Post a Job Join The Guild
Contact Us   |   Sign In   |   Register
Produced By October/November 2018
Blog Home All Blogs
Search all posts for:   

 

View all (12) posts »
 

Better Late Than Ever - Veteran News Producer Chris Licht Finds A Home At The Helm of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

Posted By Sarah P. Sanders, Wednesday, October 17, 2018

"You're more of a sandblaster," Chris Licht says of his work as a producer. “If theres something thats getting in the way of talented people, get rid of it.” A quick glance at Licht’s resume could make you think of a guy used to running things: In addition to his work with The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, where he has been the showrunner and executive producer since April 2016, Licht’s career highlights include five years at CBS, most recently as vice president of programming for CBS News and executive producer of CBS This Morning, and co-creating NBC’s Morning Joe, where he served as the original executive producer. In person, though, Licht is insistent that being a producer is all about collaboration.

Producing, he says, is “getting the best people you can in the tent and then removing anything that gets in the way of them doing their job.” Sometimes that means taking over more of the running of a show so the host (one Stephen Colbert) can focus on the comedy; sometimes it means getting rid of unnecessary paperwork for PAs; and sometimes it means providing maternity leave for employees—all of which he has done.

You cant underscore enough that the success of [The Late Show],” he says, pausing to knock on the wood of his desk, “is really that the team that works on it has been allowed to flourish.”

Licht’s regard for the whole team at the Ed Sullivan Theater is apparent. Coming to The Late Show from a news background, the transition to late-night comedy represented a big learning curve for Licht, who says he’s learned everything he knows about the art of comedy, the rhythm of a monologue and the intricacies of working with a live audience, from the people in the building. Those people include not only, of course, Stephen Colbert, but also the creative executives, the field producers, the PAs, the writers, the digital team, the research team, etc. “You have, at every level of this organization, people at the top of their game.”

Licht views a key part of his work as creating a culture in which each one of those people feels comfortable bringing their full voice and experience to the show. He is equally committed to making sure that those voices and experiences are coming from a genuinely diverse group of people.

“Its historically white dudes doing these shows,” he says drily—and he and The Late Show are trying to change that, though he acknowledges there is a long way to go. “When part of your job is to be inclusive—and you realize you have a position where you can effect change because you’re the boss—for me, it’s even more important,” he insists. “It’s part of the gig. It’s part of what you do. It really is. You can’t separate it.”

In order to cultivate a work environment in which everyone feels free to speak, Licht has incorporated several structural practices into The Late Show. These include creating a comment section on their website where anyone involved can anonymously write to him and meeting with everyone across the organization in small groups once a season. But even beyond that, Licht recognizes that a lot of making sure people know their opinions are valued is a matter of behavior; it’s “how you treat people in meetings — how you listen to people when people have a concern, when they come talk to you,” he says. “People feel comfortable based on what the reaction is when they say something.”

Executive producer Chris Licht (center) consults onstage at the Ed Sullivan Theater with stage manager Mark McKenna (left) and host Stephen Colbert.

Licht puts such an emphasis on hearing and connecting with individuals, not only because he believes in the importance of inclusivity and equity, but also because he knows that listening to new voices and ideas is an essential part of how the business works. “Every step of my career, Ive had somebody who’s taken a chance on me,” he says. “And anybody whos had any success has had somebody who took a chance on them.” Also he adds, it’s just practical. “The culture at this show is as important as what you do on the screen, because it affects what you do on the screen … If people are happy, then the show’s happy. We are a show of joy, so if you have people that are walking around miserable, then it’s not good for business!”

Licht is adamant that, while he may be the EP, his opinions are not more important than anyone else’s. For the most part, he readily defers to the expertise of the show’s creatives and writers. “I don’t ever want someone to feel like they can bring a point of view or not based on, ‘Well, what’s the showrunner going to think?’ Doesn’t matter. Is it funny? Okay,” he explains.

In keeping with that ethos, a typical day at The Late Show begins with a 9:30 a.m. editorial meeting that is intentionally large and includes people from numerous different teams. The meeting is made up of “people who read different things in the morning and have different kinds of friends,” he says, bringing an experimental diversity to the table in terms of what stories are considered and covered. The deciding factor for what topics make it onto the air, in a show responding to an astonishing amount of daily news, is simple: “Are there jokes there?”

“If the jokes are there, Stephen will talk about anything,” he says. “Its been very helpful to have that guiding light.” In the two and half years since Licht came to the show, that formula has clearly worked: The Late Show is now the highest-rated late-night talk show in America and has been nominated for multiple Emmy awards for writing, direction and Outstanding Variety Series, while the team received a raft of separate nominations for Colbert’s November 2016 live election night special. Licht is especially proud of how the show has stayed relevant and instantly responsive to a news cycle that never seems to stop spinning. The day before I came in to speak with Licht, for example, Colbert had thrown out his planned opening monologue right before taping in order to address a certain anonymous Op-Ed that The New York Times had just published that afternoon. “If youre seeing it in the news that night, were talking about it that night,” Licht says with pride.

Coming from a news background, Licht is well-equipped for this kind of immediacy—he loves being involved in news as it’s happening. “All of my experiences that I think fondly on are when I’ve been in the mix, when I’ve been in the middle of something,” he says, highlighting Morning Joe’s coverage of the 2008 presidential election and Norah O’Donnell’s interview for CBS with President Obama right after the San Bernardino shootings as particularly memorable moments. “To be speaking to the President as that was happening, and then to leave the White House literally without a suitcase and fly to San Bernardino with her—that was an incredible experience, to see it from both sides, to cover the actual source of the news,” he says.

Part of what Licht has brought to The Late Show through his experience as a news producer is his ability to keep some emotional distance from the material they cover. When you produce news, he explains, “You do your best to not be emotionally invested in the mix because you have to be impartial, and you have to look at things from both sides. And so I’ve brought a little of that here.” Licht believes that distance provides a balance to the writers and performers on the show, whom he encourages to “bring whatever emotion and thoughts they have to the table … When you’re writing comedy or performing, it’s good to have an emotional investment in it, as opposed to news, where you’re not supposed to have an emotional investment.” But when it comes to making those tough editorial decisions on creative content, “I think it’s helpful if there’s someone like me,” he suggests, “who’s a little bit detached from the emotions.”

The range of material The Late Show has covered since April 2016 has been vast and often emotional. The show provides a kind of catharsis for viewers and for Colbert himself, as the jokes offer a “more palatable” way to take in the news of the day. “We are not trying to change the world,” Licht says. “We’re trying to change how people feel about the world.”

Though covering daily news in a nation abuzz with political intrigue means a lot of talk about politics, Licht maintains that the show’s structure actually revolves around cultural relevance. “We’re talking about what people are talking about,” he says. “Right now politics is a huge part of what we do, but we’re not built to be a political show. We’re built to be a topical show.”

However when the show is political, it is overtly so, unafraid of taking a stance on issues and, through its anchor in humor, critiquing the current administration. “I believe in taking a short-term hit on something controversial and doing the right thing, as opposed to kind of waffling and people not really knowing where you stand,” Licht says. “And luckily, you know, I work for a network that believes that and I work with a talent who believes that as well.”

No moment was more pivotal for their decision to “have a point of view” than Colbert’s live coverage of election night 2016, which Licht describes as a defining moment for his relationship with Colbert. “Stephen and I agreed: no scripts, no nothing here. Just go be you. Be raw,” he says. Knowing that Colbert felt comfortable doing so, from a production standpoint, was essential for him. “When you get that relationship, it’s incredibly helpful to producing down the road from there. You have to trust each other.”

Two years later, that relationship is key to informing how many of the show’s decisions are made and values are shaped, including taking time away from the show. Licht is very grateful for his ability to go home and spend uninterrupted time with his wife and two children (smiling in framed pictures in his office), something he admits did not happen while he was on the “hamster wheel of news” and credits that to Colbert’s focus on his own family. “I remember the first weekend that I had this job, I said, ‘Well, you and I should do a phone call before Monday just so we can get on the same page.’ And he said, ‘Well, Im helping John with his homework. Sunday nights kinda homework time, so let’s do it at this other time.’ And I was like, isnt that interesting, how his priorities work. And you feed off of that.” Licht knows that this work-life balance is not easily maintained in the production world but advocates for taking time away from work if and when it’s possible. “If you have that ability to turn it on and turn it off, take full advantage of it,” he advises.

That said, Licht is the last guy to be sitting back on his heels. In June he was elected to serve on the board of representatives for the PGA East, an experience he already describes as very fruitful. “It’s just been a great way to meet other producers who you can learn from,” he says. His admiration for the Producers Guild makes sense given the value he places on relationships and the open exchange of jobs. “The fact that there’s an organization that cultivates that is phenomenal.” Just think how much sand could be blasted away.


- Photography by Scott Kowalchyk/CBS

This post has not been tagged.

Share |
Permalink | Comments (0)
 
ABOUT THE PGABECOME A MEMBERPRODUCERS CODE OF CREDITSPGA AWARDSPRODUCED BY CONFERENCEPRODUCED BY MAGAZINE