How Stephen Colbert Is Widening His Late-Night Lead and Doubling Down on Trump

Late Show executive producer Chris Licht on moonlighting with Showtime's Our Cartoon President

Late Show will air live on Tuesday, two days after Our Cartoon President makes its digital debut on Showtime. CBS/Showtime
Headshot of Jason Lynch

A year and a half after it began, Stephen Colbert’s late-night resurgence shows no signs of letting up. Halfway through the 2017-18 season, The Late Show With Stephen Colbert is up 30 percent in total viewers from a year ago (3.83 million, over 1 million more than The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon’s 2.79 million audience). And while Fallon is still ahead in the 18-49 demo, his lead has shrunk to just one tenth of a ratings point (0.7 to Colbert’s 0.6).

Colbert will continue chipping away at that that gap on Tuesday, when Late Show broadcasts live following President Trump’s first State of the Union address. It will be the show’s first live telecast since Feb. 28, after Trump spoke to a joint session of Congress.

At the same time, on CBS’ sister network Showtime, Colbert is rolling out his latest project: Our Cartoon President, a 10-episode animated comedy he’s executive-producing about President Trump that premieres Feb. 11 on the linear network, but will debut Sunday on Showtime’s streaming and VOD platforms.

Late Show and Our Cartoon President executive producer Chris Licht—who helped spark Colbert’s Late Show turnaround when he came over from CBS This Morning in April 2016—spoke with Adweek about moonlighting for Showtime, how he’s still improving the Late Show and his favorite integration yet.

Adweek: How did you settle on doing Our Cartoon President for Showtime?
Licht: It’s a natural offshoot of the character that showed up on the [Late] Show. We all looked at it as, what more can we do with him? Particularly because it’s different than making jokes about the president; it’s a whole different area of comedy. When I talked to Stephen about it, it was always, “This would be a perfect Showtime show.” We had such a good experience with Showtime with the [live presidential] election special—not necessarily what happened that night, but the whole process. The relationships we all have within the company condensed down a process that would’ve been months and months to a very short timeframe. “What do you think of this?” “We like it.” “Let’s do it.” So it was a no-brainer.

Speaking of your last project with Showtime, what resonates with you about that night, now that we’re over a year removed from it?
I can’t bring myself to watch it because as a producer, there are so many things you could have done better or prepared differently for. But the thing that’s been great about it is, that last moment where he just lets down his guard and really connected with the audience in a shared experience, and that has been the guiding principle going forward. It was real and raw, and that’s what we try to do on the show every night.

If Showtime asked you guys to do another live special, would you be up for it?
Sure. We are better for having done it, so absolutely. I don’t want to speak for Stephen, but he’s very loath to shy away from anything.

Your fellow Late Show executive producer, Jon Stewart, had been developing a topical animated show for HBO and eventually threw in the towel. This is a different show, but did you run into any unforeseen production difficulties?
I don’t know much about Jon’s project, but I know that it was much different from what we were looking to do. Part of the ambition of Cartoon President is we do the animation: the writers, the animators, the entire production is on one floor of the Ed Sullivan Theater. We don’t outsource anything, and there is technology that we use on the show that allows things to be done in a much shorter timeframe. I keep waiting for someone to say, “We can’t do this,” but Tim Luecke, who is the lead animator from the Late Show, came over and is a co-EP on the cartoon. He’s a very good barometer of, “No, let’s not even try this,” or, “You can have this, but not this.” The creative has been hand in hand with the production and the technology, so we’re not writing checks that the production can’t cash. Things have been on schedule.

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.