The Subversive Joy of Stephen Colbert

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People often get successful by saying yes to things, but when there are so many demands being made on you, can't "yes" also be a path to ruin?
Yeah, that's another thing. At all times, there is some voice calling you to simplicity, and you can say yes to that too.

What's an example of saying yes to simplicity?
Finding joy in the present achievement of today's action. I have this on my computer [removes a piece of paper taped to his computer]. It says, "Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God." I call the show, jokingly, "The Joy Machine," because if you can do it with joy, even in the simplest show, then it's "The Joy Machine" as opposed to "The Machine." Considering the speed at which we do it, we'll get caught in the gears really quickly unless we also approach it with joy.

I noticed at the taping that you make an effort to connect with the audience rather than just using them for laughter and applause and energy.
Yeah, it makes sense for what I do. I like them. I like people. I don't know if I always did, but I do now.

What do you think made you turn that corner?
Just not being personally miserable all the time. I was 22 or 23 when I made a decision not to be actively Hamlet-like and miserable in my daily life, and the decision helped a lot. Living vitally is not easier than living morbidly – it's just better. People are all we've got.

I like being grateful – I really do. The people in Iraq were so grateful that we came, but the feeling of gratitude we had in return was enormous. It was a physical thing in the air during the shows. It was almost as if I didn't see the audience – I only saw the grateful space between us. It was as beautiful and awesome as a night sky.

I'm somewhat surprised by your sincerity and positivity. It's not just unexpected considering your persona, but it's also rare for comedians.
I don't know. I don't talk to a lot of people. I've worked with the same people for many, many years, so generally people don't raise eyebrows about my attitude. The only thing that seems in any way surprising to people sometimes is that, however imperfectly I may achieve it, I do have some sense of personal religiosity. I go to church, and I'm a Catholic. But I know plenty of comedians who are not dour. I worked with Steve Carell for years. He's not a dour guy. My friend Amy Sedaris, she's not a downer; she's a pip.

Before the Report: Stephen Colbert's Rise From Sketch Shows to America's Hero

When I interviewed Sacha Baron Cohen, he said that what enables him to go into an arena full of people who hate him is that he knows he has the faith and stability of his parents behind him. Is that true for you when you play this sort of buffoon?
Probably. I think all the time about something my mother said to me many times as a child: "In the line of eternity, what does this matter?" In that regard, I'm very hard to embarrass. I really don't mind making a fool of myself, because I have some sense of who I am beyond this fool – I hope. And I think some of that comes from my mother. I don't actually believe that the present social norm is some sort of eternal truth.

What do you mean by "the present social norm"?
Like how you're supposed to look. For example, I have khaki pants on and a pink button-down shirt. Completely preppy, because that's just how I'm always dressed – I have no personal sense of fashion. It doesn't matter to me at all. Regard for people's appearance or regard for social norms are fine pastimes, but they have no meaning. I don't mind looking like an idiot or being ugly. That helps me a lot, and I definitely get that from my mom. "None of this matters" is what I was taught over and over again.

You clearly have a strong sense of ethics. It's important to you to be a good person.
There's no guarantee that I'm not giving you a persona now, you realize that? Is this me or is this just the character seeming like a good guy?

Good point. How do I know you're not practicing a new character right now?
I don't think I could make those choices with this schedule. I definitely would not take this time out to talk to you if I was going to do that. This is a perfectly lovely thing to do, but there's some part of my brain that's going, "What are you doing? Don't you realize that right now scripts are changing and edits are happening that will affect the show tonight, a show that will be taped once and then last forever?"
I have another little piece of paper back here [removes a piece of paper taped to the edge of his desk]. It just says, "Work," because nothing ever gets better unless you work. So I have "work" here and "joy" over there, and I try to put the two together somehow.

How do you reconcile your sense of ethics with interviews where people may feel hurt or humiliated afterward?
I don't go in like a ninja. I don't seduce them into a false situation. I say the same thing to all my guests, which is, "You know I'm doing a character, yes? And he's an idiot, and he will be willfully ignorant of what you know and care about. Honestly disabuse me of what you see as my ignorance, and then we'll have a good time." There must be something they want out of it, or they wouldn't come. I am not an assassin.

But what about the show where you told Rep. Barney Frank that he's overweight? He seemed pretty pissed.
Barney Frank did not have a good experience. I truly don't want to humiliate anyone. I'm also not doing political score-settling. I am no one's warrior. I'm doing comedy. I like to be put in a position where I can do my jokes, because I do my jokes in juxtaposition to reality. But I never deceive anyone.
That said, there is something savage in the parody of the character.

Satire has a sharpened tip, for sure. I am imperfect in my gentility, I grant you that. You have to be driven a little bit by emotion, and our job is to try to swathe our emotion in jokes.

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