Stephen Colbert returns to ‘Late Show’ stage before vaccinated fans

By John Koblin

There was a hug for the bandleader, Jon Batiste, without any need for social distancing. There were chants of “Ste-phen! Ste-phen! Ste-phen!” And a standing ovation that lasted a minute and a half.

“So how ya been?” Stephen Colbert said to a roar of laughter from a crowd of more than 420 people — all vaccinated, most of them maskless — at the Ed Sullivan Theater in Midtown Manhattan.

The CBS late night host was back in his element Monday, connecting with a capacity crowd 460 days after the coronavirus pandemic had emptied the theater where he has worked since 2015. He was reveling in the moment.

“I am proud to say that we are the first show back up on Broadway,” Colbert said, adding a profane taunt of “The Lion King.”

The return to the stage of late night’s highest-rated host was one of the clearest signs yet, in television and in New York cultural life, that things were starting to get back to normal.

During an interview in his office last week, Colbert sounded eager to get back in the spotlight. “I’m like a dog who’s got his head out the window and can smell that we’re near the farm,” he said. “I’m ready to be out of the cage.”

There were 213 audience-less episodes of “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” broadcasts that came with off-camera chuckles from his executive producer, Chris Licht, and his wife, Evie, in place of big laughs from a packed hall. The usually buttoned-up host ditched his suit and grew out his hair.

The remote version started in March 2020, when Colbert returned to TV with a surprise monologue from a bubble bath at his home. In recent months, he has put on the show from a retrofitted supply closet above the Ed Sullivan Theater.

During an episode last week, he appeared to have had enough of the small-scale version. He broke away from his monologue to complain about Licht’s hovering presence — “I can’t escape him!” — and other annoyances of lockdown television production. The rant was filled with bleeped-out words and ended with him shaking a fist at the heavens and crying, “What you got, old man? Is that all you got? Give it to me — I can take it!”

Describing the screed, Licht said in an interview that the host had “kind of lost his mind.”

Colbert likened the on-air moment to an “emotional breakdown.”

He started pushing for a return on March 18, the day he taped a sketch backstage, surrounded by staff members. It was, in Colbert’s telling, a lot of fun to be with his colleagues in the building again. He summoned Licht.

“That’s when I said to Chris, ‘It’s really important we get back,’ ” Colbert said.

He continued: “I think we’ve done the show the best we can in this isolated circumstance. I think the best way to do the show now is to find a way to get back in front of the audience, because it feels more honest to the national experience right now.”

Colbert set strict conditions for the return: There would be a full studio audience; there would be no mask requirement; and there would be no social distancing between him and Batiste.

“We made a conscious decision that really was following his lead as a performer, which was, ‘I don’t want to go halfsies back into that room,’ ” Licht said.

For three months the host regularly nudged his producer on how close he was to standing face to face with an audience again. “At the end of every day, I would say: ‘Chris, so what’s the answer? I mean, the answer can be no, but I just want an answer,’ ” Colbert said.

Licht worked with ViacomCBS to get the necessary clearances. By mid-May, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lifted indoor regulations for mask use among vaccinated people, the show was well on its way to a return. Approval from New York state came May 22, Licht said.

After Colbert announced, three weeks ago, that he would soon be back onstage, others followed suit, including Bruce Springsteen, who said his “Springsteen on Broadway” show would return to the St. James Theater on June 26. Colbert’s NBC rival, Jimmy Fallon, welcomed back a full audience of just under 200 people for “The Tonight Show” last week, though attendees have been required to wear masks in his 30 Rockefeller Plaza studio.

The Ed Sullivan Theater, built in 1927, has hosted a number of dramatic moments in broadcast and New York history, including landmark performances by Elvis Presley and the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and David Letterman’s return to broadcasting six days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

It was restored to its former glory after CBS bought the building, for $4 million, as the venue for Letterman’s program in 1993. When Colbert succeeded him in 2015, the network refurbished it anew at a cost of $18 million. Until Monday, the last “Late Show” broadcast from its stage took place March 12, 2020, when the host delivered his lines to empty seats.

Licht said he was concerned about finding enough people willing to show up for the Monday taping so soon after pandemic restrictions had been lifted, a worry that proved unfounded. Twenty minutes after tickets were made available online, the show had received 20,000 requests, the producer said.

The vast majority of those who saw the return had their masks on their laps or in their pockets. There was even the sound of scattered coughing, and no one seemed shaken up by it.

As Colbert wrapped up his monologue, he brought out Evie, his wife, who became a mainstay of the show during his remote broadcasts. “Audience, he’s all yours now,” she said. “Don’t forget to laugh, because he really needs it.”

Colbert then did a remote interview with comedian Dana Carvey, who offered his impersonation of President Joe Biden, before welcoming his former “Daily Show” colleague Jon Stewart to the guest chair.

“Can I lick these people?” Stewart said, looking at the packed house.

To close the show, Batiste performed a new song of his with his band, Stay Human, and a group of gospel singers. Colbert joined everyone else onstage and danced.

The song was called “Freedom.”

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