By his own admission, Stephen Colbert specializes in playing "high-status idiots," a niche he refined as a venerable correspondent on The Daily Show and perfects as the host of The Colbert Report, a Daily Show spin-off that adroitly satirizes Bill O'Reilly's bullying media-age demagoguery. The Colbert Report is Colbert's fourth Comedy Central show, and his third collaboration with Amy Sedaris and Paul Dinello—the trio appeared together on the sketch-comedy show Exit 57, and co-created and co-starred in the cult favorite Strangers With Candy. By the time Strangers With Candy premièred, Colbert was already contributing to The Daily Show, which has since won four Emmys and two Peabody Awards for writing.
Colbert began his professional career at Second City, where he understudied for Steve Carell; he and Carell eventually ended up writing and acting on the short-lived sketch-comedy series The Dana Carvey Show, where they voiced the Ambiguously Gay Duo, a cartoon team that eventually found a home on Saturday Night Live's TV Funhouse segment. Colbert and Carell were reunited on The Daily Show, and they later appeared together in Nora Ephron's Bewitched. Shortly after "truthiness"—which Colbert made the first "Word Of The Day" on The Colbert Report—was named "word of the year" by The American Dialect Society, and a subsequent Associated Press story neglected to credit him as the man who popularized the term, The A.V Club spoke with Colbert about Bill O'Reilly, fantasy role-playing games, and the plague of truthiness sweeping the nation.
The A.V. Club: What's your take on the "truthiness" imbroglio that's tearing our country apart?
Stephen Colbert: Truthiness is tearing apart our country, and I don't mean the argument over who came up with the word. I don't know whether it's a new thing, but it's certainly a current thing, in that it doesn't seem to matter what facts are. It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that's not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It's certainty. People love the president because he's certain of his choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up don't seem to exist. It's the fact that he's certain that is very appealing to a certain section of the country. I really feel a dichotomy in the American populace. What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true?
AVC: You're saying appearances are more important than objective truth?
SC: Absolutely. The whole idea of authority—authoritarian is fine for some people, like people who say "Listen to me, and just don't question, and do what I say, and everything will be fine"—the sort of thing we really started to respond to so well after 9/11. 'Cause we wanted someone to be daddy, to take decisions away from us. I really have a sense of [America's current leaders] doing bad things in our name to protect us, and that was okay. We weren't thrilled with Bush because we thought he was a good guy at that point, we were thrilled with him because we thought that he probably had hired people who would fuck up our enemies, regardless of how they had to do it. That was for us a very good thing, and I can't argue with the validity of that feeling.
But that has been extended to the idea that authoritarian is better than authority. Because authoritarian means there's only one authority, and that authority has got to be the President, has got to be the government, and has got to be his allies. What the right-wing in the United States tries to do is undermine the press. They call the press "liberal," they call the press "biased," not necessarily because it is or because they have problems with the facts of the left—or even because of the bias for the left, because it's hard not to be biased in some way, everyone is always going to enter their editorial opinion—but because a press that has validity is a press that has authority. And as soon as there's any authority to what the press says, you question the authority of the government—it's like the existence of another authority. So that's another part of truthiness. Truthiness is "What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true." It's not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There's not only an emotional quality, but there's a selfish quality.
AVC: That sort of gets to the essence of the character you play on The Colbert Report. He's appealing because he tells people how to think.
SC: "Don't worry your pretty little head. Open wide, baby bird, because poppa's got a fat nightcrawler of truth for you."
AVC: What about Bill O'Reilly and similar figures makes them so ripe for satire?
SC: Status is always ripe for satire, status is always good for comedy. And they have the highest possible status—and that's what we've tried to amplify with everything on the show. Everything on the show has my name on it, every bit of the set. One of the things I said to the set designer—who has done everything, I mean even Meet The Press, he does that level of news design—was "One of your inspirations should be [DaVinci's painting] The Last Supper." All the architecture of that room points at Jesus' head, the entire room is a halo, and he doesn't have a halo." And I said, "On the set, I'd like the lines of the set to converge on my head." And so if you look at the design, it all does, it all points at my head. And even radial lines on the floor, and on my podium, and watermarks in the images behind me, and all the vertices, are right behind my head. So there's a sort of sun-god burst quality about the set around me. And I love that. That's status.
We just try everything we can to pump up my status on the show. There are no televisions behind me, like the way [NBC Nightly News anchor] Brian Williams has, or even [Daily Show host] Jon [Stewart]. At certain angles, there are monitors behind Jon that have the world going on, which implies that that's where the news is, and that's where the information is, and the person in front of it is the conduit through which this information is given to you. But on my set, I said, "I don't want anything behind me, because I am the sun. It all comes from me. I'm not channeling anything. I am the source."
AVC: It seems like you're actively cultivating a cult of personality on the show.
SC: That's exactly what those are, these are all personality shows. It doesn't matter what they're saying. Doesn't matter what the news is, it's how this person feels about the news, and how you should feel about the news. It is also the personality. I'm not playing it nearly as hard as someone like O'Reilly or [Sean] Hannity does.
AVC: It's kind of a burlesque of that.
SC: Right. Sometimes I feel like maybe we should cut back on the burlesque, and really try to do that in a more sincere fashion, and it would really make it stronger. I find the branding that goes on in real news at times funnier than what I do. It's just so shocking to hear descriptions of [Fox Report anchor] Shepard Smith, you know: "Changing the world! He gives 110 percent!" Our problem is, there's no level of hyperbole that can be associated with me that hasn't at least been approached by the real thing.
AVC: How can you come up with satire more penetrating than the fact that O'Reilly wrote a book called The O'Reilly Factor For Kids at the same time that he was having all those problems with sexual harassment?
SC: Shamelessness is a wonderful part of the character.
AVC: There's an innate appeal to demagogues, and your show plays on that. Is it fun to be playing a character who's so insanely narcissistic? Is there any element of it that's cathartic?
SC: It's hard. It is fun, because mostly it's getting laughs. The audience seems to be responding to it, so that's the fun part. But the character can be tough, because it's hard for me to maintain the level of self-assurance that someone like O'Reilly has all the time. He was so admirable in a way when he was on Letterman, because he really was kind of unflappable. He was bigger than any venue he's in. And that's a hard thing to achieve. I'd love to be able to believe that for short periods of time. I'm afraid if I did that completely well, I'd never be able to turn it off. How great would it be to feel that great about yourself?
AVC: Do you find it constricting to have to be in character throughout the entire show?
SC: There are practical ways in which it's limiting. If something goes wrong on the show, it's not as natural to deal with it in an improvisational way than if I were just myself. If I were just myself, I could just call us on our own ineptitude. There's another layer that you have to lay on top of a mistake on my show, because the show is perfect. From our point of view, there are no mistakes. "This is good, that's a discovery. We don't have the footage? Fine, you know what? I'll just do this. I'll draw a picture of what he looks like." We did that once on the show when we didn't have the footage that we thought, so I drew a picture of the footage that I thought we had, and the graphic that I thought we had that we didn't. And those were discoveries in rehearsal, based on what I thought we had on the show. I'm not sure if I could have done that on the fly during the show. Whereas Jon is Jon, and Jon can name the moment in ways that I eventually will, but this character isn't so much in my bones that I can do it automatically now. It's also a freeing sense. Jon couldn't say on camera that he thinks Rosa Parks was overrated, because that's a hateful thing to say. But this character can get away with it, because the audience on some level knows [he doesn't] mean it.
AVC: When you interview people on the show, you're interviewing them in character. How do the guests respond to that?
SC: Some know what to do and some don't. Some people want to be faithful and kind of making fun, and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I think it makes guests more nervous than they would be on another show. You go on Charlie Rose, and it's gonna be standard questioning and you can just respond, but people aren't entirely sure whether my character likes what they have to say or not. They don't know whether there's gonna be a moment of attack journalism. I try not to make it that way. I try to make it as comfortable as possible.
AVC: You were into Dungeons & Dragons as a kid, were you not?
SC: Yeah, I really was. I started playing in seventh grade, 1977. And I played incessantly, 'til probably 1981—four years.
AVC: What's the appeal?
SC: It's a fantasy role-playing game. If you're familiar with the works of Tolkien or Stephen R. Donaldson or Poul Anderson or any of the guys who wrote really good fantasy stuff, those worlds stood up. It's an opportunity to assume a persona. Who really wants to be themselves when they're teenagers? And you get to be heroic and have adventures. And it's an incredibly fun game. They have arcane rules and complex societies and they're open-ended and limitless, kind of like life. For somebody who eventually became an actor, it was interesting to have done that for so many years, because acting is role-playing. You assume a character, and you have to stay in them over years, and you create histories, and you apply your powers. It's good improvisation with agreed rules before you go in.
AVC: Did that sort of lead you toward acting?
SC: No, my mom kind of led me toward acting. She wanted to be an actress when she was younger. That made me interested in it when I was a kid, because she and I are very close.
AVC: And then you studied theater at Northwestern?
SC: I did, yes.
AVC: What was that like?
SC: I spent my first two years at a small all-male college in Virginia called Hampden-Sydney. That was like going to college 120 years ago. The languages, a year of rhetoric, all of the great books, Western Man courses, stuff like that. Very regimented curriculum, and a 19th-century emphasis on rhetoric and grammar—and all male. And very conservative. Then I transferred to finish up at the Northwestern School Of Speech, where it was guys and girls on the same floor in my dorm, a quarter of my class was gay, and I was calling my teacher not "Professor," but "Ann," and she was coming over and partying at my apartment and crashing on the couch. It was a completely different experience.
AVC: How did you become involved with Second City?
SC: When I was an undergrad, I met this guy named Del Close, who was sort of a godfather of comedy in Chicago, and a lot of people had sort of a guru relationship with him, which I did not have. I never got to know him well enough. But he and a woman named Charna Halpern were starting the ImprovOlympic, and at the time, it was a competitive, freeform, one-act, long-form improvisation. And they were looking for colleges to do competitions at their theater, the Annoyance Theater by the Belmont el stop in Chicago. And a friend of mine said, "We should go down and check this out," and he already knew something about Del and Charna. And I went and saw it once and was stunned by how much I wanted to go do it. We formed a team—we would go down on Tuesday nights and perform for audiences at the cabaret, and at the same time, I was taking more of a formal theater training. And when I got out of college, I wasn't gonna do Second City, because those Annoyance people looked down on Second City because they thought it wasn't pure improv—there was a slightly snobby, mystical quality to the Annoyance people, the ImprovOlympic people.
But I needed a job when I got out of college, and a friend of mine was box-office manager at Second City, and she said, "Well, just come answer phones." And then I found out classes were free if you work there, and I wanted to do something other than try to go get an acting job… I was so afraid of not being hired. And I found out that I really liked the people who worked there, that they were really trying hard to do something new and interesting. The form there was a little ossified, but it wasn't for lack of trying. It was just sort of like there was an inertia. I met some wonderful people, and it was a happy accident. I hadn't intended to end up there. I meant to be a serious actor with a beard who wore a lot of black and wanted to share his misery with you.
AVC: Were you drawn to Second City's history?
SC: Nope. I knew nothing about Second City. I liked comedy as a kid. When I was a kid, I'd go to sleep to, like, Bill Cosby albums every night. I'd listen to Bill Cosby Is A Very Funny Fellow… Right!, and Wonderfulness, which are two of his most famous albums. Then the next night, I'd flip them over, 'cause it was the old stackable turntable. I loved George Carlin and Dean Martin. I was one of those kids who had every comedy album. But I didn't know anything about Second City at all.
AVC: Was your time at Second City good training for the rest of your career?
SC: Absolutely. Improvisation in general is good, and improvising material into themes, turning the material into something codified and repeatable, taught me scenic structure and dramatic gambits that work and things that are appealing both as a performer and an audience member, like you know, what does "want" really mean in a scene, and how do you achieve your want, and how is that expressed, and how do you achieve closure? Those are all things that I learned after just doing the same scenes over and over and over again over the years, with my own ability to change. Creativeness, and also taking things from improvisation into those things, originally because you learned what had to go and what had to stay, and you learned it in front of a live audience. It was a great education about what I was able to do and what audiences enjoyed, and the limits of self-indulgence, and the need to please and how you balance those. I found out what my strengths were.
AVC: What were they?
SC: I think one of my strengths was my ability to serve other people's ideas. I'm proud of my ability to understand what somebody else is trying to do and help them achieve it, because part of the aesthetic of improvisation is service. We don't lead, we only follow. You never say no. Serve the servant, follow the follower. And that's very valuable in your life, as well as very valuable in your work. I'm damn proud of my ability to help other people achieve their ideas. The weakness I learned about is that I get locked into the high-status game—the teacher, the doctor, the lawyer.
AVC: You were Steve Carell's understudy?
SC: Understudy at Second City doesn't mean what it means elsewhere. When he was out of town, they put me in. But, yeah, that's fine, I'm honored to be his understudy. My first gig on Mainstage, which is the main theater there, was going in for him. He was a great guy whose material was fun to do, and I was happy to pretend that I had written it.
AVC: Did you guys hit it off immediately?
SC: Steve's a very pleasant guy, but he's very private. I can't say that we ever hung out. He's an incredible guy to perform with. I have amazing respect. He always gives absolutely everything he has. I've never seen him phone anything in. And he'll try anything. They needed somebody at The Daily Show, and I said, "You guys should hire this guy named Steve Carell, there's nothing he can't make funny." It startles me how funny he can make things.
AVC: You were a correspondent before and after the Jon Stewart era of The Daily Show. How did the show change after Stewart took over?
SC: It turned from local news, summer kicker stories, celebrity jokes, to something with more of a political point of view. Jon has a political point of view. He wanted us to have a political point of view, and for the most part, I found that I had a stronger one than I had imagined. Before Jon got to The Daily Show, I'd kept myself from having a public point of view. Because I didn't enjoy political humor until I started working on it with Jon.
AVC: Even Mark Russell?
SC: I liked Mark Russell when I was a kid, 'cause so much of it seemed very easy to me—Ted Kennedy jokes, Ted Kennedy drinking jokes, Ted Kennedy fat jokes, or Ted Kennedy womanizing jokes. Most of them seemed flippant, you know, like somebody saying, "Ted Kennedy—enough said." That's not really a joke there, that's just the attitude of a joke. A lot of that passed for political humor, I felt. The Smothers Brothers kind of did it, but that was before my time. People like Mort Sahl…
AVC: George Carlin?
SC: I would say Carlin's not really a political guy. He's very interested in language and is very interested in the way people behave, and social satire, but I wouldn't call him political.
AVC: It kind of depends on your definition of "politics" and "political."
SC: Dealing with what politicians do and specifically dealing with what's happening currently in government is how I would [define] it. And that's about human behavior and the way we deal with each other in political ways. But I mean specifically things about what's happening in government, and what's happening in our name. There isn't a lot of that. Saturday Night Live is very influential, clearly. Weekend Update.
AVC: The Daily Show is a lot more hard-hitting in its satire than Weekend Update ever was.
SC: It's stylistically very different.
AVC: Of all the pieces you've done for The Daily Show, what were your most and least favorite?
SC: Remind me what The Daily Show is again?
AVC: It was a show you were very funny on for about eight years.
SC: The stuff we did in Boston for the 2004 [Democratic] convention was my favorite stuff we've done. The last night of the convention, I had come back from shooting all day, with one of the producers, who's a great guy and used to work at 60 Minutes, and we were kind of beat. We flopped down in our offices at Boston University where we were working. And we had four passes for Kerry's acceptance speech that night, and Jim and I just said, "Well, give 'em to us, we'll do something." And we got a camera crew. At first, they wouldn't let us in because there were too many people in the hall. There were 20,000 seats, and I think they gave out 40,000 tickets, and everyone came. We couldn't stand still at any point inside, or the fire marshals would kick you out. You literally had to keep moving at all times if you weren't sitting. So we shot for the next five hours, and we didn't stand still for five hours. So I had to do everything moving at all times, and it was the worst night of shooting we've ever done, and yet something came out of it. And we turned it around in 24 hours, and it probably was the thing I was most proud of at the show. That was both the worst and the best right there.
AVC: Jon Stewart recently said he sees The Colbert Report as sort of a 30-minute Daily Show segment. Do you see it as an extension of The Daily Show?
SC: I sort of see The Daily Show as a 30-minute preamble. It's like an appetizer before you get to the main course.
AVC: Do you think the sensibility is pretty much the same?
SC: Absolutely. This is a direct extension of the work they did on The Daily Show, and it plays very much the same game as my character, who is a well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot.
AVC: It seems like it's much more an overt parody of O'Reilly.
SC: Right, sure, O'Reilly, Hannity, there's a little bit of Lou Dobbs, where he rides the same story over and over again, the attention to sartorial detail like Anderson Cooper, absolutely bullheaded holding onto an idea, no matter how shallowly considered, like Hannity, and almost a physical aggressiveness that O'Reilly has. O'Reilly's the easiest one to reference, because he's the most popular. He's the one everyone's gonna understand. And he also does it best. He's an incredibly aggressive performer. We try to include a little bit of all of them.
AVC: On The Daily Show, you're part of an ensemble, and here, you're the whole show. Is that exhausting?
SC: No, it's not like waiting in a diner. It would be more sustainable. I just don't know if I can do 165 more shows this year that way.
AVC: You voice a lot of animated characters. Which one do you identify with the most?
SC: Probably Phil Ken Sebben [of Harvey Birdman, Attorney At Law]. He's a high-status person who's actually kind of a fraud. Very fearful and insecure and vengeful to anyone who will question his authority. It's much like working for me.