Colbert Country

'Daily Show' vet Stephen Colbert strikes out on his own with an 'O'Reilly'-skewering talking-head show

November 3, 2005 12:00 AM ET
Stephen Colbert
Stephen Colbert
Comedy Central/Courtesy: Everett Collection

Stephen Colbert the newscaster sometimes performs circumcisions on the air. When introduced to an Indian woman, Colbert asks her, "Gandhi or Sitting Bull?" He has been known to give pep talks to God. He's noticed that the Almighty is always demanding that you praise Him. Colbert's personal message: "You gotta get some self-esteem, God!"

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Stephen Colbert the stand-up comic has some very strong opinions about Stephen Colbert the newscaster. "He's a well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status asshole," he summarizes. "He's not an out-and-out asshole, but he's passionately attached to his opinions." On The Daily Show, Colbert was a senior correspondent delivering a deliberately wrong-headed slant on the news.

Now he's been promoted to pundit and has his own show. The Colbert Report, a half-hour directly following The Daily Show, at 11:30 P.M. Comedy Central, weak on franchise programs after Dave Chappelle went on safari, would love to extend one of its successful brands. It gave The Colbert Report a green light without ever seeing a pilot.

"By the way," says Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show and executive producer of The Colbert Report, "Stephen's doing this all as a functional illiterate. He doesn't necessarily want to let that out yet. You'll read all about it in his new book, If Only I Could Read the Menu: I'm So Hungry."

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The real Colbert is forty-one years old, the father of three and a stone-cold Tolkien freak. He has so many Lord of the Rings dolls at home, they're piled up "like a snowdrift." Last month, when Viggo Mortensen was a Daily Show guest. Stewart secretly taped Colbert delivering an impromptu five-minute monologue on the nomenclature of Mortensen's movie character, Aragorn, and played the beginning on the air: "Aragorn was the son of Arathorn and he was known as Elessar, and also called Estel, which means 'hope' in Elvish. Of course, the men of Bree called him Strider. When he was younger and lived in Gondor, he was called Thorongil because he had to have an assumed name –"

At this point, Stewart cut off the tape, and Mortensen, looking impressed and a little frightened, said, "Not a lot of people know that." Watching at home, Colbert jumped up and started celebrating the fact that Mortensen had validated his Ph.D.-level Tolkien expertise. His wife, Evelyn, watched aghast, and finally said, "How do you even know how to breed?"

Off-camera, Colbert carries himself with the same upright posture and serious demeanor that he employs on camera, only he's incredibly sane and literate. Or as his friend and frequent collaborator Paul Dinello says, "He's like a living wall of encyclopedias that like to drink beer."

"I really try not to engage with him off-camera," Stewart says. "I'm not saying he's a carrier of avian flu, but I have a sense that when it comes down, it's going to go through him."

Two and a half weeks before the debut of The Colbert Report, Colbert is sitting in the office of his head writer, Allison Silverman, joined by producer Richard Dahm, working on a practice show. On The Daily Show, Stewart alternately plays ringmaster to a gang of correspondents and straight man to the absurdity of the news itself. The Colbert Report is designed to have a different feel – focusing on one fatuous talking head means that the comedy can veer off in new directions, a slightly more absurd version of The O'Reilly Factor. Behind Colbert is a bulletin board covered with index cards bearing the names of proposed segments: Who's The President Waving At?; This Day in My Story; Kindergarten Sobriety Test; What Rocktober Means to Me.

Colbert reads the rough script aloud. Two writers have been assigned the same list of topics from the headlines, so Colbert reads twin versions of jokes on Condoleezza Rice, NASA and gas siphoning. Doing a bit on how Republican scandals are too boring for people to pay attention, Colbert delivers the wisdom "If it involves a beej, it will impeej." He tells viewers not to send letters: "It's called a slant rhyme." Colbert takes a short beat, then makes an addition to the script: "Tomorrow – assonance and syzygy."

After Colbert has made decisions about which parts of the two scripts to meld together – rejecting a few jokes as "too Jon" – Dahm shares a series of bumpers to use before commercials, on the theme "All You Need to Know." All you need to know about the L.A. blackouts: "Cast of Entourage, safe." All you need to know about new Chief Justice John Roberts: "Do not stare into his giant hypno-eyes."

Colbert grew up on a small South Carolina island, the youngest of eleven children, in a "very devout but joyful Irish-Catholic family." His first public performance was a church Christmas pageant in kindergarten – he was the fourth, wise man, Colbert left the church for a time but returned at twenty-two. He says, "That whole relativistic thing of 'Any path to God is a good one' – I thought, 'Well, if that's the case, I should stick with this one because I've got a head start.'"

When Colbert was ten, his father and two of his brothers died in an Eastern Airlines plane crash. That was when he became obsessed with The Lord of the Rings; he's read the trilogy forty times and can quote long passages from memory. "It was a great escape," he says. His mind-set in the wake of the tragedy: "I'll think about anything you've got other than what there is."

Colbert did just enough work to get through high school, After two years at the all-male Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, he had good enough grades to transfer into the drama program at Northwestern University. He had long hair, a beard and a strong streak of pretentious arrogance. Then he discovered Chicago improv comedy. Colbert performed at Second City and did experimental theater with friends. Exit 57, a sketch-comedy show on Comedy Central, lasted two seasons – and was canceled soon after his first child was born in 1995. On the phone with his mom, Colbert said, "I don't know why I'm not worried."

She said, "I don't know why you aren't either, Try worrying."

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