The Subversive Joy of Stephen Colbert

How a God-loving square became TV's most dangerous man

Stephen Colbert
Martin Schoeller
Stephen Colbert on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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.

A lot of people are amazed when you sing on the show with people like Elvis Costello and Willie Nelson. Have you ever had any voice training?
I did choir and things like that when I was in high school. I can tear off the bass line to Mozart's Mass. But my whole family sings. In my family, we could hug each other and kiss each other anytime we wanted for no reason whatsoever, and we were encouraged to sing around the house. My sister Margot and my brother Jay, I'd give anything for their voices. They're such angels, and the rest of us in the family just like belting it out.

Would you 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.

I heard you were in a Rolling Stones cover band when you were younger.
I had a high school band called Shot in the Dark, and we played a lot of Stones. We weren't really a cover band, but I wore a tight jersey like Mick – a soccer jersey with a number zero on it that said COLBERT across the back. My brother Peter had been number zero. That was his jersey.

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Do you believe the theory that the youngest sibling tends to clamor for the most attention and generally ends up becoming more of a performer?
Oh, sure, I had a built-in audience for that. I think my brothers and sisters are way funnier than I am – and they think they're funnier than I am too. Ask them, and they'll tell you. I wanted to tell stories like Ed, tell jokes like Billy, have a rapier wit like Jim, be quick like Mary or sing like Margot. Being the youngest, I caught my mother saying to them once, "Listen to his stories – you listen to what he has to say." To this day, if an audience likes what I'm saying when I'm telling a story, I think that my mom got to them, and she's making them listen.

Did you ever go through a period where you lost your faith?
Yeah. It was a college angst thing. But once I graduated from college, some Gideon literally gave me a box of The New Testament, Psalms and Proverbs on the street in Chicago. I took one and opened it right away to Matthew, Chapter 5, which is the opening of the Sermon on the Mount. That whole chapter is essentially about not worrying. I didn't read it – it spoke to me, and it was an effortless absorption of the idea. Nothing came to me in a thunderbolt, but I thought to myself, "I'd be dumb not to re-examine this."

What caused you to go through that dark period?
Well, I had very sad events in my childhood. The death of my father and my brothers was understandably a shattering experience that I hadn't really dealt with in any way. And there comes a time when you're psychologically able to do so. I still don't like talking about it. It still is too fresh.

Do you think experiencing that has helped what you do in any way? Or made it more of a challenge?
Not to get too deep here, but the most valuable thing I can think of is to be grateful for suffering. That is a sublime feeling, and completely inexplicable and illogical, but no one doesn't suffer. So the degree to which you can be aware of your own humanity is the degree to which you can accept, with open eyes, your suffering. To be grateful for your suffering is to be grateful for your humanity, because what else are you going to do – say, "No, thanks"? It's there. "Smile and accept," said Mother Teresa. And she was talking to people who had it rough. That's not how you make jokes, though.

Getting back to jokes, do you think Bush was a better president for your comedy?
President Bush was an excellent model of incurious authority. But for the last year and a half of his presidency, I almost never mentioned him, because everything that could be said had been said. Satire usually exists in opposition to power or as commentary on power, and Bush stopped being powerful way before he left office. So for the last 18 months to two years of the Bush presidency, he stopped being my model, and we returned to the core principle. And the core principle is that I'm a well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot – and that exists whether Bush is in the White House or Obama is there.

So in a way, is Obama better for your character because there's more for him to be outraged by?
I'm having a great time with Obama. In some ways, it's a more freeing game, because not all things are known about him yet. The page is still being written on him, and the common ignorances about him are emerging. Socialism was a good one for a while; now that's a little played out. Or the Birther thing, about him not being born in the United States – who could have made that up? I don't exist in relationship to the president. I exist in relationship to common ignorances, and those will never go away.

When you went to the White House to film Obama for your Iraq trip, what was it like to have the president of the country play along with one of your skits?
It was hard for me to conceive that I was going to the White House to actually do a bit with the president of the United States that we had written for him. Matter of fact, I wasn't going to go. I thought, "If I leave, I won't be able to get any writing done that day."

I think Obama crushed it. We did two takes, but we used the first take. It was surreal and wonderful, and I hope I get to do something like that with whomever the next president is. It was a great joy and a great honor, the same way it was an honor to do the White House Correspondents' Dinner when Bush was president.

Why do you think your appearance at the dinner became such a scandal?
I had no perception that anything was wrong at the time. When I was doing the Correspondents' Dinner, I was specifically making an equation between myself and President Bush. If you look at the opening of it, I wasn't up there as O'Reilly. I was up there as Bush, and that was the whole idea.

Right after the dinner was over, something felt weird, because people weren't making eye contact with me. But it was a few days until someone made me go online and said, "You should look at this." I had no perception that people thought I was throwing Molotov cocktails. I just went and did a job, and I thought I did a good job, and I wish more people had laughed. That's all I feel about it.

On your show, it's as if your character sees himself as more important than the news itself.
I don't have television screens behind me like Brian Williams does, or even like Jon Stewart uses. I don't have a newsroom through which news comes to you. I am the news. Behind me, I have a star. There are radial lines coming out from my body in the background and on the pedestal where my desk is. And that's purposeful. I am Jesus at the center of the Last Supper. All the architectural lines converge on me.

So you built the idea right into the set?
That was the instruction I gave my designer. I said, "I am the news. I translate nothing. I am not a medium. I am not a member of the media, because I'm not a vessel. I am it."

Right, and your character's opinion often winds up being reported in the actual news as if it were real. By drawing on your improv roots, you've created this bizarre echo chamber.
That started early on. We would talk about something, then it would show up on the news. And then we would talk about how people would talk about what we had talked about. I realized that the show, at its purest expression, is a pebble that we throw into the puddle of the news, and then we report on our own ripples. That's how I describe it to people who are trying to understand what we do, even staff members. We take what's in the air and codify it into a turd you can see.

Do you ever feel constrained by the character's limitations?
No, never. I'm in complete control of him. He can be what I want him to be.

Does your wife ever give you any advice on the direction of your career?
Absolutely. Any major decision I make, I say, "I'm going to talk to my wife about it." I call her my "breathtakingly levelheaded girl." I'm not a dumb guy, but she's smart and very clearheaded about things. I approach things very emotionally, and she does not, strangely enough. If I need to know if what I'm writing about still appeals to humans, I'll show it to her. I married a human being. Thank God I didn't marry another comedian, or else I'd be doing terribly, terribly dark humor all the time, because there's truly nothing like the escalation of shock in a writers' room.

In real life, when you just feel kicked around or something goes wrong, do you ever think, "My character would never accept this"?
The only time I ever use him in real life is if I have a difficult phone call I have to make, usually dealing with someone outside the network. I'll have somebody sit on the couch, and I'll say, "This is going to be kind of a performance, and I need an audience." Because if no one was there, I'd just say, "OK," and accept no for an answer.

I have friends who like to pretend they're on a reality show, so that they always feel someone is watching and judging their behavior.
God does that too.

I've heard you used to be a big Dungeons & Dragons player.
From 1977, after they first put out the game.

Do you still consider yourself a nerd?
I didn't think of myself as a nerd even when I was a nerd, so that probably proves that I am definitely still a nerd. But the same reason why I don't care what shirt I'm wearing is that I don't care what I'm called.

Right. And that's exactly what enables you to . . .
. . .  be an idiot professionally.

This story is from the September 17th, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1087: September 17, 2009