'Colbert' blurs reality — and illuminates, too
By Jake Coyle
By Jake Coyle
NEW YORK — The walls of "The Colbert Report" studio are plastered with letters and artwork of the show's fearless leader submitted by loyal fans. In one painted portrait, Stephen Colbert, astride a horse, is substituted for George Washington.
Outside Colbert's office sits a brand new GPS, which he had pleaded for on the show just days earlier. A publicist shrugs, "Ask and you shall receive."
Inside, Colbert's desk is surrounded by leftover props and gifts from guests — a veritable record of the absurdity he's created from this place Jon Stewart calls "bizarro world."
This is where Colbert and his staff hatch plans for where they might next fling their bloviating, perpetually suit-clad creation. Like a malfunctioning heat-seeking missile, he might go anywhere.
Colbert may inject his character into politics and media, just as he might wind up in the Smithsonian or Canadian junior league hockey. He's created a kind of satire in action, teetering between his self-made universe and an often equally absurd real world. It's a constant balancing act that last year nearly had him on the road to the White House.
"The Report" recently aired its 400th episode. Tomorrow, he will stroll into the WaldorfAstoria and accept the prestigious Peabody Award for his show. Colbert says he also expects to play the role of "kingmaker" in this year's election.
THE 'COLBERT BUMP'
The race has been swayed by "Saturday Night Live" (whose debate parody altered how the press covered Barack Obama), but the comedy of Colbert has a different effect. In his hall of mirrors, reflections may be distorted, but never unflattering. A study has even shown that his self-declared "Colbert bump," an upswing in popularity for a politician after appearing on the show, is factual.
The presidential candidates have had to reconcile themselves to dealing with Colbert, and the presumptive nominees — Obama and John McCain — would be wise to play along.
That's because Colbert doesn't demand a particular agenda of anyone, only the tacit, wink-wink acknowledgment that most any agenda — and all the imageconscious apparatus behind it — is a bit absurd, don't you think?
His particular talent is in blurring reality while at the same time illuminating it. In a world where kids on MySpace trumpet a cult of personality just as politicians do on the stump, his act has larger reverberations.
We all have a truthiness.
Hastily finishing a sandwich at his desk, Colbert is busy. Lining the wall to his right are index cards of segments that may or may not make the week's shows.
"Mostly I know what I'm doing today and tomorrow and have an idea about the day after that," he says. "And tomorrow might change and I'm not sure about tonight."
"The Colbert Report" made its debut Oct. 17, 2005, with what might still be its biggest success — the coining of the term "truthiness." The term, which means a truth one feels in the gut rather than learns in books, was a home run in the first at bat that Colbert calls the "thesis statement" to everything that's followed.
"The Report" was then seen (and largely still is) as a parody of Bill O'Reilly's "The O'Reilly Factor" on Fox. While that was indeed the inspiration — a satire of conservative political punditry — anyone who's watched the show consistently knows that its tentacles of farce reach far beyond any simple spoof.
"People say, 'Aren't you going to be sad when Bush goes?' " says Colbert. "No. The show is not about that. The show is not about O'Reilly. The show is not about the shout fest. The show is about what is behind those things, which is: What I say is reality. And that never ends. Every politician is going to want to enforce that, or every person in Hollywood — every person."
The 43-year-old Colbert grew up in Charleston, S.C., the youngest of 11 children in a Catholic family. In 1974, his father and two of his brothers were killed in an airline crash. His mother, Lorna, recently said of her son on South Carolina public television network ETV, "I can never nail him down as to exactly what he is" — which makes you wonder what hope the rest of us have.
In his nearly decadelong tenure, Colbert became a standout correspondent on "The Daily Show," and "The Report" was spun-off by Stewart's company, Busboy Productions.
"Stephen has such encyclopedic knowledge and I figured using himself as the foundation of a character like that, there was no question he could do this every day," says Stewart. "He was just ready. He wears that character so perfectly."
So far, Obama has appeared on "The Report" via satellite and Hillary Clinton has made a quick cameo, but McCain hasn't yet stopped by. His preferred Comedy Central visit is "The Daily Show," where he's guested 10 times.
A politician's appearance on "The Report" certainly comes with risks. In a sitdown interview, Colbert memorably — and in a keen journalistic fashion — asked Georgia Congressman Lynn Westmoreland, who had lobbied for the Ten Commandments to be displayed in government buildings, to name them. Westmoreland managed only two and got one wrong, while Colbert sat patiently counting.
Still, few lose when they enter Colbert World. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's unlikely rise late in the Republican primaries could be partly attributed to appearances on "The Report." Though viewership for the program is relatively small (it draws around 1.2 million nightly on average), Huckabee showed himself to have a better sense of humor than his competitors.
The presidential run in South Carolina was the comedian's ultimate attempt to inject himself into the news, and many pundits and politicians resented the mockery — especially since Colbert was polling ahead of half the Democratic field. Eventually, party officials voted to keep him off the ballot, claiming he was a distraction.
"When a fictional person declares something news, is it responsible for you to agree? Isn't that interesting?" wonders Colbert. "But so many real people declare fictional news and the press agrees. For instance, the surge is a success, don't you think?"
Does it scare Colbert that a fake person can be taken so seriously?
"It does not scare me at all because I don't take myself seriously," he says. "My character wants to do these things. We're making jokes. We never stop making jokes."
NOT ALL POLITICS
On camera, his devotion to staying in character is total, but off-camera he's himself: intelligent, relaxed and quick to laugh. Before taping episodes, he asks the studio audience if anyone has any questions "to humanize me before I say horrible things." He begins every interview by telling his guest that his character is "an idiot" and to "disabuse me of my ignorance."
Many of the show's greatest hits have been entirely apolitical, like the "meta-free-phor-all" with Sean Penn, or singing "Go Down Moses" with civil rights activist and politician Andrew Young, author Malcolm Gladwell and the Harlem Gospel Choir.
After such shows, Colbert likes to sarcastically announce to his staff: "Remember, it's just like O'Reilly!"
It's a clearly frantic, nearinsane job ("I'm tired all the time," he admits) and one can't help but wonder how much longer Colbert — who lives with his wife and three kids in Montclair, N.J. — can keep it up.
When asked this, he puts his head down and is silent for a full 20 seconds. He finally breaks the quiet: "The short answer is, I don't know. The facile answer but maybe the true answer is, as long as it's fun."