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.
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