Round-the-clock producing

by Emily Kelleher

May 14, 2018

Chris Licht ’93, executive producer and showrunner for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” spilled secrets about late night comedy and transitioning from early morning news.

Chris Licht '93 Photo by Saniya More

The night of the 2016 election, those working behind the scenes of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” had big plans. There was a bit prepared in which singer Katy Perry would explain to men how the world was going to work now that the U.S. had a female president. They even had naked male models waiting backstage with the words “We’re with her” written on their backsides.

And then Donald Trump won.

According to Chris Licht '93, executive producer and showrunner for “The Late Show,” that’s typical of comedy these days. Licht, who is also executive vice president of programming for CBS Corporation, came to Newhouse on March 22 to speak to students about his experience in the industry. He said that comedy today is all about delivering hard news in an interesting way. You can’t always predict how things will go, you just have to set the scene and let moments happen.

“There’s an expectation from the audience that after they’ve watched… their local news and they tune into us, if we don’t have the big story, we’ve let them down,” Licht said.

Licht moved to “The Late Show” in 2016 after producing both MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and “CBS This Morning.” When asked how he made the transition from objective news to comedy, Licht said it’s not all that different. Though there’s humor in it, everything discussed on “The Late Show” is based in fact. There’s a research department staffed with fact checkers, and headlines often flash across the screen to show viewers that the stories Colbert is discussing are legitimate.

“[Our reporting] may not be down the middle because it has a point of view, but it’s still authentic because it’s based on something that actually happened,” Licht said.

While “The Late Show” is primarily entertainment, there’s still an expectation that it will cover the news, and Licht has gone to great lengths to adhere to journalistic standards when deciding which stories should get coverage on the show. Licht stepped down as producer for the night when Charlie Rose, former host of “CBS This Morning,” was fired due to allegations of sexual assault. While Licht said corporate didn’t ask him to recuse himself from that episode, he worried that writers would censor their jokes about Rose, knowing that Licht had been his longtime colleague. Instead, he handed the reins over to someone else, and didn’t see any part of that night’s show until it aired.

“In that case I was an obstacle…to someone being as creative as they could be, so I just removed myself from that situation,” Licht said.

While Licht continued to value journalistic integrity as he transitioned from morning news to late night comedy, he said that the thing that sets the two apart is room for creativity.

On election night, the Colbert team received the results in time with the audience. It wasn’t what they planned for, but their quick improvisation and Colbert’s monologue earned them several Emmy nominations. 

An additional opportunity for improvisation came when New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady visited the show. Brady kept bragging to producers about how fast he could chug a beer, so the they decided to put his talents to the test and challenge him to a beer chugging contest on air.

In another recent interview, actress Jennifer Lawrence picked up Colbert’s mug, prompting him to offer her a drink. Colbert located a bottle of bourbon in a cabinet, and the two ended up having several drinks together. Licht said they actually had to edit the segment because the drinking was so excessive.

“I’m a really big believer in, like, let’s just try shit. And Stephen is like that, too,” Licht said. “You don’t manufacture moments, you try to create an environment where a moment can happen.”

Emily Kelleher is a sophomore dual major in magazine at the Newhouse School and political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.