How an Election Surprise Helped Stephen Colbert Find His Elusive Groove

How an Election Surprise Helped Stephen Colbert Find His Elusive Groove

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“I think it’s when he became himself,” he said.

Five months later, “The Late Show” has done what a year ago seemed unthinkable: It has become the most viewed show in late night. Mr. Colbert’s show has reeled off nine consecutive weeks of ratings victories over Jimmy Fallon’s once-invincible “Tonight Show,” and is poised to make it 10 in a row when the latest numbers come out on Tuesday.

NBC executives have taken solace in the fact that Mr. Fallon still commands a lead in the age demographic vital to advertisers, and are skeptical that this Colbert surge will last forever. It is more than possible that Mr. Colbert and Mr. Fallon, over time, could settle into a battle that will go back and forth.

But at this time last year, Mr. Colbert was losing by more than a million viewers to Mr. Fallon and feeling pressure from within CBS, which had named him the successor to David Letterman with much fanfare. The company’s chief executive, Leslie Moonves, had serious concerns about the show, and the network’s 12:35 a.m. host, James Corden, was outshining him.

The executive producer Chris Licht, center, a career newsman, was tapped to turn the show around.

Credit
Chad Batka for The New York Times

And now?

“It’s pizza day,” Mr. Colbert said in his 12th-floor office last Tuesday.

Throughout the offices of “The Late Show,” staff members could be heard saying, “Pizza! Pizza!” — celebrating a reward that comes on Tuesdays when they beat “The Tonight Show” in the ratings.

Just like “Saturday Night Live” and MSNBC’s prime-time lineup, Mr. Colbert has benefited from his decidedly anti-Trump point of view. But even though Mr. Trump’s victory appears to have single-handedly turned the late-night comedy race upside down, Mr. Colbert’s rise is the product of months of meticulous work. The goal: to earn the chance to be — as Mr. Licht put it — “resampled” by viewers.

For its first six months, “The Late Show,” which debuted in September 2015, was adrift. Mr. Moonves was concerned enough to express his frustrations to Mr. Colbert over dinner at the 21 Club in Manhattan, shortly after a live edition of the show fizzled despite a prime spot immediately after the Super Bowl in February 2016.

Chief among Mr. Moonves’s concerns was how uncomfortable Mr. Colbert looked on a big stage. He thought the host was worrying over too many trivial details, from the stage lighting down to the color of the dressing rooms.

“On the old show, all of us handled all those responsibilities,” Mr. Colbert said, acknowledging that the CBS show was a much bigger undertaking. “And I’m a control freak, and everything — everything — went through my skull.”

Within weeks, Mr. Colbert conceded that a change had to be made. And Mr. Moonves turned to Mr. Licht, an executive producer who had been a career newsman.

“I set up a blind date, and I held my breath,” Mr. Moonves said.

Mr. Licht, 45, had created a hit as the founding executive producer of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and then accomplished something no one had done before him: He created a morning show on CBS that actually drew some ratings.

A mock N.C.A.A. tournament bracket in “The Late Show” offices in New York.

Credit
Chad Batka for The New York Times

The TV world rolled its eyes when CBS paired Charlie Rose with Gayle King on “CBS This Morning.” But Mr. Licht found success in allowing the co-hosts, along with Norah O’Donnell, to be themselves and to talk freely about the most pressing topics of the day. Viewers responded.

When Mr. Moonves approached him about Mr. Colbert, Mr. Licht said he didn’t watch the show; he quickly burned through several episodes.

“My cleareyed scouting report was: ‘This is all over the place. This doesn’t seem cohesive, which suggests to me that behind the scenes, it’s chaotic,’” Mr. Licht said.

Then he and Mr. Colbert sat down for a three-hour drink. They hit it off instantly.

“The deal was, he said, ‘Listen, let me make these decisions and don’t try to take them back from me,’” Mr. Colbert remembered. “And I said, ‘O.K., well, don’t debate with me what’s funny.’”

So Mr. Colbert focused on the comedy and his performance, and Mr. Licht dealt with management issues that the host had been expending energy on: staffing, budgets, sales meetings, the works.

Mr. Licht also made changes to the show, including shortening the opening credits and giving “The Late Show” a signature segment by preceding those credits with a comedy sketch. Within two months, he suggested regularly doing live shows after major events. If the show was going to become laser-focused on the news, he said, this only made sense. It also brought a necessary rigor to the staff.

Mr. Colbert had done, by his estimation, about a dozen live shows over 10 years at “The Colbert Report.” Over the past nine months, he has done 15. He pointed to the live shows he did during the political conventions as truly eye-opening.

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