I’m starting to wonder why I came. Seeing a TV show taping isn’t as passive as playgoing; you’re not a member of an audience but of a studio audience, which requires participation: clapping and cheering and enthusiasm. But at this point I’m tired: it’s the end of the work day, and now the end of an interminable wait not just to get into this building but to get into the studio, trapped in a cramped and chaotic waiting room with anarchy on the bathroom lines and old Colberts playing on DVD. (Security is no joke: I have to take off my belt to pass through the metal detector.) And though, when we finally get seated, the warm-up comic gets in a few good zingers doing crowd work, he has to stay on too long, and he becomes as exhausting as that anteroom. “Where are you from? Where are you from?”
But it’s possible we’re being worn down on purpose, to make the main event that much better, because he doesn’t disappoint: when Colbert finally charges out from behind the set, he glows, he beams, enough to make you believe 120 people could fall in love at first sight. In part, it’s because he’s still high from winning the Emmy last weekend, a 10-year-in-the-making honor. “I’ve lost and, let me tell you—winning’s better,” he says with a huge smile, joking that when you lose you question what the Emmys mean and why the industry even does them, but when you win all you want to talk about is, what a storied and time-honored tradition! As usual, he starts with a Q&A first so you know he’s a real person and not the hilarious monster he plays on TV. His cheer, charisma and casual goofing—when the hair lady pats his hair in place he does the same to her—are enough to wake you up, to make you want to hear what joke he’ll make next, to clap energetically and laugh audibly just like the stage manager told you to, no reminders necessary.
Part of last night’s show included a Crossfire satire with Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, pretaped last week because that’s when the characters were available. It might seem like a gyp that a sizable chunk of the episode was prerecorded, except now we get to watch Stephen watch himself, and he looks so happy and so entertained; not narcissistic, but like he genuinely loves what he does and how he does it, like he recognizes the hard work of a lot of people that make him funny. (When asked if he would rather have his Emmy or his Lord of the Rings sword, he said the Emmy. “Cuz this is for everyone here.” The audience awwwed. “I’m a nice guy.”)
After we watch the segment on monitors, they cut to a break, and Stephen gets up and bends down in the corner for a few seconds and picks something up, like a dust bunny or a lost hair. He brings it out to the audience, and the music cuts out. “I keep finding these,” he says. “It’s one of Big Bird’s feathers. You want it?” He smiles, lays it in a woman’s hand, and the music comes back on.
Before the show ends, he redoes a Rush Limbaugh joke he flubbed. “If you enjoyed it the first time, you should enjoy it again,” he instructs. “I find comedy’s fresher when you know what’s coming.” But we all do laugh again, sincerely. He’s still funny.
Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart