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The Subversive Joy of Stephen Colbert

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I notice that unlike Jon Stewart, you let the guests get the laughs and the applause and sometimes even win the argument.
Jon's pretty gracious, unless there is sort of a conceptual, intellectual fight that already existed. He doesn't start it, but he always finishes it, because he's an impressively quick person. I wouldn't want to get into a knife fight with him – a mental knife fight.

Like when he took down Tucker Carlson on Crossfire?
I remember when Carlson said, "Everybody thinks he rattled my cage." All I could think of was, "Man, they're still looking for pieces of your cage."

Many people think you're the exact opposite of the character you play, but is there a degree to which part of you is what you make fun of in your character?
Absolutely, and it does not matter to me if people can tell which is which. I enjoy stepping over the line. I was overjoyed by the Ohio State University study that said conservatives and liberals not only enjoy my show equally but are each likely to think that I am on their side. That was an unexpected victory on my behalf. From the beginning of the show, I very much wanted to add a degree of veracity to my character, even though he's incredibly overblown and over-the-top. I think it's completely visible when I don't mean it. But occasionally I do mean it, and that helps with the confusion.

What are some of the things the character says that you also believe?
I've had guests who come on to put forth their argument through a book – liberal, anti-Bush-administration screeds and I have enjoyed standing toe-to-toe with them. Not always because I disagree with what they're saying, but because I don't enjoy how facile their argument is and how it is based upon dislike rather than argument. But sometimes I just blanketly disagree with the liberal position of my guest, and it gives me great joy and great juice to do the interview.

The interviews are my favorite thing to do on the show now. I have my plan, and I have three or four questions I know I'm going to ask, but generally speaking, I'm trying to pay attention to what they're doing so that I can ignorantly deconstruct their argument.

A lot of people view what you do as liberal versus conservative. But what you're saying is that the show is really about people who are flexible in their beliefs versus those who are fixed in their beliefs?
If there's a target in our present society, it's people not willing to change their minds. If you're not willing to change your mind about anything, given how much is changing and how the sands are shifting underneath our feet, then that dishonesty is certainly worthy of a joke or two.

Even if your goal is comedy, you must have some sort of agenda.
Absolutely not, because I don't really know much about politics. I don't really even like talking about politics much. I don't have an ax to grind. I get disappointed with both sides. But I do like human behavior. So that's what I enjoy talking about, and sometimes politics reflects human behavior. If I thought I had a political point, I'd be in big trouble.

To what extent do you think conservative pundits like Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity are playing a character?
I think Bill's honest. I don't agree with his chain of thought or the quality of his thought, but he believes what he's doing. I think Hannity is far more playing a character – not even for a character's sake, but because that has an effect on the audience emotionally. He's playing a political game.

Do you ever dream in character?
No, but I dreamed last week that as a bit, my character holds up a liquor store. And it doesn't go well. I end up shooting someone twice, and I'm like, "Oh, shoot, now I have to do a funny perp walk." There were other people in the room, and they were going, "Should you really be thinking of that?" And I was going, "No, obviously I can't just walk out with the cuffs on. It's got to be funny – do I goose-step, do I shimmy, what do I do?"

Then I said, "You guys think it was a pretty good bit, though, right?" And people were going, "Well, you did shoot a guy." I said, "Yeah, how's that guy doing, by the way? I should know that before I hold a funny press conference." They said, "He's OK. He's going to be fine." And I said, "Good, good, so it's still comedy."

Have you ever felt like you were in danger in real life?
On airplane flights and stuff like that, I've thought, "This is it." Although I flew with the F-16 Thunderbirds, and that's an hour of loops and barrel rolls and .9 Mach and pulling nine G's, so nothing in flying is ever going to bother me again after that. I'm still waiting to have been glad I did it.

You were never afraid to fly because of your family?
No. My father and two of my brothers died in a plane crash when I was a child, and I just thought, "What are the odds?" I didn't even get bothered by turbulence until I had children of my own, and then it just clicked in. But that's over now too.

Where do you think that inner resilience comes from?
My desire to see things positively comes from my mom. She raised me after her husband and two of her boys died – and she did a great job, and her faith played a great role in that. She's a loving, joyful, not-bitter woman and, boy, that's a great example to have in your life. It makes your travails seem pretty simple in respect.

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