Five Minutes With: Stephen Colbert

By Elana Berkowitz and Amy Schiller

As one of America's finest voices in fake news reporting, Stephen Colbert's straight guy blue suit, arched eyebrows and deadpan seriousness have become highlights of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," where he is the senior correspondent. As cable news increasingly becomes a sad parody of itself, "The Daily Show," an actual parody show, remains profoundly funny and totally relevant. Prior to joining "The Daily Show" at its birth in 1996, Colbert spent years in the trenches of the sketch comedy world, including a stop at Chicago's famed Second City, where he met Paul Dinello and Amy Sedaris. The three of them went on to create the Comedy Central series "Strangers With Candy," a really twisted take on the after-school special, staring a former junkie prostitute turned loserish high school student. This fall, a "Strangers with Candy" feature film will be released. Meanwhile, Colbert will be starring in his own Comedy Central show called, naturally, "The Colbert Report." (Remember, the "t" in the name is silent because, as Colbert himself explains, "It's French, bitch!")

Stephen Colbert spoke with Campus Progress about mocking our nation's foibles, meeting Bill Clinton, and making everything stupider.

CP: When you were developing your super straight guy look and sound, which actual media personalities did you model yourself after?

SC: First of all, I am a super straight guy. I grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, and I am perfectly comfortable in blue blazers, khaki pants, Brooks Brothers suits and regimental striped ties. It's just genetic. I love a cocktail party with completely vacuous conversation, because I grew up in it.

But in terms of who I channel, my natural inclination was Stone Phillips, who has the greatest neck in journalism. And he's got the most amazingly severe head tilt at the end of tragic statements, like "there were no...survivors." He just tilts his head a bit on that "survivors" as if to say "It's true. It's sad. There were none."

CP: Plus, his name has that sort of Republican porn star vibe to it.

SC: Exactly, if it were Stone Fill-Up then it would really be a porn star name.

And then I also used Geraldo Rivera, because he's got this great sense of mission. He just thinks he's gonna change the world with this report. He's got that early seventies hip trench coat "busting this thing wide open" look going on. So those two guys. And Peter Mansbridge obviously.

CP: Naturally.

SC: (Loud crunching sounds.) Wait, wait, I gotta do something for a second. (More loud crunching sounds.)

CP: Are you hiking through the mountains?

SC: Yes, actually, I’m on the side of El Capitan. I'm about to summit, but I just realized there's no one on belay. No, actually, I just had to get out of my car to get a ticket at the parking garage. What were you asking?

CP: You do "This Week in God." Which is one of our favorite segments. You're from a South Carolinian religious family and you are a church-goer yourself. Why did you choose to focus so heavily on religion right now?

SC: We used to do This Week in God only once a month, but if there was room on the show we could do it every week! There is so much religion in public life. It has become acceptable for court decisions to be based on the Gospel. There's so much religion in public life. It's a religious pandemic. It's everywhere. It's not a needle in a haystack. We throw away stories every week. I know we're not a secular state like France which has it in their constitution, but boy I wish our founding fathers had been at little clearer in that First Amendment.

CP: We are living in a pretty absurd time. Are there ever any news incidents that were so absurd you can't make them funny?

SC: Well, obviously real tragedy, like the London bombing, is off limits. No one wants to do comedy about that. But I would say there's almost nothing that can't be mocked on a certain level as long as it doesn't involve loss of life or deep human tragedy. I don't think we ever looked at something and said that's too ridiculous to make more ridiculous. Contrary to what people may say, there's no upper limit to stupidity. We can make everything stupider.

CP: Speaking of stupid, who are some the most unintentionally funny figures in American politics?

SC: You know Rick Santorum? The one who compared being gay to fucking a dog? That's a good one. Who else is good? The entire Supreme Court is pretty funny when they denied medical marijuana when there's a man named William Rehnquist who wrote a dissenting opinion, who's the Chief Justice who happens to be dying of cancer. That must have been a pretty hilarious conversation back in the chambers: "Listen Bill, we know you're dying of cancer but we just can't have you rolling a joint!" That must have been a great conversation.

CP: Clearly, your work on "The Daily Show" requires you to be reading multiple news sources every day. But before this, you were a career comedian who didn't focus on politics. Were you always interested in these issues?

SC: I've always been a news junkie but I never wrote political satire before "The Daily Show."

CP: It seems like some comedians don't want to touch political comedy. Why?

SC: Well, you have to have a passionate opinion; otherwise you sound false. You end up telling the audience jokes they’ve already heard. The example I think of when I was just starting out was Ted Kennedy drinking jokes. Like, "Ted Kennedy—'nuff said." That's not a joke—that's a flippant cynical dismissal of someone in politics. It inures the audience to feeling or thought so it's not satire. I had no interest in something like that. But at "The Daily Show," Jon asks us to have an opinion, and it turned out I had one.

CP: What about your new show? Can we get a preview?

SC: I'm really excited about more me. I think 30 minutes of me is really what America wants. I think they've been longing for it and I'm so glad we could finally give it to them. For long enough, they've suffered in silence.

CP: What percentage of your student viewers are stoned when they watch "The Daily Show"? Bill O'Reilly seemed to think your viewership contained quite a large number of stoned slackers.

SC: I'd say...ahhh... This is on a scale of 1-100, right? I think the percentage is based on whatever channel it is on in the cable market, like in New York, we're channel 49, so 49% of people are high while watching. In South Carolina, where I'm from, we are on a channel in the low seventies, so around 70% of people are stoned.

CP: There've been all these reports about young people who rely on the "The Daily Show" as a primary news source. When you heard that, were you like "what the hell?" Do you feel responsibility?

SC: No responsibility, I just feel sorry for the people who only get their news from us because they're missing half the joke. Yes, we do a joke on what the news is, but the other half is on how the news is reported. So, if they watch the nightly news or cable news program, they'll enjoy our show more.

I do want to see a statistic or comparison of people who before "The Daily Show" they didn't get their news from anywhere but us. That would be significant but I've never seen anyone bring those numbers.

CP: The "Indecision 2004" DVD came out recently. It was great stuff. During that coverage, what was your moment of greatest comedic joy or of deepest despair?

SC: The moment of greatest comedic joy was [when] I did a piece on how diverse the Democratic party is at the DNC. I found—these are the terms I used—a gay guy, a tree hugger, a Jew, a black guy, a lesbian, an Indian, a hippie and I just assembled them and talked about the issues in the way the press does, in the most rudimentary and reductive way. It showed how the Democratic party was a hodgepodge of people who have a hard time agreeing because they all have different agendas. And the piece went well, but the highlight was that the night it was on the show, Bill Clinton was the guest and Clinton came back and found me. He said "That was hilay-rious! How'd you find those people?" Here is the master of coalitions and he wanted to know how I found all those people for this false coalition panel. We talked a while about what is funny and hard about getting Democrats to talk to each other. It was a real joy for me to talk with the president about it.

And the low point was the Republican National Convention, just because I couldn't get people to talk to me. It was like banging my head against a brick wall.

CP: Was that because they suspected you?

SC: Well, they have huge contempt for reporters in general, whether they knew who I was or not. I had to compliment a woman on her blouse to get her to talk to me—and that woman turned out to be friend of mine's sister.

Also, they were really focused, I think, even if they didn't know my deal, they were focused on the stage or the podium. There wasn't a lot of downtime at the Republican National Convention—the Democrats are a little more freewheeling. So you couldn't catch people between events, because they were such good soldiers. They were so excited to see Rudy Giuliani and then so excited to see George Pataki and then, so excited for, I don't know, Gerald McRaney, formerly of TV's "Major Dad."

CP: So Republicans pay attention while the Democrats are smoking cigarettes under the bleachers.

SC: Well, we hope it's cigarettes.

CP: How do you keep finding people to interview on "The Daily Show" who either don't know the interview is satirical or are willing to play along?

SC: Everyone knows what the show is at this point, but they don't understand where we're going with the conversation. I talk to them for hours and you're seeing the 3-4 questions that are important to my segment. They don't necessarily perceive a 3 minute edit out of a 3 hour conversation. I don't make a big deal out of being funny, and then we do our best to bring 'em back alive in editing.

CP: Some critics have accused "The Daily Show" of being overly liberal though you have mix of Democrat and Republican guests, and liberals are the butt of jokes sometimes. How do you respond to the critique?

SC: Um, we are liberal, but Jon's very respectful of the Republican guests, and, listen, if liberals were in power it would be easier to attack them, but Republicans have the executive, legislative and judicial branches, so making fun of Democrats is like kicking a child, so it's just not worth it.

CP: When's the "Strangers With Candy" movie coming out?

SC: October 21 is when the movie comes out.

CP: That is so exciting; we can't tell you how much we miss that show.

SC: And "The Colbert Report" starts that Monday, October the 17th.

CP: So you have a banner week!

SC: It's going to be Oct-olbert, I've decided. That's an exclusive, haven't used that line with anyone else!
 

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