They faked it until they made it. Now they may truly be the most trusted names in news
I thought Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert might be a little nervous to meet with me. I was the real news commentator, after all, and they were the mock. They threw spitballs at presidents; I interviewed presidents before throwing spitballs at them. I had crisscrossed the globe to cover news stories, while these guys just put on dark suits and threw up imported backgrounds on a green screen. No doubt they would try to impress me with some weighty discussion about world affairs or the midterm elections. But when I walked into Colbert's office at The Colbert Report, just off Tenth Avenue in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen, the two barely acknowledged me. Stewart, rumpled in a gray tee over a long-sleeved shirt, khaki cargo pants, black Timberland boots and a Mets cap, was sprawled in a chair with takeout coffee. Colbert, neat in a long-sleeved navy shirt, blue pants and wire-rimmed glasses, was sitting up straight next to him, holding a paper plate of fruit. They were already deep in a weighty discussion.
Colbert: If honeydew is ripe, I think it's the king of melons.
Stewart: Nah, I think given the choice of melons…
Colbert: You'd go cantaloupe.
Stewart: Oh, I don't think there's any question. The cantaloupe is far superior to the honeydew.
Colbert: No, every night I hunt for the honeydew.
Stewart: The honeydew is almost a coconut; it's barely even a melon. I think you're making a huge mistake.
Colbert: No, I don't care for it.
Stewart [in a stentorian announcer's voice]: Colbert and Stewart came to blows over the melon.
At last, they turn their attention to me. Their gazes are not, as I'd expected, full of respect. They regard with amused disdain the old-fashioned, phone-book-size Radio Shack tape recorder I'd put on the floor between them.
"I had one like that in 1973," Colbert notes.
"I thought it was a chaise," Stewart says. "I was going to lie down on it. I suppose there are two gerbils in there slowly paddling, and that's moving the wheel." He asks if I also brought a calligrapher.
Other couples may disappoint. Jen and Vince. Paris and Nicole. Cheney and Rummy. But Stewart and Colbert have soared to hilarious new heights puncturing the Bush administration's faux reality, with Stewart as the droll anchor and Colbert as the puffed-up Bill O'Reilly-style bloviator. While real network news withers, Stewart's show has become the hot destination for anyone who wants to sell books or seem hip, from presidential candidates to military dictators. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf arrived at the Daily Show studio with bomb-sniffing dogs and a bulletproof facade for the anchor desk. For a Strong Man, Stewart said, he was "good people." At the Emmys, Colbert greeted the Hollywood audience as "godless Sodomites," and at the White House Correspondents Dinner, he proclaimed, standing beside the president, "Reality has a well-known liberal bias." He hawks his own Formula 401 sperm on his show – "the more Stephen Colberts in the world, the better," he assured me – including a Spanish version, "para chicas"; wants Congress to build a wall and moat with flames, fireproof crocodiles, predator drones and machine-gun nests to keep out immigrants; and has a running "Dead to Me" list that includes New York intellectuals, the cast of Friends and bow-tie pasta. "I'm not a fan of facts," he boasts. "Facts can change all the time, but my opinion will never change." Truthiness, a word he made up just before going on air, has been hailed by New York magazine as "the summarizing concept of our age."
"Just understand," Colbert sometimes warns guests before the show, "I'm going to be a jerk out there."
They're the Cronkite and Murrow for an ironic millennium – STEWART/COLBERT '08 T-shirts are popping up all over the place. "Nothing says 'I'm ashamed of you, my government' more than 'Stewart/Colbert '08,'" Stewart told New Yorker editor David Remnick at the magazine's fall cultural festival. When Colbert traveled recently to his alma mater, Northwestern University, to be the grand marshal at the school's homecoming parade, he noticed COLBERT/OBAMA '08 T-shirts throughout the crowd. ("I can't tell Jon I'm dropping him to go with Barack," Colbert tells me later. "Maybe he'll read it in this article.")
Ben Karlin, Stewart's thirty-five-year-old production partner who oversees both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, says that "the biggest mistake people make is thinking that Jon and Stephen sit down before every show and say, 'OK, how are we going to change the world?' or any bullshit like that. They both really just want to get a laugh." Though the shows clearly have a liberal bent, Stewart claims that they are emotional but apolitical. He does not, however, hide his disdain for the media. At a New York Times lunch, when Stewart was asked how his show did such a good job digging up clips catching the president and other officials contradicting themselves, the comedian shot back, "A clerk and a video machine." A recent Indiana University study found that The Daily Show was just as substantive as network television news during the 2004 election. I'm not surprised that young people who watch it are well-informed. I read about ten newspapers a day and three newsmagazines a week, and I have my TV tuned to cable news all day, and I still find myself taking notes from The Daily Show.
Colbert, 42, is a meticulous sprite, a grown-up altar boy who still spouts Latin. "He's new to being the Man," Karlin says. "He's in that first blush of fame that's thrilling. Jon is over it." Colbert somehow grew up an optimist, even though, as the youngest of eleven children in an Irish-Catholic family from Charleston, South Carolina, he lost his father (a doctor) and his two oldest brothers in a plane crash on September 11th, 1974, when he was ten, and his hearing in his right ear from a childhood tumor. "His humor is an accumulation of the eccentricities, mannerisms and jokes of his ten older brothers and sisters, a medley that trickled down," says one Colbert staffer. He trained in serious acting and Second City improv and says his politics are a mix of liberal and conservative.
"Stephen is a happy man," Karlin says. "He goes home to a lovely wife in New Jersey with a new dog and three beautiful children. He teaches Sunday school and knows his way around the kitchen. And then he has this deviously brilliant comedic mind."
Stewart, 43, is an intense Manhattan smarty-pants who has the style and air of a man perpetually slouching toward adulthood. He's contentedly married with two small kids, but he still casts himself as repressed and anti-social, Stewart, whose parents went through a difficult divorce when he was ten, grew up in Lawrence Township, New Jersey, where he said he was bullied as a rare Jewish kid in his neighborhood. "Jon is driven by the forces of guilt and shame and fear of being on the outside that gives Jews their comic angst," Karlin says. "He's self-trained in stand-up. He learned in the wretched comedy clubs of New York."
The two satirists, interviewed together and separately, are so in sync they sometimes say the same word at the same time, play off each other's pauses or slip in a deft punch line for the other. Stewart cracks up at every riff Colbert does. Colbert, his writers say, still has a bit of hero worship for Stewart, and, as a longtime little brother in his own big family, naturally falls into that role with Stewart.
Oddly, or maybe not so oddly, the Odd Couple do not socialize outside the office. "In theory, I think Jon would be excellent company," Colbert says. "I just have nothing to back it up."
A fake news show, The Daily Show, spawned a fake commentator, Colbert, who makes his own fake reality defending the fake reality of a real president, and has government officials on who know the joke but are still willing to be mocked by someone fake. Your shows are like mirrors within mirrors, using a cycle of fakery to get to the truth. You've tapped into a sense in society that nothing, from reality shows to Bushworld, is real anymore. Do you guys ever get confused by your hall of mirrors?
Stewart: I didn't know we were going to have to be high to do this interview.
Colbert: I think we see it less as a hall of mirrors and more as one of those slenderizing mirrors you can buy that you see in catalogs that make you feel good about yourself before you go out the door.
Jon, you're from stand-up. And Stephen, your background is improv. How does that affect how you approach your work?
Stewart: On our show, the last thing I think about is performing. It's all about the managing, editing and moving toward showtime. Stephen is rendering a character in real time. Typically, he's improvising with people who don't know they're in an improv scene.
Colbert: While my character's history may not be always perfectly consistent, if you, like, are Web-crazy, and there are a few of them out there, you go to Wikipedia. There's my bio and there's my character's bio, and then there's my character's history, which is slightly different than my character's bio.
It's got a lot of levels. My head hurts sometimes watching The Colbert Report.
Colbert: Then we've succeeded. We want people to be in pain and confused. I make up facts left and right. Liberals will come on the show and say, "Well, conservatives want this to be a theocracy." And I'll say, "Well, why not, the Founding Fathers were all fundamentalist Christians." And they'll say, "No, they weren't." I say, "Yes, they were. And, ladies and gentlemen, if I'm wrong I will eat your encyclopedias." And the person folds, 'cause they don't realize I have no problem making things up, because I have no credibility to lose.
I heard, Stephen, that you were concerned at the beginning that it would be hard to stay in character.
Colbert: We had many conversations about this. I said, "I don't want to be an asshole." And Jon said…
Stewart: That you're not an asshole. It's one thing for an asshole to play an asshole. But your basic decency can't be hidden.
Actually, that's what [Fox News chairman] Roger Ailes says, that the camera picks up who you are.
Stewart: Oh, then I would think he would hire more inherently decent people. He doesn't have the ability to recognize that in people.
Stephen, do people come up to you in the supermarket and address you as though you are your character?
Colbert: People generally don't. I come from a fairly conservative place, Charleston, South Carolina, and people have come up to me there and said, "Well, now I like what you do." They had a little trouble with our liberal, lefty bent over at The Daily Show. But now they're [in Southern accent] "Good fucking A, man, good for you!" And I'm like, "Well, I'm not sure…."
Your show has thrived during the Bush administration. Will you miss it?
Stewart: I remember people used to say, "What are you gonna do when Clinton leaves?" And I'd say, "I'm really OK not having to make another intern blow-job joke in my life." And it'll be the same with these guys. I'd much prefer these guys to leave than to have to continue to make Lord Vader jokes about Cheney. I have great faith in institutional absurdity.
But wouldn't, say, a President Obama be harder to make fun of than these guys?
Stewart: Are you kidding?
Colbert and Stewart in unison: His dad was a goat-herder!
Stewart: I'd rather make fun of somebody who is wearing their humble beginnings on their sleeve than somebody who has created a situation where casualties are involved. So the idea that somehow it's easier now – it's not. Because right now it is a comic box lined with sadness.
Is there anything that's considered going too far now? The other night you were joking that Bush could woo CNN, White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux with a down-home combination of "wild flowers and date rape." And within seconds you did an imitation of W. calling himself" a dick."
Colbert: Jon has Tourette's. It mostly gets edited out.
Stewart: Here's the way I look at it. President Bush has uranium-tipped bunker busters and I have puns. I think he'll be OK.
Colbert: I don't know. The pen is mightier than the bunker buster.
Stewart: We rarely do ad hominem attacks. There's the occasional one – Cheney, I guess we do a little bit. But in general it's based in frustration over reality. We almost never do the, you know, Bush is dumb.
Colbert: Ashcroft is a douche bag.
Stewart: I think Novak is a douche bag.
Colbert: I'm sorry. I apologize. It's Robert Novak who's a douche bag. That's just fact. I think it's his confirmation name.
Stewart: When he joined Opus Dei…
Colbert: "You shall be Saint Douche Bag."
So it's impossible to go too far?
Stewart: No, too far is different for every person. I would hope that my sense of humanity prevents me from saying things that are exploitative or so denigrating and derogatory as to be offensive. But I don't understand how anyone can consider jokes about this stuff worse than the reality of it. We're not out to provoke. We're not out to shock. There is no joy in stepping over a line. I don't think there's any way to possibly offend in a comedic sense when reality has such a desperate foundation to it.
Do you think the country would be better off if the Republicans or the Democrats were running it?
Stewart: I have no idea.
Colbert: I wouldn't mind finding out what the options are.
Stewart: Yeah. It's sad that there are only those two choices. I think we'd be better off if you had a sense that people were making decisions based less on their future political considerations and more on what they believed were in the best interests of the country and the world.
Do you think, anybody does that on the political scene?
Stewart: If they are, they're disguising it pretty well.
Your producer, Ben Karlin, said that doing fake news has given him a new appreciation for the Bush administration's skills in faking reality. Do you feel that way?
Stewart: Yeah. No matter what happens, rain, sleet or snow, they see whatever they want to see. People criticize our show for breeding cynicism, but there's nothing at all disingenuous about what we're doing. If anything is cynical, it's suggesting that your policy has never been "stay the course" when we have thousands of hours of tape showing you using "stay the course" as a talking point. I don't worry about this generation of young people. They seem to be far more sophisticated and interesting than I remember myself being at that age. I'm more worrying about my generation. We're digging such a hole for these cats, they will have to be exceptional just to get out of it.
Stephen, have you met Bill O'Reilly? He says you owe, him a royalty check.
Colbert: I met him at the Time 100 Dinner. I turned around and he was right behind my chair, and he said, "Oh, it had to happen sometime." He was very nice. He said, "I like you. You know why? You're not mean-spirited like most of 'em." And I said, "That's nice, I'm glad you like it." He said, "Can I give you some advice?" And I said, "I would love it." He said, "Watch your guests. You have an Olbermann on, you have a Franken on, that's a pattern. Your audience may not think about it, but they have a sense of it." And I said, "But you saw how I played with Olbermann. I didn't take him seriously." And he said, "Not everybody watches your show as closely as I do." And I thought, "Take me now, Jesus." I was so thrilled.
You know, actually, I have a genuine admiration for O'Reilly's ability to do his show. I'd love to be able to put a chain of words together the way he does [snaps his fingers] without much thought as to what it might mean, compared to what you said about the same subject the night before.
Stewart: The other night – this I loved – O'Reilly said, "Here's why Kim Jong II did the nuke test: He's trying to influence the American elections, the same reason Iran is ratcheting up." And I just imagine Kim Jong II, in all his craziness, going, "Claire McCaskill's down by three points to Jim Talent. Launch the nukes!" O'Reilly's problem is not his ability to form rational arguments, because he's a very smart guy. It's his ego.
Colbert: When he had Geraldo on, talking about Mel Gibson, they talked about Gibson for maybe thirty seconds. And then they go, "If you're rich and you're famous, everybody guns for you." And Geraldo's like, "Guys like us." And O'Reilly's like, "Exactly." And the next five minutes was just about them. I saw O'Reilly do an interview with President Bush, and he said, "Guys like us," and I said, "Shit, the most powerful man in the world and a guy with 2 million people a night watching his show." I keep that equation in the fore-front of my character.
Stewart: The cornerstone of politics these days is grievance. It's really hard to keep that going when you're in power. I've admired their ability to hold on to that idea of being aggrieved while maintaining almost absolute control of all functions of govern' ment. I love it. And what are they most angry about? People who play the victim card.
Colbert: Like Dennis Hastert saying, "I take full responsibility," and then, "I have done nothing wrong."
Stephen, you recently told New York magazine how much you liked Richard Nixon. Were you being sincere?
Colbert: I have tender feelings for Nixon, because everybody has warm feelings about their childhood. Actually, I didn't like the Watergate trials 'cause they interrupted The Munsters.
Stewart: And Dark Shadows.
Colbert [pointing to a Nixon poster above his desk]: Nixon was the last liberal president. He supported women's rights, the environment, ending the draft, youth involvement, and now he's the boogeyman? Kerry couldn't even run on that today.
Jon, you say you don't think Bush is stupid, but you think he talks down to people?
Stewart: The most emblematic characteristic that I think he possesses is competitiveness. If you read Karen Hughes' book, she talks about a note he wrote about the governor's race: "Fight fiercely. Yours in victory." That's what those guys are about: The operative principle is winning. But I don't think he is in any way remotely unintelligent.
Colbert: I think the way you said it the other day on your show was "Bush is not dumb. He speaks to us like we're dumb."
But just before he ran for president, he was still trying to figure out why North Korea and other hot spots were important.
Stewart: That's being uncurious about the world, and self-involved. But that has nothing to do with intelligence. It just would surprise you that someone who wants to lead the free world would not necessarily know what that free world consisted of. And had only been to Epcot Center. It was sort of like his trip to Baghdad. He went for four hours into the Green Zone and comes back and says Iraq is making great progress. It would be like if we went to the Olive Garden and started going, "I understand Italy."
Stephen, I talked to you right after you did the famous White House Correspondents Dinner speech, and you seemed like you were in a state of shock. A friend of mine complimented you for being subversive, and you said, "I didn't want to be subversive. I just wanted to be funny."
Colbert: I did not have a sense, as one critic said, that I was throwing a Molotov cocktail. One of my writers, Tom Purcell, said this very funny thing: "You threw a bottle of grape soda that happened to have a lit rag in the neck, and the room was soaked with gasoline."
For the first five minutes or so of the speech, President Bush looked like he thought you were defending him, but then he started to look irritated. Do you think he understood the irony?
Colbert: We had a very nice conversation beforehand about that subject, actually. I said how nice it is that I, who am satirical and whose comedy can be critical of the administration, get to do this.
Did he talk to you after?
Colbert: He said, "Well done."
Stewart: As in, how he would like to cook Stephen's hide on the barbecue.
When you came to lunch at the Times, Jon, you said the lesson of the Oscars and the White House Correspondents Dinner was that you guys should not be talking to "the Establishment."
Stewart: It's not that we shouldn't be talking. It's that we shouldn't care.
Colbert: We can't care.
Stewart: What people in Washington don't understand is that we're not running for re-election. We don't have to parse every word for fear that it appears in our opponent's commercial and suddenly renders us impotent.
Colbert: We claim no respectability. There's no status I would not surrender for a joke. So we don't have to defend anything.
Stewart: They believe everything has consequence in real-world terms. And what we as comedians understand is, you bomb one night, you go on the next night and you do a little better.
I don't understand why you always say, "I'm just a comedian," because from Shakespeare to Jonathan Swift, humor is the best way to get through to people.
Colbert: Peter Cook was once asked if he thought that satire had a political effect. He said, "Absolutely. The greatest satire of the twentieth century was the Weimar cabaret, and they stopped Hitler in his tracks." It doesn't mean that what we do is worthless. It's hard to do, and people like it, and it's great. But it doesn't mean that it has an effect politically.
Stewart: Or that it has an agenda of social change. We are not warriors in anyone's army. And that is not trying to be self-deprecating. I'm proud of what we do. I really like these two shows. I like making 'em. I like watching them. I'm really proud of them. But I understand their place. I don't view us as people who lead social movements.
Is there any way to bring young people, or all people, back to news?
Stewart: Yes. Reinstitute the draft.
Say it's your job to reinvent the nightly news. How do you make it relevant again?
Stewart: Whatever happened to editorial expertise? Remember 20/20 Downtown? It was 20/20, but John Quiñones wore a black leather jacket? It was the same fucking show, but he wore a black leather jacket, as though kids would go, "Wait, hey, hold on, who's that guy wearing the black leather jacket? I'm interested in that. The guy dresses just like I do." It is that kind of absolutely transparent contrivance that makes this so much fun to do.
You both had really sad things happen to you when you were ten.
Stewart: I would not put mine in the same category. Is this one of those are-you-crying-on-the-inside questions?
Is it obvious why you would become comedians after that? Do you start it to try to make your mom laugh, or do you think life is so absurd?
Colbert: I'm one of eleven brothers and sisters, and they didn't become comedians, though they are funnier than I am. It was valuable at some point to be funny for me. I don't think I know myself well enough to give you a succinct answer. I could talk for three hours about that and at the end of it go, "That's probably bullshit."
Stewart: People always seem to view comedy as an affliction as opposed to an ability. I think it is a wiring issue. I remember the first time I got up onstage to do comedy, I sucked. There was something about it where I went, "Oh, right, this rhythm feels like how my brain works, and I think I will get good at this if I work hard." But I don't view it as an affliction.
Colbert: I had a similar feeling. I started as a straight actor. I'd go onstage and I'd think, "Wow, this is the only thing I want to work really hard at. I will rehearse fifty times on a single scene, I don't care, I'll do it again." I took that as evidence that I would be a fool not to follow what was clearly the wise thing for me to do. But what the specificity was that led to that, I couldn't tell you.
Jon, you've been called a sex god by female fans.
Stewart: Let me put it this way. I know how women felt about me before television. And I know that I'm on television. And I know that I married up. When I was a bachelor, I did fine, but usually it had to do with the fact that I was bartending or had a show.
You gave up drinking and pot and smoking?
Stewart: Not all at once. They came in waves.
Colbert: At noon, it was smoking, then at 3 o'clock…
Stewart: I'd say drinking and drugs went first. But drinking and drugs for comics – people don't realize how fucking boring it is to go to a town outside Detroit from Tuesday to Sunday and stay in a Ramada Inn until 7 o'clock at night. I remember when I first went on the road. I'd go to, like, Lubbock, Texas, and I'd be like, "What do you guys have, a Prairie Dog Museum? I'm there." You explore every inch of that town, and by three years into it, you could be doing a gig in the Vatican and be like, "Nah, I'm not going out. I'm fucking staying in my room and drinking."
When you proposed to your wife, you got Will Shortz, the Times crossword-puzzle, editor, to help you.
Stewart: He got me a guy who did a puzzle for me.
What were some of the clues?
Stewart: One of them was "1969 Miracle Met baseball player Art." We had a dog named Shamsky. We had a cat named Stanley, so "tool company." There were little things in there that related to her. She got the puzzle wrong. We never got married.
Stephen, how did you propose?
Colbert: I asked my wife to marry me by having it spelled out in nuclear bombs.
You have a very broad range of interests – you like A Man for All Seasons and Jackass, hip-hop and T.S. Eliot.
Colbert: Yeah, I'm an omnivore. I like everything. I was pretty much left to myself as a kid, with a lot of books.
How could you be left to yourself with all those kids in your family?
Colbert: Because Peter and Paul died. And Dad died. And all the others went to college. And it was just me and Mom.
Was your name always pronounced Col-bear?
Colbert: No. My father always wanted to be Col-bear. He lived in the same town as his father, and his father didn't like the idea of the name with the French pronunciation. So my father said to us, "Do what you want. You're not going to offend anybody." And he was dead long before I made my decision. I was flying up to theater school at Northwestern, and I sat next to an astronaut, actually. And I told him I was going off to a new school. I was transferring to Northwestern and I didn't know anyone in Chicago. He said, "Oh, wow, you could really reinvent yourself out there." When the plane took off I was Col-bert, and when the plane landed I was Col-bear.
Jon, I have to ask you about changing your name from Leibowitz to a variation on your middle name, Stuart. You've said it was because New York, comedy-club hosts didn't know how to pronounce it, but wouldn't they know how to pronounce a Jewish name?
Stewart: It just felt like a mouthful. I'm sure there's some sort of Oedipal, psychosomatic something in there I could find, if I wanted to delve into my psyche, which I don't, because repression suits me. I'm sure it's familial, but I just used my middle name that night and that was it.
What were your political influences?
Colbert: I was from this big Irish-Catholic family, and my dad was president of Physicians for Kennedy. So we had a picture of the president and my dad. I was sure my parents were Democrats but then later realized they only voted for one Democrat. The Kennedy pictures were more like religious icons.
Stewart: There was no "I remember hearing Hubert Humphrey speak at the Citadel while I was dating a Radcliffe girl." No moment of shaking hands with Kennedy at Boys Nation. I still don't consider myself political. People confuse political interest with interest in current events. The political industry is devoted to the electing and un-electing of officials, and that can be corrosive. If the Republicans don't lose either house, people will talk about Karl Rove's genius. There's no genius. It will be the triumph of machine and money and strategy over reality. I don't think that's anything to honor or enjoy.
OK: Seat of Heat. Jon, if you had to get an erotic instant message?
Stewart: Erotic or neurotic? Or auto-erotic?
Well, let's start with erotic. Would you rather get one from Mark Foley, Ann Coulter or Sharon Stone, who you said alarmed you by going topless in your green room?
[Colbert leans over and whispers in Stewart's ear.]
Stewart: I'd go with Coulter.
Colbert: Hey, you know what? Why don't you have Ann and Sharon fight? Then you stand up and stroke yourself gently.
Stewart: I'll rub my nipples while they go into Thunderdome, and whoever comes out gets to message me. Here's the problem. Coulter, I think, would destroy Sharon in a one-on-one. But Sharon Stone is one of those who won't forget. Like, Ann would be sleeping that night and the limbless Sharon Stone would crawl up the side of her building with a rock and beat her to death in her sleep. I have a feeling she's relentless. It's like The Terminator. Unless every circuit is out, she will regenerate and she will get a rock and she will haunt your fucking dreams.
Stephen, now it's your turn: dungeons or dragons?
Colbert: Definitely dragons. Because there's nothing worse than an empty dungeon.