Who is Stephen Colbert?
That might be one of the biggest mysteries to solve as we head into the fall TV season, as he takes the reigns of The Late Show as himself, and not as the character he played on The Colbert Report for nine years.
As for who "himself" actually is, it seems to be a question that not even Colbert can answer at this point.
Colbert—who spent the summer making strange videos, recording podcasts, and making Jon Stewart cry—took the stage during CBS' summer press tour to promote his new show and to charm the pants off of the entire room, even while occasionally making fun of the people in it.
Most of the questions, of course, were character-related, because we're all preparing to reintroduce ourselves to a person we feel like we've known, but haven't really, or maybe we have?
"You want to know who the real Stephen Colbert is?" he began. "There's a supercut online of me laughing, me breaking character the entire time. That's me. I'm laughing at our jokes. We did the show for each other all day, and it was my job, my privilege, my responsibility to translate to you, the audience at home, what we already did for each other."
"That guy who can't stop laughing, that's the real Stephen Colbert. I can't wait for him to be the only guy you see."
Rude man in middle -show biz cores cbs? Stephen Colbert (@StephenAtHome) August 11, 2015
The part of the show that will be the most affected by this change sounds like it will be the interviews. Colbert is most interested in anyone with "something to say"—that means politicians, celebrities, musicians, artists, or anyone, really—and is excited about being able to interview people without having to filter his side of the conversation through anyone but himself.
"My character was actively ignorant," he explained. "I think one of the reasons I most wanted to drop the character was I felt I had done everything I could with him, or everything I could do with that show, other than have my honest interest in my guests, which is almost constant. So now I feel actually more freed up. That was in some ways the most energetic and most exciting part of the show to me, and now I can hold that moment. I had to put everything through an occipital CPU up here to live render what my character would think about what the person just said, and still have my intention behind it, and now I can just talk."
At the same time, Colbert didn't totally dismiss the fact that the character was also parts of him. For instance, Colbert is actually Catholic, and very afraid of bears, to the point where he dreams about them when something's not going right in his life. He also wasn't always joking.
Can't wait to get on the air Sept 8th. Until then: #dryTrumping? Stephen Colbert (@StephenAtHome) August 11, 2015
"I was able to piggyback on the back of that character and be extremely intimate with the audience, because I had the excuse that I didn't mean it. But I'm here to tell you I meant a lot of it. I even agreed with my character sometimes, but we try to establish a really intimate relationship with the audience, and my hope is that when you see me on the new show, you'll go, ‘oh wow, a lot of that was him the whole time.'"
"But I won't know how much of it is until I go do it, honest to God. It's an act of discovery for me too. All I know is it's the same creative team, so I'm just as excited about the jokes."
Regardless of any noticeable or unnoticeable differences between Colbert and the fictional character formerly known as Stephen Colbert, there's one thing that was made incredibly clear by that panel: Stephen is truly excited about finally getting back in front of people.
"I don't like comedy in theory, that's just theology," he said. "I want religion. I want to get in front of the audience and hear the laughter."
That need to perform partly explains Colbert's guest-hosting stint on that Michigan cable access show, which came about after Colbert wanted to do "do a show without doing a show."
He's also understandably excited to finally have a place to tell all of his Donald Trump jokes, after being away for what would have been a great summer for comedy show content.
"I want to do jokes on Donald Trump so badly, and I have no venue! So right now I'm just dry-Trumping."
He wouldn't share any of those jokes, but he did give us what we're taking as Stephen Colbert's official statement on Donald Trump's run for president:
"I just want to say that every little boy grows up believing that they could be President of the United States, and I'm so happy that that little boy is Donald Trump. I just hope he's taking his vitamins. Please stay healthy until I get on the air. Don't do anything dangerous, don't ride any motorcycles because every night I light a candle and pray that he stays in the race, and I also pray that no body puts that candle near his hair."