“It’s bizarre," said Jon Stewart, quoted in the New York Times Magazine. -- "Here is this fictional character who is now suddenly interacting in the real world. It’s so far up its own rear end that you don’t know what to do except get high and sit in a room with a black light and a poster." -- The character, of course, is Stephen Colbert 3, not be confused with Stephen Colbert 2 or Stephen Colbert 1. -- Charles McGrath traces the history of the Colberts and shows that they are the product of improv: "Colbert likes to say that the whole show is a 'scene,' a term that in improv-speak means not just a unit of dramatic time but a transaction in which one character wants something from another. The other character in this instance is us, the audience, and what Colbert wants from us is love." ...
HOW MANY STEPHEN COLBERTS ARE THERE?
By Charles McGrath
New York Times Magazine
January 8, 2012 (posted Jan. 4)
There used to be just two Stephen Colberts, and they were hard enough to distinguish. The main difference was that one thought the other was an idiot. The idiot Colbert was the one who made a nice paycheck by appearing four times a week on “The Colbert Report” (pronounced in the French fashion, with both t’s silent), the extremely popular fake news show on Comedy Central. The other Colbert, the non-idiot, was the 47-year-old South Carolinian, a practicing Catholic, who lives with his wife and three children in suburban Montclair, N.J., where, according to one of his neighbors, he is “extremely normal.” One of the pleasures of attending a live taping of “The Colbert Report” is watching this Colbert transform himself into a Republican superhero.
Suburban Colbert comes out dressed in the other Colbert’s guise -- dark two-button suit, tasteful Brooks Brothersy tie, rimless Rumsfeldian glasses -- and answers questions from the audience for a few minutes. (The questions are usually about things like Colbert’s favorite sport or favorite character from “The Lord of the Rings,” but on one memorable occasion a young black boy asked him, “Are you my father?” Colbert hesitated a moment and then said, “Kareem?”) Then he steps onstage, gets a last dab of makeup while someone sprays his hair into an unmussable Romney-like helmet, and turns himself into his alter ego. His body straightens, as if jolted by a shock. A self-satisfied smile creeps across his mouth, and a manically fatuous gleam steals into his eyes.
Lately, though, there has emerged a third Colbert. This one is a version of the TV-show Colbert, except he doesn’t exist just on screen anymore. He exists in the real world and has begun to meddle in it. In 2008, the old Colbert briefly ran for president, entering the Democratic primary in his native state of South Carolina. (He hadn’t really switched parties, but the filing fee for the Republican primary was too expensive.) In 2010, invited by Representative Zoe Lofgren, he testified before Congress about the problem of illegal-immigrant farmworkers and remarked that “the obvious answer is for all of us to stop eating fruits and vegetables.”
But those forays into public life were spoofs, more or less. The new Colbert has crossed the line that separates a TV stunt from reality and a parody from what is being parodied. In June, after petitioning the Federal Election Commission, he started his own super PAC -- a real one, with real money. He has run TV ads, endorsed (sort of) the presidential candidacy of Buddy Roemer, the former governor of Louisiana, and almost succeeded in hijacking and renaming the Republican primary in South Carolina. “Basically, the FEC gave me the license to create a killer robot,” Colbert said to me in October, and there are times now when the robot seems to be running the television show instead of the other way around.
“It’s bizarre,” remarked an admiring Jon Stewart, whose own program, “The Daily Show,” immediately precedes “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central and is where the Colbert character got his start. “Here is this fictional character who is now suddenly interacting in the real world. It’s so far up its own rear end,” he said, or words to that effect, “that you don’t know what to do except get high and sit in a room with a black light and a poster.”
In August, during the run-up to the Ames straw poll, some Iowans were baffled to turn on their TVs and see a commercial that featured shots of ruddy-cheeked farm families, an astronaut on the moon, and an ear of hot buttered corn. It urged viewers to cast write-in votes for Rick Perry by spelling his name with an “a” -- “for America.” A voice-over at the end announced that the commercial had been paid for by an organization called Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, which is the name of Colbert’s super PAC, an entity that, like any other super PAC, is entitled to raise and spend unlimited amounts of soft money in support of candidates as long as it doesn’t “coordinate” with them, whatever that means. Of such super-PAC efforts, Colbert said, “This is 100 percent legal and at least 10 percent ethical.”
Just as baffling as the Iowa corn ads -- at least to the uninitiated -- were some commercials Colbert produced taking the side of the owners during the recent NBA lockout. These were also sponsored by Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, but they were “made possible,” according to the voice-over, by Colbert Super PAC SHH Institute. Super PAC SHH (as in “hush”) is Colbert’s 501(c)(4). He has one of those too -- an organization that can accept unlimited amounts of money from corporations without disclosing their names and can then give that money to a regular PAC, which would otherwise be required to report corporate donations. “What’s the difference between that and money laundering?” Colbert said to me delightedly.
In the case of Colbert’s NBA ads, the secret sugar daddy might, or might not, have been Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, who has appeared on the show and whom the ads call a “hero.” We’ll never know, and that of course is the point. Referring to the Supreme Court ruling that money is speech, and therefore corporations can contribute large sums to political campaigns, Colbert said, “Citizens United said that transparency would be the disinfectant, but (c)(4)’s are warm, wet, moist incubators. There is no disinfectant.”
Colbert’s abettor in his super-PAC efforts is, of all people, Trevor Potter, a Washington lawyer who is a former chairman of the FEC and was general counsel to John McCain during the 2000 and 2008 presidential campaigns and has become Colbert’s personal lawyer. “T. Potts,” as Colbert sometimes calls him, is a bit of a performer himself and is now a regular on the show. Colbert once toyed with enlisting a smoke machine to enhance his entrances.
“Aren’t lawyers allowed to have fun?” Potter asked me a few weeks ago, adding that he knew what he was signing up for by appearing on the show. He also said he thought that Colbert was serving a useful function. “I’m very careful not to ascribe motive to him -- he can speak for himself,” he said. “I don’t know what he’s thinking. He can find the laws ironic or funny or absurd. But he’s illustrating how the system works by using it. By starting a super PAC, creating a (c)4, filing with the FEC, he can bring the audience inside the system. He can show them how it works and then leave them to conclude whether this is how it ought to work.”
Colbert says that education isn’t his aim with the super PAC -- being funny is. Nevertheless, he proudly showed me that if you Google the phrase “super PAC,” his name is one of the first that shows up, and the evolution of his super PAC has lately been the show’s big, ongoing narrative. As Potter pointed out, when Colbert began his super PAC, he wasn’t sure how a super PAC worked; he just knew he wanted one. Now he is full of plans, most of them confidential, for more “grand actions,” as he calls them.
Colbert declined to tell me how much money was in his super PAC’s treasury, pointing out that “that’s what PACs do -- they don’t have to tell you.” But there are almost 170,000 names on the super PAC’s e-mail list, and some 30,000 people have given him money.
In October, Colbert offered the Republican Party in South Carolina $400,000 to defray the cost of the presidential primary there in January in return for naming rights -- he wanted the ballots, the lanyards, the press credentials to say “The Stephen Colbert Super PAC South Carolina Primary” -- and for a nonbinding referendum question that asked the voters to decide whether “corporations are people” or “only people are people.” This issue has been Colbert’s hobbyhorse since August, when Mitt Romney told a heckler that “corporations are people, my friend,” and needless to say, Colbert too is on the side of corporate personhood. “ Just because someone was born in a lawyer’s office and is incorporeal doesn’t mean he should have no rights,” he likes to say.
“I figured that if they’d sell me the naming rights, they’d probably be willing to sell me a referendum,” Colbert told me. “I always assume that anything that could be for sale probably is.”
Amazingly, the South Carolina Republicans were on the point of agreeing to Colbert’s proposal, and ballots were printed that included the referendum question, when the state Supreme Court ruled that the counties, not the party, had to pay for the primary and that the ballot could not include referendum questions. When the Republicans declined to pursue the matter, Colbert made the same offer to the state’s Democrats, who filed an appeal. Even Colbert seemed a little surprised, pointing out that he had repeatedly warned both the Republicans and the Democrats that his aims were satirical and that their very willingness to negotiate with him could become a joke on the show. “It turns out that both sides are happy to take my money,” he said.
In late December, in an op-ed for a South Carolina newspaper, Colbert sweetened the deal to $500,000 if the Republicans would reconsider, join the Democrats in appealing the ruling, and give him his naming rights and the referendum question. “Call it a Christmas miracle,” he wrote. “I’ve already filled out the check, and to prove it’s no joke, I’ve written ‘No Joke’ in the memo line.”
The Colbert character, whose taped descent, godlike, from the empyrean while clutching an American flag begins every show, was originally intended as a takeoff on Fox News figures like Sean Hannity and especially Bill O’Reilly. Though Colbert doesn’t much resemble O’Reilly physically, the persona has mastered some of O’Reilly’s pen-wielding, hand-stabbing gestures, and his credentials as a right-wing blowhard are beyond doubt. He thinks that gays will go to hell, that a flaming moat should be built around America to keep out immigrants, and that Christianity is, or ought to be, the official national religion. He believes not in truth but in “truthiness,” a term of his own invention.
Over the six years that “The Colbert Report” has been in existence, this character has developed an elaborate identity of his own, leaving O’Reilly and the others far behind, and has achieved heights of renown seemingly denied to television personalities who aren’t made up. The Colbert character has appeared, clad in a skintight speed-skating suit, on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Like O’Reilly, he has published a best-selling book, I Am America (And So Can You!), but he has also guest-edited an issue of Newsweek and once wrote Maureen Dowd’s column in the Times (and, while he was at it, Frank Rich’s by adding the words “It’s all George Bush’s fault, the vice president is Satan and God is gay”). There is a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor named after Colbert (Colbert’s Americone Dream) and a NASA exercise device (the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Elliptical Trainer, or Colbert) and a minor-league hockey team mascot (Steagle Colbeagle the Eagle) in Saginaw, Mich. There would have been a bridge in Hungary named after him, after he encouraged his followers to submit his name in an online contest, but government officials decided at the last minute that the winner could not be living or someone not fluent in Hungarian.
Fittingly, “The Colbert Report” itself began as a joke of sorts. In 2003 “The Daily Show,” on which Colbert was a regular, began running brief commercials for something called “The Colbert Réport,” which promised to drive “straight past the issues.” The show didn’t exist, nor at the time were there any plans for it. These bits were mostly just a jab at O’Reilly. But in 2005 Stewart persuaded Comedy Central to think about doing the show for real and Colbert was given an eight-week tryout, which proved so successful that “The Colbert Report,” minus the French accent, quickly became a fixture in the late-night lineup.
The blustering O’Reilly-like persona is an outgrowth of a character Colbert had been playing on “The Daily Show” almost since the beginning, and briefly on the short-lived “Dana Carvey Show” before that: a self-important, trench-coated reporter who does on-location stories in a way that suggests his own presence is the real scoop. The models Colbert had in mind were people like Stone Phillips, Bill Kurtis, and especially Geraldo Rivera. “I loved the way Geraldo made reporting a story seem like an act of courage,” he told me.
After Jon Stewart took over from Craig Kilborn as host of “The Daily Show” in 1999, he encouraged Colbert to make the character more political, perhaps by incorporating some of the opinionated know-nothingism he routinely displayed in a point-counterpoint segment called “Even Stevphen,” in which he and Steve Carell (also a regular, before he moved on to “The Office”) used to debate things like Islam vs. Christianity and the goodness or badness of the weather, shouting things like “Yes!” “No!” and “Shut up!” at each other. At first Colbert resisted a little. “I thought topical stuff had an ephemeral quality -- it would be meaningless in a week,” he told me. “I wanted my character to be eternal.”
Stewart said: “What he says is all lies. I didn’t push him, I berated him. If I remember correctly, there was physical punishment.” Then he added, seriously, “It was an attempt to change the editorial environment a little -- a question of aiming the flamethrowers.”
Stewart also recalled that Colbert worried at first that the “Report” might not be sustainable, and says he kept pointing out, “‘I don’t know anyone more interesting than you. You know so much about so many different areas.’” Stewart went on: “I’m not at all surprised that the show is good -- he’s amazing at it. He’s able to weave a character in a way that’s never been done on television before -- rendering this fictional character in 3-D, live, in such a way that he’s still able to retain his humanity.” The extra dimension, he explained, is the other Colbert, the real one. “The third dimension is him. That’s the thing we started to see here. He is so interesting, smart, and decent. He’s a good person, and that allows his character to be criminally, negligently ignorant.”
The Colbert on-screen persona is actually less rigid than it used to be, and Colbert can dial it up or down as he chooses. There is now more of a winking quality to the act, a sense that we’re all in on the joke. And in the last part of the show, when Colbert typically leaps up from his desk and bounds across the set to a table in front of a fireplace with the Latin motto “Videri quam esse” (“To seem to be, rather than to be”), where he interviews a guest about a new book or movie, he usually tamps the character down enough to allow the guest a few minutes to get his or her own message across.
When Harry Belafonte was on recently, for example, Colbert cut him some admiring slack and even joined in singing “Jamaica Farewell,” instead of ripping into Belafonte for being a lefty agitator. A month earlier, in September, the Colbert presence was so friendly and relaxed that Al Gore, on to talk about the Climate Reality Project, forgot himself and violated the show’s cardinal rule -- he broke the fictional wall. Talking about Keith Olbermann, Gore said, “He scares Fox News, and he scares your character, as he should.” “My character?” Colbert cried in mock bewilderment.
Colbert is not Ali G. He doesn’t sandbag the unsuspecting. And he is particularly careful to visit guests beforehand in the green room and prepare them for what’s going to happen. When John Lithgow was on recently to promote his new memoir, “Drama,” Colbert warned him that his character would become the biggest jerk Lithgow had ever met. “Just pretend I’m the drunk in a bar who won’t shut up,” he said.
But in the early days of the show, when Colbert’s persona was more earnest and deadpan, and when people were less used to it, there were some memorably strange and awkward moments. In 2005, the show’s first season, Colbert interviewed a humorless and expressionless Barney Frank, who said, “Ignorance does not offend me” when Colbert seemed surprised to discover that he was gay. A moment later Frank threw up his hands and declined to proceed, saying that the questioning had become too dumb to take seriously.
But easily the most awkward moment in Colbert’s career, and also in many ways a defining one, was his appearance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2006. Mark Smith, an A.P. reporter who, as head of the correspondents’ association, was responsible for booking the talent, admitted later that he wasn’t all that familiar with the show, which was only three months old when he approached Colbert. Neither, to judge from video of the event, were many in the audience. Colbert got up and addressed the president, saying: “I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things. He stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a powerful message: that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound -- with the most powerfully staged photo-ops in the world.”
Never cracking a smile or breaking out of character, he went on to praise Bush for believing “the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened on Tuesday” and to point out that the administration wasn’t sinking but soaring. “If anything,” he said, “they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg.” Nor did he leave out the correspondents themselves. “Over the last five years you people were so good,” he said. “Over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming: we Americans didn’t want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try and find out.”
It wasn’t, in truth, Colbert’s funniest hour, and it ended with a pretty lame video of Colbert, now imagining himself as White House press secretary, being stalked by an angry Helen Thomas. Many in the audience, the president in particular, seemed not to know what to make of this guy. Whose side was he on, and was he joking or not? Yet a video of the performance went viral within hours, and Stephen Colbert became something like a household name. Writing in the *Times*, Frank Rich said Colbert’s routine that night was the “moment when the American news business went on suicide watch.”
“I was happy how it turned out,” Colbert says now of that evening. “But I had no sense that it was any special deal.” Not until the next day did someone point out to him that a Web site called Thank You, Stephen Colbert had gone up and there were already 14,000 responses on it.
Colbert grew up in Charleston, where, for much of his life, the family lived in the George Chisolm House, a Federal-style mansion that is one of the city’s many historic houses. He may have been biologically destined to be an entertainer: he was the 11th of 11 children. He says now that most of his siblings were funnier. “My brother Billy was the joke teller,” he told me one morning in his office upstairs in the building where “The Colbert Report” is taped. It looks like a dorm room, with a “Lord of the Rings” pinball machine at one end, an elliptical trainer at the other, a Nixon campaign poster on the wall, and a desk strewn with knickknacks. “My brother Jim had a really sharp, cutting wit. And the teller of long stories, that was my brother Ed. As a child, I just absorbed everything they said, and I was always in competition for the laughs.”
In 1974, when Colbert was 10, his father, a doctor, and his brothers Peter and Paul, the two closest to him in age, died in a plane crash while flying to a prep school in New England. “There’s a common explanation that profound sadness leads to someone’s becoming a comedian, but I’m not sure that’s a proven equation in my case,” he told me. “I’m not bitter about what happened to me as a child, and my mother was instrumental in keeping me from being so.” He added, in a tone so humble and sincere that his character would never have used it: “She taught me to be grateful for my life regardless of what that entailed, and that’s directly related to the image of Christ on the cross and the example of sacrifice that he gave us. What she taught me is that the deliverance God offers you from pain is not no pain -- it’s that the pain is actually a gift. What’s the option? God doesn’t really give you another choice.”
One result of his father’s death is that Colbert stopped making much of an effort in school. “Nothing seemed that important,” he said. “What was the cudgel over your head?” By high school he had become dreamy and nerdy, spending all his time reading science fiction and playing Dungeons and Dragons, and his friends were all the same way. “Socially, we were out in the hinterlands,” he said. “Living in the social mud huts.” But during junior year he happened to say something that made people laugh, and pretty soon he had become the school wit. It was around that time that he started Frenchifying his name. “I was probably still Colbert to a lot of people,” he said, pronouncing the T, the way the rest of his family did. “But in my mind I was coal-BARE.”
Colbert went to Hampden-Sydney College, in Virginia, one of the few places he could get in. He majored in philosophy and was miserable and depressed much of the time. “Belated grieving is what it was, and it lasted till I got out of college,” he said. The one thing he enjoyed was acting in plays, and eventually he told himself: “You’d be crazy not to take that as a hint. It’s the only thing you work hard at.”
With the encouragement of his mother, who had once aspired to be an actor herself, he transferred to the theater program at Northwestern. “She said, ‘I don’t know why, but I’m not worried about you,’” he said, laughing. “I think it was foolish, irresponsible parenting.”
Chicago is to improv what Seattle once was to grunge bands, and in his years there, both in college and afterward, Colbert embraced the movement. He even studied with the strange and legendary Del Close, a reformed drug addict and a pagan who was sometimes known as the Ted Kaczynski of comedy. For Close, improv was more nearly a philosophy or a way of life than just a way of getting laughs, and Colbert embraced his ideas sufficiently that in the late 1980s, when he took a job answering the phone at Second City (the famous breeder of comic talent, practically a farm team for “Saturday Night Live”), he briefly thought he was slumming. “I thought, Yeah, yeah, I’ll answer the phones, but I’d never want to perform here,” he said. Even after he joined the Second City troupe, in which Amy Sedaris and Steve Carell were colleagues, what he really wanted to do, he said, was straight theater. “I’d think to myself, I’ve got to do ‘Hamlet,’ I’ve got to do avant-garde theater, and so I would quit, grow a beard and do a play.”
Colbert’s co-conspirator in those days was the director and playwright Dexter Bullard, who would call him up and say, “Do you want to get in trouble?” Getting in trouble meant hiring a hall, inviting some critics and then picking a play -- something by Havel, say, whom they had barely heard of -- and learning it and putting it on in a week or so. You could argue that “The Colbert Report” is just a funnier adaptation of the same principle, put together in even less time.
Colbert’s first TV job was on “Exit 57,” a half-hour sketch-comedy show that he wrote and performed with Sedaris and Paul Dinello, which was sometimes funny and sometimes not. He later worked and appeared with Sedaris and Dinello on “Strangers With Candy,” a series that was a parody of earnest after-school specials. The standout on both shows was Sedaris. Colbert seems too bland in a way -- too sane and too conventionally good-looking -- to be a great comic performer. The role he was born for, an exaggerated version of himself, hadn’t yet come his way.
Colbert remains enormously fond of those early shows, especially “Strangers,” which he likens to free-form jazz. But he said that when he began doing his location pieces for “The Daily Show,” the ones that evolved into “The Colbert Report,” he found great satisfaction in the craft of them. “I thought of it as making these little Chinese boxes, with intricate inlay,” he said. “I loved that. It’s like an artist known for his sculptures all made with found objects glued together with human bodily fluid, and then he’d photograph them, and the photographs would be burned and the ashes would be turned into a painting. But did you know he also made neat little wooden boxes?”
By now Colbert and his staff, which numbers about 80, have the show down to something like a science. They call it the “joy machine,” with equal emphasis on the fun and the mechanics, and the engine runs practically nonstop, at very high rpm’s. By 11:00 every morning, a rough plan for that day’s show is established and the writers -- all of them brainy and most in their 30s -- are sent off, usually in pairs, to come back with finished scripts in just a couple of hours. Editing and polishing goes on all day, and sometimes continues even after the taping is done, around 9:00 or so.
The show’s writing process is extravagantly wasteful. Colbert likes to say, “Let’s make it perfect and then cut it.” Every day enough good jokes or ideas are jettisoned to fill another couple of half-hours. Some are deemed too weak by Colbert’s demanding standards, some are put on hold for want of time on a given night and are then forgotten, and some are merely left behind as the show is swept along with the relentless news cycle. “The trade-off with the show is that you can have an idea and see it on TV that night,” Tom Purcell, the executive producer, says. “The downside is that you have to do it all over again tomorrow. It’s a hungry beast.”
Some good Chris Christie and Tim Pawlenty material had to be dumped, for example, when Christie and Pawlenty took themselves out of the Republican presidential race. Other promising bits abandoned recently were one about a porn bunker developed by some adult filmmakers in anticipation of the Mayan doomsday prophecy; one examining the possible Nazi past of the clothing company Hugo Boss; a piece about how it’s legal in 36 states for prisons to shackle pregnant inmates while they’re giving birth; and a little film clip about how Americans needed a new young woman to worry about, now that Amanda Knox has been freed. Colbert suggested that perhaps one of the interns could be put in a box and attacked by bees.
In early October, when Hank Williams Jr. and his “Monday Night Football” song “Are You Ready for Some Football?” were taken off the air by ESPN after Williams compared the golf game between Barack Obama and John Boehner to Hitler playing golf with Benjamin Netanyahu, and said that Obama and Joe Biden were like two of the Three Stooges (he failed to specify which), it seemed like a godsend. One of the writers suggested that they invent some phony video of Hitler out on the links, actually swinging a golf club. Another came up with the notion of a new song: “Are You Ready for Some Foosball?” Colbert had a better idea. Perhaps Stephen Sondheim could be persuaded to write a song about what it was like to be alone and forlorn after football, when the game is over and your life has not changed. He even wrote Sondheim, who is a friend of the show, an e-mail that began “Will you help me save America and football?” Sadly, Sondheim declined.
Colbert, who is good at compartmentalization, manages in spite of this exhausting schedule to make time for his family. For some of the writers, the job is more all-consuming. One of them, Opus Moreschi, told me that he solves the problem of how to balance the job and a life by forgoing the life. “Basically, I’ve never had a life except for comedy, so it isn’t that much of a problem,” he said. Yet for all the demands that Colbert puts on his staff members, he is apparently beloved by them. “There are a lot of unhappy people in comedy,” Purcell said, “and sometimes you get a very radioactive vibe. But Stephen has an excellent way of treating people. You should never underestimate the power of good manners.”
Emily Lazar, a supervising producer and the show’s talent booker, said: “When the show started, Stephen was 41, 42 -- something like that -- and he was one of us. He relates to being a worker bee. He understands what our lives are like.”
Many of the show’s writers also have improvisational training and once a month or so put on an improv evening at the UCB Theater in New York. A couple of them are even bold enough to channel the Colbert persona during meetings, so that there are multiple Colberts in the room, and Colbert himself isn’t even one of them. For all its scriptedness, the show has a loose, try-anything quality. One of the basic rules of improv is never to say “no,” but always “yes” or “yes . . . and” -- to take a premise and expand on it.
Colbert’s super PAC is in a way an extended improvisation with no end in sight. It just keeps adding new layers. Why does he have a super PAC? Because he can and because it’s funny. On most evenings the show’s best moments occur when Colbert is winging it with a guest. There’s the Colbert persona listening and grinning while the other Colbert, the one who is surely not an idiot, processes what the guest is saying, invents a response and then translates it back into the language of his character. The process happens faster than most of us can think. “The trouble with the jokes,” Colbert said to me, talking about the ones scripted beforehand, “is that once they’re written, I know how they’re supposed to work, and all I can do is not hit them. I’m more comfortable improvising. If I have just two or three ideas and I know how the character feels, what the character wants, everything in between is like trapeze work.”
Lazar said: “Stephen has all these personalities that he’s learned because he watches people and has an incredible intellectual and emotional memory. They are gathered in his lower extremity and he can call them forth at will and actually become those people.”
Colbert likes to say that the whole show is a “scene,” a term that in improv-speak means not just a unit of dramatic time but a transaction in which one character wants something from another. The other character in this instance is us, the audience, and what Colbert wants from us is love. The one moment on “The Colbert Report” that is not fake is when he sits at his desk and basks while the audience chants, “Ste-phen, Ste-phen, Ste-phen!” He can’t get enough.
The show also enables a Walter Mitty side of Colbert, which is why he says he will never get tired of it. “As executive producer of this show, I get to ask my character to do whatever I want,” he said. Among other things, the character has so far visited troops in Baghdad; bottled and branded his own sperm; dueled light sabers with George Lucas; sung with Barry Manilow; sung as a trio with Willie Nelson and Richard Holbrooke; appeared on the Jimmy Fallon show, along with Taylor Hicks and the Abominable Snowman, in a big production of the hit song “Friday”; harmonized on the national anthem with Toby Keith; and danced a passage from “The Nutcracker,” in suit jacket, tights and codpiece, with David Hallberg.
So why wouldn’t the character -- this third Colbert, performing an extended improv in the real world -- want to run for president again? The last time I spoke with Colbert, before he left for his Christmas break, I brought this up. He looked at me for a moment, and then his eyes twinkled, and he underwent the same metamorphosis he does every evening. “I don’t think you ever say ‘never,’” he said. “That’s a discussion I’ll have to have with my family. I’ll need to pray on it.”
--Charles McGrath is a writer at large for the Times. His most recent article for the magazine was about the novelist Nicholson Baker.
Editor: Dean Robinson
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: January 8, 2012
An article on Page 20 this weekend about Stephen Colbert misspells part of the title of a segment from “The Daily Show” that featured him when he was a regular performer on the program. It was “Even Stevphen,” not Stephven. The article also misspells the surname of an actor Colbert worked with in the Second City troupe. He is Steve Carell, not Carrell.