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TCA: Stephen Colbert, on ‘Report’ Persona—‘That Guy Was a Tool’

Related: Complete Coverage of TCA Summer Press Tour

Beverly Hills, Calif. — After 10 years of playing fictional anchorman “Stephen Colbert” on The Colbert Report, Colbert has been getting a lot of questions about finally being himself when he starts hosting The Late Show on CBS Sept. 8

“It feels a little bit like therapy. Who’s the real Stephen Colbert? Why did you wear a mask?” Colbert said Monday during a Q&A session at the TCA summer press tour. “I don’t think anybody would have watched that show if they didn’t know who I was, because that guy was a tool.”

While Colbert, 51, offered few details about the format of his Late Show — he did say that the traditional monologue to desk to guest progression “sounds boring” — he will bring a renewed energy not having to be his Report character, especially in interviews. “It was an active discipline as the years went on to keep that hat on,” he said. “My character was actively ignorant.”

One of the reasons he said he wanted to drop the character was that he couldn’t have an honest interest in his guests. Now he can just talk. “I feel more freed up,” he said. “I don’t have to hold back at all.”

As a comedian who came up through improv, not stand-up, Colbert said that his favorite thing as host of a late night show is doing interviews. When telling pre-written jokes, he can only get those wrong. But during interviews, “you don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “All I really want from a guest is someone who has something to say, so I can play with them.”

He previously revealed on Twitter that his first guest will be George Clooney. On stage Monday, Colbert announced that Kendrick Lamar will be his first musical guest. “I wish I could have done better than George Clooney,” Colbert said. “He’ll do for a first guest. How many celebrities have their own spy satellite?”

There is one celebrity (and presidential candidate) in particular Colbert hopes to talk about in September. “I’m just hoping certain people stay in the race” until then, he said. “I’m not going to name any names, but I want to do jokes on Trump right now so bad that until then I’m just dry-Trumping.”

As for CBS, Colbert said he has been given free reign and there have been no instructions. During her executive session earlier Monday, CBS Entertainment chairman Nina Tassler called Colbert a “creative force” and a student of late night television. “He has a limitless amount of creative tools in his tool chest,” Tassler said. “He has a real joy of performing.”

Colbert has been off the air since Dec. 18, when the finale of The Colbert Report on Comedy Central. That is longest Colbert has gone without performing in front of a live audience since he was 24 — and he is antsy to get started. “I am twitching,” he said, adding that "if you're not a little nervous, you're probably not trying hard enough." During the hiatus, Colbert has also missed the camaraderie of his staff, saying that he and his staff have fun all day doing the show for each other. “My responsibility is to translate (that) to you, the audience,” Colbert said. “That guy who can’t stop laughing, that’s the real Stephen Colbert.”

Other highlights from the panel included:

— Colbert has brought over his entire creative staff from The Report to The Late Show. Asked about diversity among his staff, Colbert said “we have a lot of Leos. A couple Tauruses.”

— Colbert spent some time with David Letterman before he retired. He asked the longtime Late Show host if there was anything he would have changed. Letterman said he would have liked to try the desk on the other side. “I called my designer and said, ‘I have terrible news. I want to reverse the set,’” Colbert said.

— His bandleader, as previously announced, is New Orleans jazz musician Jon Batiste. Colbert said when he had him on The Colbert Report and they improvised, “I thought, ‘I could spend a few years on stage with this guy.’ ... We had a couple long conversations about connecting with the audience. I can’t wait to play off his energy on stage.”

— Colbert said that a war between late night hosts doesn’t make any sense. “I didn’t play a lot of sports when I was younger,” he said. “Maybe I missed the competitive gene. I got picked last for dodgeball.” Colbert added that he likes Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show. “We were best friends forever for six months.”

— Asked about his emotional tribute to Jon Stewart on his finale Daily Show episode last week, Colbert said he had already written the Frodo and Sam Lord of the Rings bit when a producer asked him to also say thank-you to Stewart on air. Knowing Stewart was “going to flop around like a fish on a dock” because he would never let people thank him, Colbert said, “I felt like a rodeo clown trying to keep him on stage.” He added that when all the correspondents jumped around him at the end of the first segment, they were all chanting, “Made him cry!”