In her first major appearance since winning Golden Globes night, Oprah Winfrey sat down for separate, wide-ranging chats with Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah that touched on late-night comedy, faith. race and, of course, President Donald Trump.
The two sessions at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem were part of Winfrey’s SuperSoul Conversations, a multi-platform umbrella for conversations that feed a TV show on OWN, a podcast and a book, Wisdom of Sundays. In addition to Colbert and Noah, the roster of interview subjects included Jordan Peele, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Salma Hayek Pinault and Yara Shahidi.
During her sit-down with Miranda, Winfrey reiterated that she will not run for president in 2020. Strikingly, and perhaps by design, that wildly popular (at least in some corners of social media) scenario didn’t get a mention from either late-night host. But there was plenty of assessment of the political environment in both chats.
Colbert said that while he grinds his ax nightly about what he considers the flaws of Trump’s administration, he remains fundamentally hopeful about America’s future. “This is a great country,” he said, citing its perseverance through turbulent chapters of history such as the Civil War and the Civil Rights Era. “We’re based on an idea” articulated in the Constitution, he added. “If we can all agree on that one thing, America will always be the last, best hope.”
After a stretch discussing Colbert’s Catholic faith, which he reconnected with during his 20s, Winfrey focused on Colbert’s embrace of the teachings of Jesus. “That means you have to find a path to loving Donald Trump,” she teased. “That’s true,” Colbert replied, smiling. “I didn’t say I was a good Catholic.”
Winfrey had Trump on her mind as she kicked off the multi-hour event. “It’s going to be OK,” she boomed, effortlessly slipping back behind the talk show pulpit. “We have made it through much worse times than this.”
Winfrey engaged Noah on politics of a different sort, largely avoiding Trump to take up the landscape of his bestselling memoir, Born a Crime, which details his upringing as a mixed-race child in apartheid South Africa. She and Noah bonded over both having grown up using an outhouse. “You never get over that smell,” she said. He said as a child he readily believed rumors that another neighborhood kid had once fallen in. “I was sure that had happened!”
Noah said his grandmother still lives in the house he grew up in and still uses the outhouse, though it has now been equipped with plumbing. “We asked her if she wanted to have a bathroom inside and she said, ‘Why would I want to do that in the house?’”
Winfrey asked both hosts about their sense of how their shows have evolved. Both The Late Show and The Daily Show have seen ratings gains of late after early growing pains.
Winfrey asked Colbert if he feels the same if the show is No. 1 as he does when it’s No. 2? “Nope!” he called out without hesitation. “I worked in cable for years and ratings didn’t really matter that much in cable. It was about how much press you got or what people had written about you,” he said. “They only showed me the ratings once a year when I worked at Comedy Central and it’s a different beast when I went to network.”
In the end, he added, “There’s only one answer. The only way to get it off your back is to be No. 1.”
The arrival of Chris Licht as showrunner in April 2016, he recalled, was the show’s turning point. Prior to that, he was not only writing jokes and performing, he was trying to orchestrate everything else.
“It was not a good idea,” he said. “I’m a control freak, so if you let me, I will touch everything on the show. Well, everything I’m allowed to.” As the audience caught the sly #MeToo reference and started to laugh, he added, “With consent.”
Ratings for The Daily Show started off well below the high bar set by longtime host Jon Stewart, but they have gradually increased during the two years Noah has been hosting.
Winfrey asked Noah if he felt he has hit his stride in the role of host. “I don’t ever feel like I hit my stride,” he said, likening the show to an athletic pursuit of perfection.
“When I took over the seat from Jon Stewart, I had an idea of what I wanted the show to be,” he said. “And I also realized that I am existing and the show is existing as an organism in a world that is constantly changing. And so I cannot give it a concrete definition for it because the world around it is constantly changing how it feels. I want the show to be like water moving with the same force but along different paths.”