This weekend's New Yorker Festival featured a one-on-one interview with Stephen Colbert — the man, not the character — moderated by Ariel Levy, who once appeared on his show to discuss her book Female Chauvinist Pigs, which apparently gave him license to compliment her on her "hot little bod." That was within the first minute, and it got better from there.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: Colbert is a mensch, through and through, and everything he said confirmed that he operates from a position of decency and inherent morality, even as he plays an obnoxious, self-aggrandizing blowhard who loves George Bush and reveres Bill O'Reilly. The difference is, the man himself doesn't quite share those opinions — but he shared more than a few others last night, and it was awesome. The most faithful rendering possible follows — I live-Twittered it on my Blackberry (start at the bottom and read upwards), so it's only as complete as my horribly-cramped fingers could allow — but it was worth it, to share the magic with you.
Colbert On his Character:
- Colbert was brought up to be polite — a gentlemanly South Carolina boy, who married his hometown sweetheart — so initially it was a challenge to overcome that: "It's not in my nature to be a jerk — but I do enjoy it."
(He regrets having offended Barney Frank, who he thinks is still mad.)
How the character formed: Originally based on Geraldo Rivera and Stone Philips — "national reporters with a real sense of mission." Then he looked around and realized that the real bombast was coming from commentators...like Bill O'Reilly. And it went from there.
His character, said Colbert, has "an unexamined life." Levy asks him if he's examined it; Colbert says, yes, they have a bio on the character that they are constantly adding to — he has a dog named Gipper, he went to Dartmouth, he dated Laura Ingraham. He says it on the show, it goes in the bio. But it's been an evolving process, right from the start: "I did not intend for this character to take my name." Oops.
Also of the screen Colbert: "Like everyone else, he wants to be loved, he just doesn't value curiosity or knowledge" Also, a key point: "He's a victim." This, said Colbert, is what "amazing" about guys like Bill O"Reilly: "He trumpets his power while in the same breath declaring his victimhood." (As evidence, he cited a long line of Presidents, gazillion Christian members of Congress.) On the victimhood point, he dings McCain for his recent bellyaching: "Life isn't fair...it's completely unfair that you're unlikeable." Ouch! (Earlier, he had acknowledged his liberal leanings and joked that he was a "pinko.")
He tells his guests: "My character is an idiot. So come on an disabuse me of my ignorance." He recalled the moment when he was about to say that to O'Reilly, and then pausing briefly as the irony sank in. Then he went ahead and gave his usual speech; O'Reilly didn't seem to notice anything.
Colbert On His Pre-"Daily Show" Experience:
- Colbert aficionados will know that he was previously part of the "Strangers With Candy" team with Amy Sedaris and Paul Dinello (he mentioned it to a smattering of applause - "That's why we were canceled"). They showed a clip from the show involving the phrase "my vagina is on fire." If that isn't typical New Yorker fest material I don't known what is. I think it also came up at the event with Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon.
He is also, awesomely, the voice of Ace of Ace + Gary, aka "The Ambiguously Gay Duo" from SNL's TV Funhouse (with Steve Carell as Gary). He favored us with a sampling: "Good job, Friend of Friends!" "I'll massage us out of here!". Awesome. Apropos of nothing, I have always thought that Michael Chertoff looked like Big Head.
Prior to working at the Daily Show, he - randomly - worked briefly at "Good Morning America" doing funny news reports. When he applied at the Daily Show with SNL and ABC News on his resume, exec producer Madeline Smithberg said he has pretty much the perfect qualifications.
How he met Jon Stewart: Actually, he was hired but had yet to meet Jon, who had just been hired as host. There was a press conference with the head of Comedy Central to announce it, and Colbert, newly-minted correspondent, said, "Shouldn't we be covering this?" So off he went, and asked a question, announcing himself as "Stephen Colbert, Daily Show" and asked something like, "It was my understanding that I was in the running to host the Daily Show, how does your appointment affect my chances?" Jon looked over at the head of Comedy Central and said, "I thought you said he wasn't funny." Pretty auspicious beginning, I'd say.
On the White House Correspondents' Dinner:
He ran through the entire WHCD routine for Helen Thomas during dinner (remember she did a funny bit with him). She kept grabbing his arm and saying, "Oh you're not!" That came about because she pointed out that both he and Bush were going through their notes at the same time, and it made him feel weird, to have that commonality, so he turned to Helen, saying: "It's gonna make it much harder for me to say what I'm about to say if I think he's a human."
During the Thomas video, after the first part of the speech, he looked over at Bush - who was looking right back at him. "He gave me his best Josh Brolin." Ouch.
Afterward he came down from the stage and "no one would make eye contact." He saw Maureen Dowd with another woman, who looked at him and said, "Are you okay?" Said Colbert: "I thought, 'It's gonna be hard to get out of this room>' No, it was not."
- First of all, he didn't know he'd bombed. At all. "What you don't know at home is that there were 3,000 people in the room , and the thousand people in the front were all the most important," he said — but the back of the room was laughing, and he heard that. "Maybe Antonin Scalia's not laughing, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs Peter Pace isn't laughing" — but otherwise he thought he was doing fine.
He actualy didn't read much WHCD reaction because he thought it wouldn't help him do his show.
Is he speakng truth to power? No. Why? "Because I don't always say true things." The priority is not to be a crusader, the priority is to be funny. Only by being successful in that will he achieve anything greater with his show.
"Do I like catching someone for being a hypocrite? Hell yeah!...I'm not saying truth to power, I'm saying 'fuck you' to power." In the case of the WHCD, I'm pretty sure that power was saying 'fuck you' right back.
(His wife Evie (short for Evelyn) has all the clippings though.)
On Running for President:
He also modeled it on Fred Thompson - he watched the Thompson story build in the media after he'd done nothing other than float his name.
It was actually Newsweek's Jonathan Alter who suggested that he run in South Carolina as a favorite son. And then they did, and the media went nuts, and voila! "We cast the show into the puddle of reality, and reported on our own ripples."
Meanwhile, those ripples were actually having an effect - his poll numbers were...climbing. But when he started beating Dodd and Biden and Richardson, not so funny? "It was never not a joke."
"I was approached by the DNC in South Carolina - 'what's it gonna take for you to drop out?'" And he was negotiating for a speaking slot at the DNC or something when they realized they didn't need him to agree, and voila! Off the ballot.
And, he acknowledged — it hurt. Campaigning in SC, he understood how it felt to run, what you needed to do to constantly face crowds of people and implore them to believe in you. And he sort of believed his own hype. And so he felt bad when he got kicked off. For real!
"They tell you when you're a child that anyone can run for President. But apparently not you, Stephen Colbert."
- Why did he run for pres? He refers back to Bill O'Reilly and the egotism of his character: "I couldn't have the presidential election not be about me."
On the difference between The Colbert Report and The Daily Show
He thinks his audience, while skewing liberal, is a bit more centrist than Jon's: "I think there may be some people who don't know that I don't believe what I'm saying."
- "Jon deconstructs the news, I falsely construct the news." (He repeats this a few times over the course of the interview.)
On His Wife's Reaction To The Jane Fonda Episode
- From my Twitter: "WE LOVE MRS COLBERT."
Here's the (awesome) story: Who remembers when Jane Fonda climbed into Colbert's lap and stayed there for the entire interview? Oh and also she kissed him. Eeeyikes. It was an amazing television moment — very real, with Colbert shaken out of his hostly bombast and trying to deal with the vixen on his lap with grace and deference to both her &mndash; and his wife. Seeing him blush and stammer and not know where to put his hands was pretty awesome — for everyone but him and, well, his wife.
Backstory: Colbert copped to having had a thing for Fonda, and had had her on the show before (with Gloria Steinem). It had been a cooking segment, and both women had kissed him, and Evie, he said, wasn't thrilled. (Yes, she's of a certain age, but as Colbert said, "there's a little Barbarella left.").
Cut to the Fonda show. Said Colbert: "She brought a game...she was a virago, she was gonna out-character me." And that is precisely what she did (see here) . She nibbled and blew in his ear, stroked his hair: "I was completely off my game...it was fun. And I was truly uncomfortable." And after it was over he discoverd that one of thecrew members had run out and bought flowers for me to bring home. He said, "Hey, man, bring these home to your wife." And he walked in and she took one look at the flowers and said (sternly): "What happened?" And he said, "Well...Jane Fonda..." and she said "I don't want them!"
At this point Mrs. Colbert piped up. "And what did I say to you after? I said, 'Don't ever let anybody take over your show again!'" Huge applause.
The best part is that he tried to argue the point on the merits, saying, "But honey, if I'd stayed in character I would have flipped her over and gone at it on the table!" Evie said, doesn't matter, you gave her the higher status. Don't do that. Stephen protested that she had watched it and said he looked adorable. Best of luck, buddy. The only one who's allowed to take your status away is your awesome wife.
Final laugh-line from Colbert: "Remember Carson, and the squirrel monkey that climbed on his head? Jane Fonda was the squirrel monkey."
"No one from Fox News will come on....because they're...cowards?"
Also he teaches Sunday School, said kids are funny b/c they ask the questions you thought were so deep in college.
Is there a fine line between satire and being an asshole? Absolutely, and he used to worry about it. But they do it with joy, not malice.
But, a clip of him "defending" Tom DeLay, and DeLay's legal team put it online in earnest.
Best and worst thing about the show? The hardest thing is doing 162 of them a year. And no break 'til the election. Best thing: "Working with people you just love." They call it 'The Joy Machine' because without that "it's just a machine, and it will eat you up." But there is plenty of joy.
Advice for a young political satirist? "Go to Chicago" - The best improv community in the country, great place for learning and performing in a easygoing, comedy-friendly environment. "And it's cheap! So go to Chicago - if you can't make it there, you can't make it anywhere."
"Take classes, and find people who share your aesthetics, and love each other, and take care of each other" until someone gets a break. (Actually, he said until one of you has enough money to buy a chicken.)
He's not worried about having to mock Obama - the mockery comes from the office, and from the exercise of power. There will ALWAYS be ways to mock politicians. And he's not worried about being disappointed: "Put it this way: He could never be as good as I hope."
- Jokester guy asked about proximity to power at the WHCD, jokily asking if it's hard to wash off. Said Stephen: "Yes, and it got on me again when I ran for president...It's like a black tar and you can't wash it off, and it gets on your loved ones." What a thoughtful and insightful answer.
Perhaps, but for the rest of us, Colbert definitely was.
Photo snuck by Rachel Sklar
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