The Triumph of Stephen Colbert
& #8220;Time to stand,” says Stephen Colbert, responding to a cue from his Apple Watch. He duly gets up from his desk and stretches. “Ahh,” says Colbert. “Now I’ll never die!” That, plus an interlude during which he grooves in silence to Sting’s melancholy 1991 jam “All This Time,” and a 10-minute pause to eat “tuna with some sort of sesame thing drizzled on it,” are Colbert’s only breaks on this show day in July.
Colbert’s mammoth office is several floors above the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York, formerly home to David Letterman, who probably didn’t have a Lord of the Rings blanket on his couch. As writers and producers stream in and out, Colbert sits behind his desk, making decisions. Should today’s show open with a laughing German newscaster, a fake Charlie Brown cartoon about Donald Trump’s “Space Force,” or a faux State Department advisory about Americans disguising themselves as Brits to stay safe during Trump’s U.K. visit? In the current, topical, time-slot-conquering version of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, the answer always comes down to “What’s the day’s biggest story?” (So, no Space Force.)
He’s wearing a Montclair Film Festival baseball cap, a remnant of his suburban weekend self, along with a blue button-up, khakis and Allbirds sneakers. The suit doesn’t arrive until showtime, or at least rehearsal time. Throughout the day, Colbert radiates calm and command, like the CEO of a mid-20th-century company that actually makes something, albeit one who greets male employees with “Hey, baby” and “Let’s hit it, baby doll.” But he’s less relaxed than he seems. “As soon as I come back into this building, I’m in a Pavlovian response,” he says between bites of tuna. “I want to eat at all times, and my whole body gets clenched up. You learn how to cope with it.”
Not long ago, Colbert made it through one of the biggest artistic challenges of his life. The Colbert Report had seen 10 years of steady success, but his new show stumbled hard in its initial months, earning skeptical reviews and falling well behind Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show in the ratings. As Colbert explains over two hours of conversation the following day, he managed to turn the ship around midcourse, but not without some pain. Dampening his control-freak tendencies and belatedly hiring a showrunner, CBS News vet Chris Licht, was just the start.
Colbert is 54 years old — “a little old for this job,” he says. But it’s hard to imagine pulling off his turnaround without the layers of craft he built over 11 years on The Daily Show and nearly 1,500 episodes’ worth of the high-wire comedic feat that was The Colbert Report. This past season, The Late Show was the most-watched show in late night, with segments going viral again and again. And if there has been some anxiety along the way, the solution is simple, he says: “You keep working.”
A while ago, you ended a segment on conspiracy theories by saying everyone needs to grow the fuck up.
I don’t think you can say “grow up” without saying “grow the fuck up.” The word just slips in there.
You do come off as a grown-up.
It only took 54 years.
More so, it occurred to me, than the current president of the United States.
I’ve never been older than a president. But more emotionally mature, I’ll take. There are moments in my day when I’m not the only thing I think about.
I also bet you had more meetings today than he did.
I didn’t play golf. I don’t tweet until the show’s over. I don’t tweet until the work is done, how about that? Tweeting is a sometimes treat. I have to earn it at the end of the day.
Even in the early days of The Daily Show you were a dad, living in the suburbs, right?
Yeah, I wear khakis, y’know? I have a button-down shirt, I go to church — not that that’s a sign of adulthood. I’m a midcentury normative male. When people say, “I wish there was a grown-up in the room,” they generally mean somebody who hews to a very average American experience. This is an extraordinary American experience and privilege to have a show like this, but I’m pretty average otherwise.
It’s almost a cliché to bring it up talking to creative people, but there’s a Flaubert quote, “Be regular and orderly in your life so you may be violent and original in your work.”
Oh, I’ve never heard that. I love that.
But knowingly or not, hasn’t that been your approach?
I totally agree. Because the first show that I hosted by myself was pure artifice, I have a healthy bifurcation of my life and my work. I’m all in on the show, but I’m also all in on my life. I really love being just a suburban dad, y’know, driving to the dry cleaners to pick up my khakis. I don’t find those two things mutually exclusive. And I remember thinking when I was younger that the further afield I went in terms of my behavior onstage or my behavior on camera, the more I would need something stable in my home life. I remember very distinctly, right before I got married, thinking, “Well, how good that I’m getting married. That there’ll be something constant in my life.”
You had your first child before your career took off, which seems to have prompted some anxiety. There’s an old audition tape where you’re holding your baby and begging for help, wondering why you’d gone into acting when your brothers were lawyers. It wasn’t really a joke, was it?
I’m kidding on the square in that audition, just making a joke out of my actual feelings. I needed to be medicated when I was younger to deal with my anxiety that I had thrown my life away by attempting to do something that so few people actually get away with, or succeed at.
Were you really medicated?
I was actually medicated. I mean, in the most common, prosaic way. Xanax was just lovely. Y’know, for a while. And then I realized that the gears were still smoking. I just couldn’t hear them anymore. But I could feel them, I could feel the gearbox heating up and smoke pouring out of me, but I was no longer walking around a couch. I had a bit of a nervous breakdown after I got married — kind of panic attacks. My wife would go off to work and she’d come home — because I worked at night — and I’d be walking around the couch. And she’s like, “How was your day?” And I’d say, “You’re looking at it.” Just tight circles around the couch.
Can you put that in a career chronology?
I’m 29. I’m still at Second City in Chicago. My friends Paul Dinello and Amy Sedaris, who were my closest artistic chums — we spoke every day for 15 years — had moved to New York. And I was left onstage with a show that we had created together. I did a year of that show. And I was in such a weird panic that I would never create anything new again.
So how did that manifest itself?
I would go to the show, and I would curl up in a ball on the couch backstage and I would wait to hear my cue lines. Then I would uncurl and go onstage and I’d feel fine. Which occurred to me at the time: Like, “Oh, you feel fine when you’re out here.” And then as soon as I got offstage, I’d just crumble into a ball again. Nobody ever asked me what was wrong! [Laughs] It went on for months.
What stopped it?
I stopped the Xanax after, like, nine days. I went, “This isn’t helping.” So I just suffered through it. I’d sometimes hold the bottle, to go like, “I could stop this feeling if I wanted, but I’m not going to. Because I know if I stop the feeling, somehow I’m not working through it, like I have got to go through the tunnel with the spiders in it.” And then one morning I woke up and my skin wasn’t on fire, and it took me a while to figure out what it was. I wake up the next morning, I’m perfectly fine, to the point where my body’s still humming. I’m a bell that’s been rung so hard that I can still feel myself vibrating. But the actual sound was gone [because] I was starting rehearsal that day to create a new show. And then I went, “Oh, my God, I can never stop performing.” Creating something is what helped me from just spinning apart like an unweighted flywheel. And I haven’t stopped since. Even when I was a writer I always had to be in front of a camera a little bit. I have to perform.
The spooky thing to consider is a world in which you never figured that out.
Yeah, without a doubt. Because who knows why someone becomes a performer? Who knows why somebody becomes a comedian? I don’t know why, because people have similar backgrounds to mine, similar childhood experiences to mine and didn’t become comedians. I don’t know what does it. I’m so grateful. Comedy was my savior as a child. And still [is]. Last night, I went home and murdered a pint of ice cream and I watched three episodes of Veep. Season Two. It was fantastic.
Your first big job was on The Dana Carvey Show, which was canceled after seven episodes. What did you learn from that?
Oh, that the most talented people in the world don’t necessarily come up with a hit. And that it is not necessarily the fault of the creators, though it can be. And it’s not the fault of the audience. It’s about the match of the two. I got hired at The Daily Show about a year after that. After a very tough year. Very tough. Like, no income, with a baby . . . I do not recommend that. Then when I got to Comedy Central, we got paid a dollar twenty-five to work there. I worked there for years and years. For no money. But you really were given the opportunity to fail there. As opposed to you having to fit in to a network at 8:30 on a Tuesday.
Louis C.K. was one of your bosses on The Dana Carvey Show. How have you processed the revelations about his abusive behavior?
Louis is a brilliant comedian. And it probably is a different experience for a fan. Because I knew him when nobody knew him. So, it’s just being brokenhearted to see somebody who lied to his friends and mistreated other people. You’re as disappointed as you would be in any person. But finding out about Bill Cosby? That’s heartbreaking on a level that completely changes your view of their work. I don’t have an intimate relationship with Louis’ work. I knew him 20 years ago, for five months, and I consider him a friend, and we kept up with each other occasionally. But Cosby, that was deeply heartbreaking, and that really changes formative memories of your life.
Did you have general thoughts about, perhaps, men being worse than you imagined?
I imagine men to be pretty bad, so that’s not that shocking. I never had a great expectation for the sexual behavior of men, but this has certainly lowered the bar even further.
Speaking of things being worse than you imagined, we got to watch you react in real time to Trump’s election on your Showtime special. How deeply shocked were you?
I know nothing, so I tend to believe the number-crunchers. I was shocked, and I was dismayed, but I will say this: There is nothing that has happened since Trump became president that wasn’t in my fear matrix about him. Now, all the horrors that you can see dawning on my face on that Showtime special have only been borne out. Nothing about Trump and Putin, nothing about his caging children, nothing about him saying, “There’s good people on both sides.” Nothing about his handing the reins of power over to just a rogues’ gallery of anti-regulation, pro-pollution, anti-union, anti-women [officials] in any way surprises me. It’s all what I thought would happen. Which is why I was truly horrified. Oh, but the next day I said, “Well, you got a half hour to feel bad about it.” We all got together, and we felt bad about it for a half hour, and we said get it out and that’s it. And then we’re like, “OK, now, what are the jokes?” That’s it.
You said in an interview before the election that America seemed less angry than when you started The Colbert Report. Do you have a sense of how you — and everyone else — got that wrong?
Maybe wishful thinking. I said that we had moved beyond the constant cycle of anger. And I was hoping that was true. But it might just have been complacency. And now there’s no denying that we’re still in the constant cycle of anger, and we’re at an emotional 10 at all times.
You once said that The Colbert Report was a 10-year confession. Could you elaborate on that idea a little more?
It’s two things: It was a confession and it was a question at the same time. It had a thesis statement about what feels right to you, as opposed to what is supported by fact. That’s the thesis statement of the entire 10 years. But the question was, why am I, Stephen Colbert — white, male, straight, Christian, American — a hegemonic figure? In my life, I don’t just mean in character. Why do I, in American orthodoxy, get to say what’s real? And that’s the feeling that we had strongly during the Bush administration, that I get to say what’s real, or the white male Christian, specifically non-Muslim, gets to. So, that’s the question, but the confession is: I am those things. I’m not not those things. And to that regard, I am not detached from my character. I’m passionately attached to some of the things that he talked about. It was really important that you not know what those were. Because it just robs the performance of the question mark. But really, the confession is a confession of the appetite to eat that meal. Meaning there’s an itch to scratch. I’m like, “Yeah, fuck yeah, me, me. Me, white male Christian, American, straight. Number one!” That is a dark feeling, because it is indulging in an appetite for yourself, it’s very possessive, it’s very consumptive, it’s pornographic, and so the confession is: Yes, I have these feelings as well. But the question is: Why are those feelings indulged in America?
You also had the fear that if you kept doing it, you’d hurt someone. What does that mean?
I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. The metaphor that my executive producer, Tom Purcell, has had is, “We, all of us, but I specifically, are carbon rods that get lowered into the radioactive pool of what’s happening today, and our job is to absorb all the radiation and then to radiate it back to the audience, at a much lower rad-level.” I used to think I was running down a flight of stairs with an armload of wineglasses, you know, like I’m a busboy who’s late to the banquet. As I’m running down the thing, I’m thinking, “At some point, I’m going to slip and I’m gonna drop the show and shatter all this glass.” Because it was a delicate balloon to keep in the air all the time. It was difficult — the show was hard, how about that?
And this show?
This show is hard too, but you also had the character on top of that, you had to do your best to maintain in a specific way. Since then, I think that my metaphor is totally wrong. I used to think I would drop the show, that I would hurt the show, but I started thinking that the show would hurt me.
Hurt you how?
I don’t entirely know. I’ve only now come to that realization.
Maybe damage your core in some way?
I think the speed at which you do the show — and I thought we used to do the old show re-ally fast, but this is four times as fast — the speed requires a lot of discipline so you don’t become flippant. Or don’t lose sight of your intention and execution. The thing I said about Trump and Putin [he referred to Trump’s mouth as “Putin’s cock holster”], the thing that caused so much hurt when it was perceived as being homophobic? That’s an example of moving so fast that I hurt the intention of the work with the execution. In ways that are undeniable. If someone thought that was homophobic, who am I to say that it wasn’t? Especially to any community whose concerns have been brushed aside as being, “Oh, you’re just sensitive.” That happened all the time at the old show, because I was in character and I would say really extreme things with a very clear intention. So it was clear to the audience that what you’re hearing was a concept, and not the content.
The ultimate example of that was the #cancelcolbert incident. You mocked Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s foundation for Native Americans, and you said, ”I am willing to show the Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” The show’s account tweeted out just the line and all hell broke loose.
That’s when I knew I had to get out of there as quickly as possible. Because I had lost control of the context of my joke. I was getting in a car to go home, and I saw that it exploded. And I went, “Uh-oh.” What happened was, just that one line, absent any context, was tweeted out by someone who the week before had been an intern. There was nothing I could do; I wasn’t on the air for three days. And I went, “I’ve lost complete control of the context of my joke, and maybe I’ve lost a 25-year career with a single line.”
You were that worried?
Oh, I thought it was absolutely terrible. It was the only time I ever really got mad at the network. Because they took the tweet down, and I go, “What’re you thinking? Now you’ve apologized before I can contextualize my response, and now I’m 100 percent fucked. By putting that thing up there without the context of the character — and the story being that the Redskins were starting the [Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation] — without that context, you’ve given people who really would like to stick a knife in me a place to stand, and an 11-inch bowie knife.” And I had no control, and because I did the show in character, I couldn’t respond out of character. I had to wait till 11:30 on Monday to create the response. That’s when I thought, “Oh, well, it’s been a good career.”
Did the character itself feel like a trap?
It was just that this was the sort of thing that could happen. It could happen to any performer, but because I was in character, and part of the game was how much could you get away with in character — trying to make a pure expression of something that you disagree with and having that intention come through. I began to doubt my ability to do that, and not that this actual moment had been my fault; the lack of context was the fault. But that definitely reinforced my sense that I had to stop.
Even in context, even understanding that it’s an anti-racist joke, have you considered that the young woman who started #cancelcolbert might have had a point — that it’s too easy to target Asian-Americans that way?
That young woman’s feelings about that joke, in context or out of context, are perfectly valid, even if I don’t agree. I didn’t apologize for what I said about the president and Mr. Putin. It doesn’t mean that people’s feelings about it are not valid. All you can do is control your intention, not people’s interpretations. Everyone’s feelings are valid, especially from any community that has been marginalized and has been told habitually their concerns are not valid. So I hold nothing against anybody who is offended by what I say.
In the period between shows there was this public doubt, “Can he carry a show out of character?” Which, as you said, was ironic because people had earlier wondered the opposite: “How is this guy going to host a whole show in character?”
The first months of the old show were like, “You can’t sustain this in character.” And then they said, “You can’t do it out of character.” I thought, “That’s insane, I can’t win.” There’s a consensus out there that Stephen Colbert can’t do anything. But I would say by Christmas I was thinking, “Oh, maybe they’re right!” [Laughs hard]
So what was that process of learning and adjustment like for you?
Interestingly enough, our instincts were very good, I think. We were highly political and news-centered when the show first started. We didn’t do a lot of monologue, but we did a lot of long desk pieces and stuff like that. And then it wasn’t what the old show used to be, and I think people were a little disappointed, yet it wasn’t a traditional monologue. People didn’t know what to make of it. So I think we misinterpreted the initial reactions and went away from the news cycle. We got all supersilly, which we love doing. We still like getting stupid.
And you were doing everything yourself.
I could not find the voice, I could not find the time to find the voice because I couldn’t find a showrunner, and I was losing my mind. I just didn’t sleep at night. I was having meetings in my mind, not dreams. I’d wake up in the morning and realize I had been having meetings all night about what we’re gonna attempt this week. And I went, “This has got to end.” That’s when I finally went to the network and said, “OK, you’re absolutely right, I need a showrunner. Who do ya got?” Finding the voice was a matter of Chris Licht giving us room and saying, “Everything that’s not the jokes, I’m gonna take away. Now you figure it out. You’re really good at responding to things really quickly, what if you did that?” It was that simple, and we went, “OK, so we sort of steer our laser back to: What is the big story today? We will talk about that, no matter how late it happened.”
Is there something internal that might drive you toward being a control freak?
I don’t know. My sister Mary says, “Colbert men have double-dominant pride genes. That they have to be the final word on everything.” And she’s probably right. She’s right about most things. She’s the reason I took this job. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted this job. ’Cause I knew how hard it would be. And I also didn’t have much of a hunger to create something new after my mom died. And this offer came not that long after Mom died. So I just didn’t know what to do. So I called my sister Mary and said, “Would you come up to New York and just talk to me?” So she sat across from me, in my living room, and she goes, “What’s on your mind?” And I told her that I had gotten the offer, and she just burst into a huge smile. And I went, “OK, I’ll do it” [laughs]. And she said, “What?” I said, “Yup. Because you smiled, I’ll do it.”
Was there ever a genuine concern that they’d flip time slots with James Corden, as rumor had it?
That was all just . . . no. I never believed it, but I was also specifically told that that wasn’t the case. I never sincerely believed that that was a thing. I did worry that I wasn’t gonna find a voice, though. I did think, to this degree, I am not the hero of my own story. I think it was Spalding Gray who said, “Oh, maybe life won’t be a constant series of triumphs” [laughs]. And because I love fixing problems, I said, “Oh, maybe I’m the problem. Maybe that’s why I can’t fix it.”
It’s a testament to the power of years of craft that you were able to fix it.
That could very well be. I don’t think I could’ve gone for the first six months of this show not having done 20 years of work beforehand. Because I wouldn’t have had the right frame of mind to accept that struggle as a gift. I would’ve seen it as a punishment. I remember looking in the mirror in September 2016 and going, “God, I wouldn’t trade anything in for this past year.” And going, “Wow, that’s kind of surprising, I think you mean that.” And then going, “Yeah, because we found it, we had to find it in public [laughs very hard].” We had to find it on air, y’know? And I thought, “What a dummy. You really thought you could make that big of a change in who you are as a performer without it being painful? How dumb are you? What made you think this wouldn’t be agonizing?” And that was about three months before people noticed.
The writer Allison Silverman said in a Daily Show oral history that you work best in service to a person or an idea. Does that sound right?
I think that’s entirely true. She’s right. That’s why I really liked being a waiter and that’s why I liked working for Jon [Stewart]. He was worth serving. At the correspondents’ dinner [in 2006] I told this joke: “The guy’s poll numbers may be, like, 32 percent or something. You can’t listen to numbers. Reality, as we all know, has a well-known liberal bias.” And I don’t think reality has a liberal bias these days. Reality has a bias against the world our president wants us to receive. I remember it was at Christmas of 2016, I was talking to Jay Katsir, one of my writers, and I said, “Oh, [Trump’s] left us a very interesting place to stand: reality.” All we have to do is go, no, that’s not true or that’s not a fact, this is a fact. Here’s what we all know to be true, and here’s the insanity they’d like us to accept. And the jokes are all in the arc between those. Like, y’know, what people say and what they do — satirical jokes are often in the arc of that hypocrisy.
So what’s the precise idea you’re serving?
The thing is that you’re not crazy. We’re serving the audience in a way, while [Trump’s] gaslighting the audience. As a Catholic, I was taught that the worst thing was heresy because not only are you sinning, you’re also dragging somebody else into your sinful state. Well, Donald Trump is a heretic against reality; he lives in this fantasy world where only his emotions count and therefore only his reality is real. But he’s also saying, “Everybody else, your reality isn’t real.” And so all you have to do is go, like, “Hey, you’re not crazy.” That’s the thesis statement. Your reactions, your emotions are valid — you actually feel that way. The world is as you perceive it. Don’t let anybody say you’re crazy. This is not what America is meant to be about.
Last night, you accused the president of the United States of treason. I don’t think Johnny Carson ever did that.
[Laughs] I would only add that I was piggybacking on the behavior modeled by a sitting Republican senator and the former head of the CIA. I wasn’t pulling that out of my ass. And that’s important. I’m reflecting the conversation that’s already happening. And making a joke out of it. Not that I’m not saying what I’m saying, but I’m not getting it out of nowhere. Again, we are radiating at the audience what’s in the pool.
You had Trump on before the election. How do you see that interview now?
I’m fine with it. There was this odd legend, that wasn’t necessarily true, about The Colbert Report that I always had the knives out, politically. I didn’t actually. If you actually watch my in-studio interviews, I was a pussycat. And so I was determined when the show started to be inviting to everyone. I wanted a Republican candidate the first night. Remember Jeb? I wanted Jeb.
What was your approach to Trump?
I don’t know how to get him to open up, I don’t know how to have him not shut down. Because I’ve seen him drop the whole Trump routine on interviews, and that’s no fun. So my exec producer goes, “He never apologizes for anything. What if you apologize for the things you used to say in character and say, ‘Now I invite you. Is there anything you’d like to apologize for?’ ” Just to point out that he never apologizes for anything. I was determined when the show began to lay down my sword and shield by the riverside, to see whether there was some way to have a public conversation that didn’t end up in fighting — and there might still be. But I was determined to not stick a knife in. Make fun of him, question some of the things he’s promised, imply that he might be insane. So I’m very happy with what we did. I’m not sure if I’d ever want another bite of that apple, though. Talk about sipping poison. Because I’m not sure if there’s any way for you to bite that apple and not get his disease.
Do you feel that Jimmy Fallon got unfairly beaten for the hair-ruffling?
I think that’s a completely unfair critique of Jimmy Fallon’s show. You do not go to Jimmy Fallon’s show for political satire or even political discussion. He’s an entertainer and he’s brilliant. People blame his ratings on that. But I think people just have a different appetite right now for political comedy. I think it’s highly overblown, that hair-ruffling thing.
Back to the idea of laying down your sword. Would it be fair to say you picked that sword back up again?
[Laughs] Oh, fuck, I knew when I used that analogy you would say that. I’m hesitant to agree that I picked up the sword again — because I don’t think there’s anything heroic about this job. And swords are associated with knighthood, and I am not a knight. One reason why I wanted to put the sword down is that I’m a comedian. It’s a highly sharpened butter knife, I’ll say that. It’s a butter knife that we’ve put a razor-sharp edge on. So, y’know, satire’s got an edge. You can say, “Oh, you’re out near the edge, you’re gonna fall over.”
This is back to the issue of getting hurt, or hurting people.
That’s why you put that knife down, for fear that you’re gonna cut the wrong thing. So, yeah, but at a certain point — it was right before one of the conventions — our ratings were going up, we had a lot attention, and Chris goes, “Why don’t you seem happy?” I said, “Because I gotta go do the thing now.” And he goes, “The thing?” I said, “Y’know [exhales hard].” I was really hoping to not always be in the arena. It’s dangerous to be in there because you can forget that you are and then you end up, as I said, cutting, shooting, stabbing something that you do believe in or did not intend to do because you’re down in there in the scuffle. Y’know, wrestle with pigs, get up muddy.
Have you thought about a post-Trump version of the show, assuming the world still exists and we still have electricity?
Nope. I haven’t thought about tomorrow’s version of the show. One of the things we learned is, the show is what’s happening right now. I don’t know what the jokes are gonna be tomorrow or next week. And God knows what it’s gonna be after Mr. Trump leaves. I’m curious, y’know? . . . I don’t think I’m making any news when I say history’s not gonna be kind to him. But in some ways it’ll be less kind to the people who defended him.
What do you think will happen?
There’s never gonna be a truth and reconciliation commission, because that’s not our nature as a nation. We tend to say, “Let’s go forward, let’s not look back.” But there’s gonna be crazy payback when this is over — when they’re not in power. It’s gonna be so ugly. Even within the ranks of the people who supported the president. It’s going to end poorly.
My father was a coroner in the army of occupation in Germany after World War II, and he used to say, “People died in some pretty funny ways” after World War II. There was a lot of payback. He once had to do an autopsy on a man who came in in three pieces because he fell off a train, under the train. And he said to the men who brought in the body, “How do you fall off a train, under it?” And they said, “This is what happened.” And they gave him the body [laughs]. And I think there’s gonna be a lot of people falling off trains metaphorically, under metaphorical trains.
How long do you want to do this?
There are days, there are weeks, where I go, “That was fun, I could do this for 10 years.” And there are times when I’m like, “I won’t make it to next week.” But, y’know, there’s more of the 10-year ones than there are of the next-week ones. On average, I get more out of this, y’know? More calcium goes into my bones than comes out of it. As long as that’s the case. I’m a lucky guy to be able to do it. I never want to forget that. I never dreamed I’d be so lucky as to have my name out there on Broadway on the Ed Sullivan Theater. I’ll try very hard to not forget that this is a privilege.
What has being a dad taught you?
That’s a really big question. Did you see Lady Bird? There’s a moment in which the older nun is talking with Saoirse Ronan, and she says, “Oh, I so enjoyed your writing, you clearly love Sacramento.” And she goes, “Oh, I don’t know if I love Sacramento.” And the nun goes, “Well, you write about it in such detail.” And she says, “Well, I guess it’s ’cause I just pay attention.” And the Lois Smith character says, “Don’t you think, perhaps, they’re the same thing? Love, attention?” Y’know, your children deserve your attention and that’s the purest way to love them. Because attention is not dictation. There’s a point in which you only pay attention to your children; you’re not instructing them anymore. And that makes sense to me as a parent and a child. And I’m not good at it. I want to stick my nose in somebody else’s business all the time. I’m a bit of a control freak, and that must not be easy [for my children]. Do you know Sweet Honey in the Rock?
The singing group?
Yeah. They adapted a poem on children in The Prophet, by Khalil Gibran. And it goes, “Your children are not your children, they’re the sons and daughters of life longing for itself. They come through you but they are not from you. And though they are with you, they belong not to you. You can give them your love but not your thoughts. They have their own thoughts. You can house their bodies but not their souls — for the souls are in a place of tomorrow that you cannot visit. Not even in your dreams. You can strive to be like them, but you cannot make them just like you.” Being a parent makes me hopeful. And as my father-in-law says, “I have no worries about the future, having seen these children.” And I feel the same way. I am extremely hopeful there is a large group of young people who are better than I am. Better than the generation that came before them. It gives me hope.