The "Executive Producer" title is ceremonial, perhaps, but the influence isn't.
Jon's never too far away, but this is Stephen's. For once, this is Stephen's without the media coupling Stewart-and-Colbert.
So he slaps the name on there anyway, right up front, to get that business out of the way. Of course he does. Maybe Jon tries to protest, just once or twice, but it's gratitude more than anything. Nobody denies Stephen his gratitude. There's a reason the old team elected him to send Jon off into the world again with grace; he's the only one who could do it without breaking.
(He breaks before the last show, and he breaks after, and after, and after.)
Their home is no longer their own. It doesn't matter that Stephen left their straight man/idiot act nearly a decade prior. It will always be their home even when they make new ones. New theatres, new plots of land, same memories.
The Zadroga Act floats in stale air with every news article that pops up, and Stephen sees Jon's face on a far more regular basis than he has in the last six months. Well, there's this platform, isn't there? Straight to camera. Have to make it funny though. They'll work it out. Take it back, all the way back, to the two of them, just them, because Trevor is many things but he isn't…
He isn't who Jon needs.
Jon never asks Stephen to jump—oh, no. Stephen only ever asks "how high?" mid-flight.
They talk through the Trump bit over roast beef. Jon wants to do it. Stephen doesn't. It isn't simply a matter of whose show this is, now. It never has been.
We've only been to the mat a few times over the years, he'd said once. Something like that, a long time ago in a studio far, far away. Something like that. And Jon was always right.
"The fucker isn't funny anymore," Stephen says, hands in his pockets, hair a mess. Jon loves him like this—Stephen, khakis and a polo, no filter. They're standing at his window, looking but not really seeing. He watches a pedestrian slam her hands on a cab's hood. "I don't know if it'll play."
"Do you think I give a shit about him?" Jon asks softly. There's no malice in it.
"Nah," Stephen says. "I know you don't."
"Well, they'll know too," he says. "They always know."
Jon is right.
They don't need to shake off the lost time. They slip into the bit right away, at Stephen's desk picking at leftover macaroni salad, Jon intermittently putting two fingers on his upper lip and slipping into a German accent.
"Not on CBS," Stephen laughs from the belly, and this, this is why: all this gratitude isn't just for the coaching. It's for the friendship. It's for—well, they know.
"Yeah," Jon cedes. "Those days are over, pal."
A long stretch of silence broken by pens scratching paper ends when Stephen suggests a wig.
Jon suggests the thick, familiar accent.
The Cheeto dust is a happy accident; a combination of deli for lunch and their propensity for proximity. That road is never quite cordoned off, no.
"Do you remember Steve and the green paint? The first Produce Pete test run?"
Jon chuckles into his fist and Stephen can't even make a sound for how hard he laughs.
"Lime fuckin' green for three days," Jon adds.
"No orange paint," Stephen says. He promises twice. "I'll do the Cheeto dust myself as we go. They'll lose their goddamned minds."
Because it'll be funny. Yeah. Yeah, that's the only reason why. (They know it's not.)
Not a whole lot of their conversations that begin with "do you remember" end without some sort of nostalgic lull or a touch that lasts a bit too long. Old habits.
At rehearsal, the boys traverse the studio. Pace like they used to, though not so quickly and without such anxiety. They've done this before. They'll do it again.
As long as Stephen's on television, they'll do this again.
Their youth is encapsulated on film, forever, together, laughing until the end of the world.
"When did we get this old?"
Jon only hums in agreement, mirroring Stephen's stance. They stare at the cathedral-dome ceiling.
Studios and titles change, hair grays and inertia is some far-away destination they'll never reach, but they know better. Old is skin-deep.
Maybe those "I'm yours/you're mine/I'm/yours/mine—" forever-ago phrases never age, either.
Maybe they meant it all (they did).
After all, here they are.