Does anyone have any questions to humanize me first before I say these terrible things?" Stephen Colbert asks the New York studio audience at the beginning of taping of his savagely sarcastic Comedy Central talk show, The Colbert Report.
A tremor ripples through the audience. This is something they didn't expect to see: The man who has perfected the art of playing a conservative blowhard is about to step out of character.
An older woman asks Colbert about interviewing Paul McCartney. "When I interviewed Paul McCartney," he says, "I was so hung over from our Christmas party, which was two days before – so that shows you how hung over I was."
The audience laughs. Colbert straightens the yellow tie that cuts viciously through his black pinstriped suit.
A guy asks if he'd like to work with actress Amy Sedaris again. He says he'd love to, then adds, "She's also an excellent source of Vicodin."
The audience laughs again. Colbert is now officially humanized.
The following day, there is another opportunity to humanize Colbert as he sits in his office two floors above the soundstage for a rare interview. But the Stephen Colbert who answers these questions is neither the ironically egomaniacal character he plays on The Colbert Report nor the hard-partying, quip-ready average Joe he played for the question-asking studio audience the night before.
He is Ned Flanders.
Colbert is wearing a short-sleeve pink dress shirt tucked into khaki pants. When he speaks, he is earnest, gentle and well-intentioned – words one would never use to describe his onscreen persona.
He doesn't swear, preferring exclamations like "gosh," "shoot" and "boy." And time and time again, the conversation returns to a central theme: his ethics and faith as a practicing Catholic.
Colbert grew up in South Carolina, the youngest of 11 children in a traditional Irish Catholic family. Combining his adolescent love of science fiction and his success in school plays, he attended Northwestern University to study theater. Though he was interested in serious drama, he began taking classes at the ImprovOlympic in Chicago and eventually found a part-time job at Second City, the improv-comedy theater that spawned many cast members of Saturday Night Live. That was where he met Sedaris, with whom he later made the cult after-school-special parody Strangers With Candy.
In 1997, Colbert joined The Daily Show, where he honed his extreme sendup of right-wing punditry, before being given his own time slot in 2005. At first glance, Colbert's persona seemed squarely aimed at archconservatives like Bill O'Reilly. But as Colbert talks about his approach to comedy, it becomes clear that his agenda is not what it seems. It is not political, like Bill Maher. Nor is it purely comic, like Jay Leno and other stand-ups. It is an improvisatory game – one that Colbert is playing with all of us. In improv, much of the humor comes from taking a funny base concept to its most ludicrous extreme.
Where other talk-show hosts interview presidents, Colbert casts them in his own skits – as he did when President Obama appeared on his recent broadcast from Iraq, ordering Gen. Ray Odierno to shave Colbert's head. To Colbert, the world is a pool of comic extras waiting for a comedy bit to happen.
Colbert sits behind his desk in an office cluttered with inspirational notes, artwork from fans and copies of his number-one-bestselling book, I Am America (And So Can You!), to sign for visitors. With hair disheveled, eyes glazed and a head full of half-formed jokes and ideas, he peels away the Saran Wrap on a sandwich and proceeds to deconstruct his approach to comedy.
Do you mind if I eat while we talk?
No problem. What are you eating?
Scrambled eggs with ham, provolone and mustard on rye. We have different names for my sandwiches. This is called "the usual." Then there's "the new normal," which is the same but with no cheese. And "the classic," which is a BLT. Those are the three things that I eat, generally.
Considering how hard you work on each show, how do you balance the time with your wife and three children?
I'm not entirely successful at that. I started as an improviser at Second City and ImprovOlympic in Chicago, and that really influences the way I behave as a performer and creator. In some ways, it's been detrimental in my own life because I have trouble saying no to things. You're not supposed to say no in improv.
Right, there's the whole philosophy of "yes and," where you say yes to everything your partner says and then add something.
Yeah, and that can be a dangerous way to live. But we have "yes and"-ed a lot of opportunities on this show. For instance, the shows we just did in Iraq, they weren't our idea. I was asked if I wanted to do it by a guy named Bing West, who used to be the assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration. He's written this book called The Strongest Tribe about how the surge worked. After the show was over, he gave me a big squeeze on my hand and said, with the cameras off, "If General Petraeus invites you to do your show in Iraq, you should do it." I immediately thought, "Gosh, an improviser would say, Yes.'"
And by saying yes, you end up not just in Iraq, but in the White House filming a scene with the president.
Or naming the treadmill on the Space Station [after a NASA contest was subverted by write-in votes from Colbert fans]. Or the bridge in Hungary [which fans unsuccessfully tried to get named after Colbert]. Or the ice cream [which Ben & Jerry's packaged as Stephen Colbert's AmeriCone Dream]. All those things were extended improvisational games with my audience. Once you accept the challenge, you have to just go and say, "I will do it." And those are the times when I have not been able to balance my home life and the show life because that acceptance – if it's worth doing at all – is worth doing with the abandonment of intercourse.
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