond out of character. I had to wait till 11:30 on Monday to create the response. That’s when I thought, ‘Oh, well, it’s been a good career.’”
Colbert said that was the moment he knew his time at Comedy Central had run its course. “That’s when I knew I had to get out of there as quickly as possible,” he exclaimed.
Although reluctant at first, Colbert ended up taking over for David Letterman at CBS. After a rocky start, the comedian has more than found his stride, thanks in part to his favorite topic, President Trump. He recalled being “shocked and dismayed” after his victory two years ago.
“There is nothing that has happened since Trump became president that wasn’t in my fear matrix about him,” he explained. “Nothing about Trump and Putin, nothing about his caging children, nothing about him saying, ‘There’s good people on both sides.’ Nothing about his handing the reins of power over to just a rogues’ gallery of anti-regulation, pro-pollution, anti-union, anti-women [officials] in any way surprises me. It’s all what I thought would happen. Which is why I was truly horrified.”
On Nov. 9, he said, “‘Well, you got a half hour to feel bad about it.’ We all got together, and we felt bad about it for a half hour, and we said get it out and that’s it. And then we’re like, ‘OK, now, what are the jokes?’ That’s it.”
Colbert continues to push boundaries with those jokes — like when he came under fire for quipping that Trump’s mouth would make a good “c*** holster” for Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
“I think the speed at which you do the show — and I thought we used to do the old show really fast, but this is four times as fast — the speed requires a lot of discipline so you don’t become flippant,” he reflected. “Or don’t lose sight of your intention and execution. The thing I said about Trump and Putin, the thing that caused so much hurt when it was perceived as being homophobic? That’s an example of moving so fast that I hurt the intention of the work with the execution.”
Colbert continued, “In ways that are undeniable. If someone thought that was homophobic, who am I to say that it wasn’t? Especially to any community whose concerns have been brushed aside as being, ‘Oh, you’re just sensitive.’ That happened all the time at the old show, because I was in character and I would say really extreme things with a very clear intention. So it was clear to the audience that what you’re hearing was a concept, and not the content.”
The Emmy winner also opened up about battling crippling anxiety when he was younger.
“I was actually medicated,” he admitted. “I mean, in the most common, prosaic way. Xanax was just lovely. Y’know, for a while. And then I realized that the gears were still smoking. I just couldn’t hear them anymore. But I could feel them, I could feel the gearbox heating up and smoke pouring out of me, but I was no longer walking around a couch. I had a bit of a nervous breakdown after I got married — kind of panic attacks. My wife would go off to work and she’d come home — because I worked at night — and I’d be walking around the couch. And she’s like, ‘How was your day?’ And I’d say, ‘You’re looking at it.’ Just tight circles around the couch.”
He added, “I stopped the Xanax after, like, nine days. I went, ‘This isn’t helping.’ So I just suffered through it. I’d sometimes hold the bottle, to go like, ‘I could stop this feeling if I wanted, but I’m not going to. Because I know if I stop the feeling, somehow I’m not working through it, like I have got to go through the tunnel with the spiders in it.’”
Those feelings subsided when he was onstage. “I went, ‘Oh my God, I can never stop performing.’ Creating something is what helped me from just spinning apart like an unweighted flywheel. And I haven’t stopped since. Even when I was a writer I always had to be in front of a camera a little bit. I have to perform.”
Head over to Rolling Stone to read the full Stephen Colbert profile.
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