When Rolling Stone's Neil Strauss sat down to interview Stephen Colbert for our new issue, he didn't meet the ironically egomaniacal character the former Daily Show star plays on The Colbert Report. He met Ned Flanders — a preppy, earnest, gentle man miles from his onscreen persona. Their conversation spanned Colbert's Catholic faith, his high school band, the best politicians to mock and the tragedy that befell his family when he was a child. Here's more of their Q&A, where Colbert tackles his loyal fans, his literary preferences and whether he's working on a new character.
Stephen Colbert on 'The Stephen Colbert Show'
Tell me about the difference between the way you and Jon Stewart deconstruct the news.
Jon deconstructs the news in a really brilliant comedic style. I take the sausage backwards, and I restuff the sausage. We deconstruct, but then we don't show anybody our deconstruction. We reconstruct — we falsely construct the hypocrisy. And I embody the bullshit until hopefully you can smell it.
Have you ever called someone and apologized after a joke?
No. There's only one person I've ever really wanted to apologize to, and you'd never know who it was. I will someday. I just have to find the right time to do it.
Would you like to take the opportunity to do so now?
The character has to do it on the show, not me.
If you did it in character, would the person think it was sincere? It might seem like a second insult.
It would be meant sincerely, though of course it would have to be done as a joke. So your question is very interesting to me. Can someone perceive something my character says sincerely? I don't know the answer to that.
Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Nation
It's interesting how by joking about the Colbert Nation, you made it exist.
Yeah, they want in on the fun. That was something we didn't expect, because we joked about the Colbert Nation and then we said, "Oh shit, it's real." That's an interesting thing, and that's another improvisational aspect — that discovery is better than invention. We invented the Colbert Nation, but then we discovered it was real. We didn't make it happen, they self-organized it. I love that relationship. We can't always have it, and you can't force that. You just have to acknowledge it. We're always planting seeds with the show, and the challenge is, will we notice when a flower blooms, and then pick that flower?
Do you do things subversively intentionally, like when you suggested junior hockey fans throw copies of the GM Annual Report on the ice rink to taunt the Oshawa Generals?
Our actions plant seeds, and then we'll go, "Oh look, someone responded to that in a way we hadn't intended, let's acknowledge that." Because the game is in the acknowledgement of their acceptance — that's what's improvisational about it. You make initiations beyond even your knowledge of them, because if you have the knowledge of all of your initiations, you're not initiating, you're writing.
How obsessed does the nation get with you. Has there ever been a situation where you were uncomfortable with the level of obsession?
The letters that say "I'm getting the messages you're sending me through the television screen" are not great. But those are few and far between, thank God. I get wonderful letters, and people send me artwork. I've had all the art people send me digitized, and I keep on meaning to bump out, the way Carson used to show, "More to come," with a painting of me done by a fan. I have this fantastic set of armor, leather Roman armor, made for me by a fan. It's my size and everything, with my crest in bronze on the front. It's gorgeous. I've got maps of the United States and license plates that say "Colbert Nation." I've got masks of me and paintings of me and puzzles of me and triptychs of collages of my life. They're unbelievable, truly heartfelt works of art, and I'm very grateful and I try to write thank you notes when I can. I get so much from my audience that is in no way frightening or overwhelming, only that I'm overwhelmed with gratitude toward them and I don't really know how to return it other than to try to do a good show that night. We've thrown stuff into the show or put it on a bookshelf, or in the Christmas special we put some in, and on the blogs they've said they noticed.
What's the picture of the troops behind you about?
That was the original group of people, General Petraeus' security detail, who invited me to Iraq, with the approval of the general. I've had it up for a year now. I just kept it up there as a reminder, "You can do this. This is possible."
Stephen Colbert on Reading
Did you ever read the Malcolm Gladwell book Outliers, about how it takes ten thousand hours of work to get good at something?
No, but I had him on. Does that count for anything? I read the first chapter of the first book of the first guest I ever had on, which was Buzz Bissinger's Three Nights in August or something like that. And it's the last thing I've read.
Are you serious?
As far as guests of the show go. I have incidentally read some of my guests' books: I like Michael Palin regardless of having Michael Palin on, so I've read his books. But I don't have time.
Stephen Colbert on Ambition
Have you ever thought of making a Stephen Colbert movie?
I have frequently been accused of being unambitious, and I would have to say that I'm still unambitious. I get to do anything I want here, pretty much. And it takes everything I've got to do it, so I don't have the luxury of thinking about the next thing, nor do I have any desire, because I like it so much. Not always every minute of every day, but when I sit down in that chair and my stage manager shakes my hand and says, "Are you ready to do this?" and I say, "Yeah!"
Do you ever think about creating another character?
Sure, yeah. I did this because I spent a long time working on that character of the Daily Show person, and I still really wanted to work with Jon. I respect him so much, and I learned so much from him, and he had the deal to create a show. So Comedy Central asked me if I wanted to do a show, and we said, "Why don't we do it together?" I love that it's my own show, but there's still a connection with Jon, and he's a fantastic, fantastic mentor and friend. I'm such a lucky guy that way.
Stephen Colbert on Religion
Would your family all sing carols on Christmas Eve?
Sure, we'd process through the house, and we still do it. My family is 50 people now — nieces and nephews and that sort of thing — and we process from the youngest to the oldest. The youngest puts the baby Jesus in the manger on Christmas Eve and we sing "Silent Night." It's very traditional.
Does faith still play a big part in your life?
Very much. I am highly variable in my devotion. From a doctrinal point of view or a dogmatic point of view or a strictly Catholic adherent point of view, I'm first to say that I talk a good game, but I don't know how good I am about it in practice. I saw how my mother's faith was very valuable to her and valuable to my brothers and sisters, and I'm moved by the words of Christ, and I'll leave it at that.
But you do teach Sunday school?
I teach the seven year olds. I'm the catechist for their first communion.