The Late Show with Stephen Colbert: Is it better under quarantine?

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of late night TV is now being produced from hosts’ homes. Here’s how The Late Show with Stephen Colbert is producing some of its best moments yet under quarantine.

Recently, we noted an extreme tone change between one March 2020 episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and what happened two nights later. Soon after, TV production began shutting down—but not The Late Show. Colbert has been hosting from home, fully becoming the “Stephen at home” in his Twitter handle.

These A Late Show with Stephen at Home episodes, as Colbert has called them, have not been without their glitches. But in spite of any problems, perhaps even because of them, Colbert’s late show has managed to be a light in the dark.

Even back when he was the fictional, idiot-pundit host of The Colbert Report, spending late nights with Stephen Colbert was a must because of his unique ability to connect with interview subjects. Back in those days, Colbert’s skill was only allowed to be present in the briefest of moments; but once he made the jump to hosting The Late Show, Colbert’s sense of empathy saved the show.

In a reverse interview with Jon Stewart, Colbert once discussed how hard it was to drop the old character and just be himself. An interview with Joe Biden allowed the host to drop his mask and really see the path to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert‘s success. “That nice old man just gave me my show,” he remembered saying.

Fast forward to 2020, and Stephen Colbert dropped another mask layer in order to host The Late Show (or A Late Show, if you prefer). Forced out of the Ed Sullivan Theater due to the novel coronavirus, Stephen would rely on his family members—his sons and eventually his wife for stage management, his daughter for makeup—to help him along.

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and guests Claire Danes & Mandy Patinkin during Thursday’s April 23, 2020 show. Photo: Best Possible Screen Grab/CBS ©2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The monologue, played for laughs on the day’s political news, has become more somber. The jokes are still there, but the seriousness of the situation comes through. And rather than feeling separated from what Colbert has to say, being a viewer of this newest incarnation of his work feels like actually inviting the late-night host into one’s residence.

Occasionally, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert has an unexpected guest in the form of Stephen’s dog, Benny. Those moments are made of nothing but pure joy.

Once or twice, Colbert’s wife, Evie, has even appeared on-screen. It’s in these moments that the real man shines through like never before; and it makes spending late nights with him, recapping the news, feel like inviting an old friend over for a visit.

In a time when we can’t invite anyone over for a visit, it’s the best possible way to end our weeknights. Viewers also get to invite the stars over for a chat; they, too, feel more like real people than ever before. Gone are the Hollywood stylists and makeup artists. Instead, people like Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett show up to chat with Stephen Colbert (and us) in their pajamas.

The conversations are more casual—sometimes, like when Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe “visited” The Late Show, as technically-challenged as viewers’ own Zoom conferences. And through it all, Colbert’s ability to simply connect on a human level is magnified in a way that doesn’t just make great television: It’s a much-needed comfort.

The same empathy and vulnerability that made the Biden interview so good years ago are helping Colbert create exactly the type of late-night TV viewers need right now. Perhaps a man who has already experienced sudden loss is uniquely posed to host at a time when the staggering numbers might make it seem futile, or maybe Stephen Colbert has always been that good. Maybe it’s both.

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and guest Trevor Noah during Monday’s April 20, 2020 show. Photo: Best Possible Screen Grab/CBS ©2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Regardless, while Colbert often laments, especially during interviews with fellow TV comedians, the lack of an audience—particularly the inability to know if his jokes land—he’s doing an amazing job. The jokes are landing; but more importantly, so is the honesty and the real discomfort and uncertainty that mirrors our own.

Certainly, it will be a welcome sight whenever The Late Show with Stephen Colbert can return to the Ed Sullivan Theater, with a full band and plenty of audience members to cheer Stephen’s entrance. But until then, this newly-honest and raw glimpse of the man behind the usually thinned-out mask will continue to be a must-watch for anyone who just needs to feel less alone.

And on that note, we leave you with Benny Colbert to brighten your day.

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert airs weeknights on CBS. For more information about COVID-19, visit the CDC’s website or the website for your state’s Department of Health.