Colbert Country

'Daily Show' vet Stephen Colbert strikes out on his own with an 'O'Reilly'-skewering talking-head show

Stephen Colbert
Comedy Central/Courtesy: Everett Collection
Stephen Colbert
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Stephen Colbert the newscaster sometimes performs circumcisions on the air. When introduced to an Indian woman, Colbert asks her, "Gandhi or Sitting Bull?" He has been known to give pep talks to God. He's noticed that the Almighty is always demanding that you praise Him. Colbert's personal message: "You gotta get some self-esteem, God!"

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Stephen Colbert the stand-up comic has some very strong opinions about Stephen Colbert the newscaster. "He's a well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status asshole," he summarizes. "He's not an out-and-out asshole, but he's passionately attached to his opinions." On The Daily Show, Colbert was a senior correspondent delivering a deliberately wrong-headed slant on the news.

Now he's been promoted to pundit and has his own show. The Colbert Report, a half-hour directly following The Daily Show, at 11:30 P.M. Comedy Central, weak on franchise programs after Dave Chappelle went on safari, would love to extend one of its successful brands. It gave The Colbert Report a green light without ever seeing a pilot.

"By the way," says Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show and executive producer of The Colbert Report, "Stephen's doing this all as a functional illiterate. He doesn't necessarily want to let that out yet. You'll read all about it in his new book, If Only I Could Read the Menu: I'm So Hungry."

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The real Colbert is forty-one years old, the father of three and a stone-cold Tolkien freak. He has so many Lord of the Rings dolls at home, they're piled up "like a snowdrift." Last month, when Viggo Mortensen was a Daily Show guest. Stewart secretly taped Colbert delivering an impromptu five-minute monologue on the nomenclature of Mortensen's movie character, Aragorn, and played the beginning on the air: "Aragorn was the son of Arathorn and he was known as Elessar, and also called Estel, which means 'hope' in Elvish. Of course, the men of Bree called him Strider. When he was younger and lived in Gondor, he was called Thorongil because he had to have an assumed name –"

At this point, Stewart cut off the tape, and Mortensen, looking impressed and a little frightened, said, "Not a lot of people know that." Watching at home, Colbert jumped up and started celebrating the fact that Mortensen had validated his Ph.D.-level Tolkien expertise. His wife, Evelyn, watched aghast, and finally said, "How do you even know how to breed?"

Off-camera, Colbert carries himself with the same upright posture and serious demeanor that he employs on camera, only he's incredibly sane and literate. Or as his friend and frequent collaborator Paul Dinello says, "He's like a living wall of encyclopedias that like to drink beer."

"I really try not to engage with him off-camera," Stewart says. "I'm not saying he's a carrier of avian flu, but I have a sense that when it comes down, it's going to go through him."

Two and a half weeks before the debut of The Colbert Report, Colbert is sitting in the office of his head writer, Allison Silverman, joined by producer Richard Dahm, working on a practice show. On The Daily Show, Stewart alternately plays ringmaster to a gang of correspondents and straight man to the absurdity of the news itself. The Colbert Report is designed to have a different feel – focusing on one fatuous talking head means that the comedy can veer off in new directions, a slightly more absurd version of The O'Reilly Factor. Behind Colbert is a bulletin board covered with index cards bearing the names of proposed segments: Who's The President Waving At?; This Day in My Story; Kindergarten Sobriety Test; What Rocktober Means to Me.

Colbert reads the rough script aloud. Two writers have been assigned the same list of topics from the headlines, so Colbert reads twin versions of jokes on Condoleezza Rice, NASA and gas siphoning. Doing a bit on how Republican scandals are too boring for people to pay attention, Colbert delivers the wisdom "If it involves a beej, it will impeej." He tells viewers not to send letters: "It's called a slant rhyme." Colbert takes a short beat, then makes an addition to the script: "Tomorrow – assonance and syzygy."

After Colbert has made decisions about which parts of the two scripts to meld together – rejecting a few jokes as "too Jon" – Dahm shares a series of bumpers to use before commercials, on the theme "All You Need to Know." All you need to know about the L.A. blackouts: "Cast of Entourage, safe." All you need to know about new Chief Justice John Roberts: "Do not stare into his giant hypno-eyes."

Colbert grew up on a small South Carolina island, the youngest of eleven children, in a "very devout but joyful Irish-Catholic family." His first public performance was a church Christmas pageant in kindergarten – he was the fourth, wise man, Colbert left the church for a time but returned at twenty-two. He says, "That whole relativistic thing of 'Any path to God is a good one' – I thought, 'Well, if that's the case, I should stick with this one because I've got a head start.'"

When Colbert was ten, his father and two of his brothers died in an Eastern Airlines plane crash. That was when he became obsessed with The Lord of the Rings; he's read the trilogy forty times and can quote long passages from memory. "It was a great escape," he says. His mind-set in the wake of the tragedy: "I'll think about anything you've got other than what there is."

Colbert did just enough work to get through high school, After two years at the all-male Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, he had good enough grades to transfer into the drama program at Northwestern University. He had long hair, a beard and a strong streak of pretentious arrogance. Then he discovered Chicago improv comedy. Colbert performed at Second City and did experimental theater with friends. Exit 57, a sketch-comedy show on Comedy Central, lasted two seasons – and was canceled soon after his first child was born in 1995. On the phone with his mom, Colbert said, "I don't know why I'm not worried."

She said, "I don't know why you aren't either, Try worrying."

He moved to New York and got any paying gig he could find, mostly as a writer: The Dana Carvey Show, VHI, Saturday Night Live (he was the voice of Ace in the Ambiguously Gay Duo cartoons). He even tried being a correspondent for ABC's Good Morning America, but lasted only two days. "They hated me," he say. "I wanted to do satire, and they wanted someone to be funny, like the weatherman was funny."

Then he met with the Daily Show people, who loved his comedy background and his ABC press credentials, telling him he was "genetically engineered for the show." He did six months in 1997 with host Craig Kilborn, then took three years off to work on Strangers With Candy, a series he co-created that was a twisted version of after-school specials. Colbert came back shortly after Stewart took over The Daily Show and transformed its reflexive smarm into an essential satire of the media circus and the political midway.

"Jon is the fastest reader I've ever seen," Colbert says admiringly. "I'm sure everybody thinks it's complete horseshit, but he actually reads those people's books. I can go further into the crazy patch because I can't imagine keeping up with Jon's pace of consuming information. We both know our strengths. His is knowledge and mine is ignorance."

Stewart demurs, "Stephen's brain has more folds than most people. I like to keep my brain shiny and smooth, but his is all foldy."

Colbert became the show's most reliably poker-faced correspondent, capable of capturing the self-importance of news reporters with just a raised eyebrow, or of skewering religious foibles on the regular segment "This Week in God" ("If Super Bowl victory speeches have taught us anything, it's that God personally decides the outcome of everything on earth"). Colbert's children haven't seen any of his work, though. "I don't want them to think of Daddy as being insincere, and I truck in insincerity," he says. "It's difficult for me to look you in the eye and say, 'I love you,' and for it not to seem like, 'Come on, get to the punch line.'"

The Colbert Report started as a joke. About two years ago, The Daily Show ran fake promos of Colbert challenging people to watch his own show, if they had the balls. He confrontationally advised viewers on the correct pronunciation of his name: "It's French, bitch." Oddly, Colbert's, own family is split on the pronunciation of their name; although he doesn't enunciate that final t, some of them do.

Around the same time, Daily Show's other star correspondent, Steve Carell, moved on to a movie career, and it was becoming clear that Colbert would likely leave as well. (His biggest outside project was a gig doing spectacularly awkward ads for Goodwrench – the money went directly into his kids' college funds, he says sheepishly.) Colbert says he was feeling hemmed in by his short spots on the show: "I love what I do over there so much that it was heartbreaking how little I got to do it." So Stewart, Colbert and producer Ben Karlin decided they would develop The Colbert Report for real, and Comedy Central gave it an eight-week trial run.

Colbert hopes that as his show evolves, he'll develop supporting characters and rivalries, making a motif out of deliberate technical mishaps and expanding the world of "Stephen Colbert." But at the beginning, he says he'll be happy to make a "comedylike substance."

His office has a Richard Nixon campaign poster on one wall and a flat-screen TV tuned to CNN on another. Extra pairs of dress shoes are scattered on the floor; the bookshelf holds one real Emmy and one fake one (for "Most Awkward Moment"). The phone rings: Time for a conference call with Cheap Trick, who will be doing the show's theme music. Colbert kicks some ideas around with the band and suggests they listen to Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," since that's got the grandeur that most newscasts try to swipe in their theme music. He advises them, "If you can put majesty on top, with something that rocks for fifteen seconds, and with a discernible melody, that'd be great."

An hour later, around two dozen staffers gather in Silverman's office to watch the read-through of the practice show. Colbert points me out sitting in the back and says, "He's observing us to see if we can get federal funding. So, somebody be black."

Colbert begins the show: "Tonight, Tom DeLay indicted! Is it a frame-up, or just a garden-variety witch hunt?" Then, "The ice caps are melting at an alarming rate. I'll tell you who stands to benefit." He's sitting behind a coffee table rather than a desk with an electronic ticker; instead of graphics, there are Xeroxes of photos downloaded from the Internet. But he has an edited videotape of his interview with Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank ("Or is it Frank Barney? I'm not sure"), and for the segment on gas siphoning, he has two buckets and a hose, so he can demonstrate how to employ proper technique and not pass out from the fumes.

The show hits that slender Faux Reilly Factor target they're aiming for: a surreal satire of angry-talking-head pundit shows. On the "Stephen Settles the Debate" segment, Colbert resolves the issue of global warming in three minutes flat. ("Ultimately, it all boils down to which way the seals prefer to die.") He soaks up the room's laughter like an addict and keeps speaking like there's no chance of his being wrong, in a voice he doesn't want his children to hear.

At the show's end, Colbert summons his gravest look. "I wanted to end the show by saying, 'Stay strong, America,' but Comedy Central asked that I say, 'Stay tuned for Adam Carolla.' Since I'm a man who believes in compromise, let me just say, 'Stay strong for Adam Carolla.'"

This is from the November 3rd, 2005 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 986: November 3, 2005