Had it not been for Stephen Colbert’s wife, Evie, he may have never gotten into pickleball. “Evie gave me a pickleball set as a gift,” he says. “I didn’t even know what pickleball was. But she said that all of our friends were playing it and we needed to learn. I said,‘OK, great.’ Then, I put the set in the corner of the room and forgot about it.”
You may be wondering how it is, then, that America’s top-rated late-night host is now producing and hosting the first-ever prime time pickleball celebrity tournament. The idea for Pickled (which will air on CBS on Thursday, November 17, at 9 p.m. ET) was born just a few weeks after Colbert placed that pickleball set in the corner. “We were about to launch my production company, Spartina Industries. Carrie Byalick, who runs it, came to me and said that Funny or Die wanted to partner on a celebrity pickleball tournament,” says Colbert. “It was like everything was coming up pickleball. I looked at what they were thinking and thought it was absolutely worth the conversation. It is a fun game, anyone can play it, and it’s got a funny name.”
The upbeat, inclusive nature of the sport is exactly what made Colbert sure that a pickleball special was the perfect first project for his production company. “We want to make the world a better place and do things that are meaningful but silly at the same time,” he says. “I have the opportunity to talk about topical events every day. This production company gives us a chance to scratch other itches—to do things that are joyful and bring people together. We have enough divisiveness in this country. Pickleball is something everyone can do. It’s not an expensive sport to play. You don’t have to be part of a club. It cuts across all demographics.”
More significant than the stellar trophy, everyone participating in Pickled is playing for charity— something that was incredibly important to Colbert and his team.
Colbert and his team pitched the special to CBS at exactly the right moment. “We were thinking, I hope this is the kind of thing they’d be willing to put on prime time,” he says. “And, literally, the day before we pitched them, the headline in The New York Times was ‘Pickleball Is Ready for Prime Time.’ We took that into the meeting and they essentially said yes on the spot.”
So, with an entire pickleball project in production, did Colbert finally pick up the game? “Listen, I’m no LeBron James. I don’t own my own team yet,” he says, laughing. “But my wife and I now play. As a matter of fact, when we were planning our spring break we called the hotel to make sure they had pickleball courts.”
When asked if he’s any good, Colbert shrugs and laughs. “I’m not the sportiest person in the world. But I do have a natural grace.” Oh, and he’s admittedly got a competitive streak. Colbert says that his wife teases him for being a stickler on the court. “One of the first times we played, a couple on the court next to us jokingly backed her up on that. I was just pointing out that she volleyed in the kitchen—you can’t volley in the kitchen!”
His own skills aside, Colbert says he was wildly impressed by the celebrities in the tournament. The lineup includes some major names—like Will Ferrell, Dierks Bentley, Kelly Rowland, and more. And they’re all competing for quite the trophy—or, as Colbert calls it, The Colbert Cup. “We initially thought, We’ll just go find a pickleball trophy. But they weren’t as easy to find as we imagined,” he says. “So, we got a karate trophy and figured we’d just change out the top. But we got it and I thought, Well, that’s a nice karate trophy. So we took a Sharpie and changed the bottom from Karate Championship to Pickleball Championship.”
“When we went into this, we knew it would be fun. We knew we had a great cast. We wrote a lot of good comedy. But I was shocked by how often we all got swept up in the game.”
Perhaps more significant than the stellar trophy, everyone participating in Pickled is playing for charity—something that was incredibly important to Colbert and his team. Evie McGee-Colbert has been involved with Comic Relief (comicrelief.org/pickled) for some time and it just made sense for the tournament to be in support of that organization. The primary mission of Comic Relief is to help unhoused and underhoused people, along with food insecure children and families, get back on their feet.
Many people know it as the foundation behind Red Nose Day, the annual fundraising campaign to end child poverty. Before that, Comic Relief was a huge part of the zeitgeist in the ’80s and ’90s thanks to some big celebrity comedians who hosted comedy specials supporting the effort.
In his own way, Colbert is looking to revive that powerful mingling between fun entertainment and a truly meaningful giveback component. “I have such happy memories of watching those Comic Relief specials back in the day. It’s one of the first times that comedy was used on a large scale to help people—and we want to be part of that tradition again,” he says.
From Colbert’s comedic chops to the heartwarming do-good aspect, the special has something for everyone. As for pickleball superfans? Colbert says they’ll be pleased with just how sincere the players were in their commitment. While the participants may not be pros, he says they all took it very seriously. “When we went into this, we knew it would be fun. We knew we had a great cast. We wrote a lot of good comedy,” he says. “But I was shocked by how often we all got swept up in the game. None of these stars phoned it in. It was really fun to make—and I think people will enjoy watching just how into it we all got.”
Pickled is packed with talent. Here, ColberT gives the inside scoop on some of the celebs’ skills, commitment, and killer instincts.
Emma has blood in her eyes—she’s the Queen of the Dink. She really proved herself.”
The champ still has it. There’s a natural athleticism and he gets really into it.”
I can’t say too much, but let me tell you, he is one to watch.”
He plays all the time and is very good. Apparently, he plays before every show—he brings a kit and they set up wherever he is.”
Tig is on a team with Will. Listen, Will has the wingspan. But Tig? She’s a small but potent aggressor on the court.”