Stephen Colbert on why Stephen Colbert is awesome
The ''Colbert Report'' star tells Dan Snierson about palling around with Warren Beatty and Barry Manilow, basks in his many '06 accomplishments, and unveils his new word for '07
Time magazine may not have named him Person of the Year, but we here at Entertainment Weekly think Stephen Colbert is person enough to be one of our Entertainers of the Year. Why? Because Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report is the sharpest, knee-slapping-est news talk show on TV. And also because no one basks better in his own glory than Colbert. Read on and see for yourself.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Congrats on being named one of EW’s Entertainers of the Year.
STEPHEN COLBERT: I’m honored. Not surprised. I don’t want anyone to think that this comes as a shock to me.
What did you hope to accomplish in 2006?
I set out to change the world — not a lot, just by tiny degrees — and grab the wheel of this nation and turn the great ship of our national destiny.
There’s so much going on in the world right now —
For the first time ever, there’s a lot going on in the world. I’m so lucky that this year was the year something happened in the world. Years before, this show wouldn’t have worked. The world was just phoning it in.
Is it hard to make people laugh about the world, given its current state?
I would say laughter is the best medicine. But it’s more than that. It’s an entire regime of antibiotics and steroids. Laughter brings the swelling down on our national psyche, and then applies an antibiotic cream. You gotta keep it away from your eyes… Obviously, it’s a challenge to make light of the darkness but, um, it’s better than crying about it.
How ironic is it that you set out to send up O’Reilly-esque pundits, and now your audience follows you as such? Are you afraid that they would literally kill for you at this point?
No, but I think they would virtually kill for me, because they do most of their stuff online. I love the fact that there is this Colbert Nation out there, because I’m doing the cult of personality, and cults of personality have their versions of the Kiss Army, or the Dittoheads, who like Rush [Limbaugh], or the people out there buying [Bill O’Reilly’s] Factor Gear. The studio audience and the audience at home are a character in a scene that I am playing. I want them to think the way I think — and to like me, because my character’s insecure. And I’m so happy that my audience has accepted that role. And through the Internet, thousands of people get to be in the show as the collective beast, the Colbert Nation. It started happening after the [White House] Correspondents’ Dinner, with the online response, and then over the summer with the Green Screen Challenge and the Hungarian bridge. [Colbert won an online vote to have a bridge in Hungary named after him, but he was later disqualified because the winner had to be deceased.] And I think we rigged the Big in 06 Awards on VH1 [Colbert won the Big Breakthrough category]. When that happened, I realized, ”Oh, there actually is a Colbert Nation out there.” The show is successful on a level that I hadn’t hoped for.
It’s obviously fun to see you in full-on Colbert mode, but it’s also entertaining to see you struggle not to break character, as if the absurdity of what you’re doing is suddenly washing over you.
I try to wear it very lightly. The show was an extension and an amplification of the stuff I had done for Jon [Stewart on The Daily Show], and the character’s attitude over there, while self-important, was variable in terms of the way I expressed it, because I had to be paint on Jon’s brush. But as we started to make this more consistent, my refrain was, ”I can’t be an a–hole.” And Jon kept saying, ”You’re not an a–hole, you’re an idiot. And second of all, if you just enjoy yourself, the audience will know. Don’t wear it so heavily.” And that has been a really wonderful note from him. While I want to be consistent in the character, I’m having such a good time doing it… [Sometimes] I break. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, because if the audience has occasionally sensed that I’m also perceiving the absurdity of what I’m doing, I don’t come off as such a jerk.
Where does Stephen Colbert end and ”Stephen Colbert” begin?
It bleeds back and forth. In terms of what I believe and in terms of what the character is saying, there are some things that obviously I don’t believe and there are some things that I might believe. Maybe someday I’ll figure it out, but it doesn’t matter to me right now. Just as long as it plays funny.
Does it amuse you that politicians and CEOs are willing to come on your show to match wits with a fictitious character?
I can’t believe I called Warren Beatty and said, ”Hey, Warren, would you be willing to do a completely stupid, mentally incompetent bit on my show about how I don’t understand how to prove that we’re live on election night?” And he goes, ”Sounds great!” And I said, ”What about Annette?” He goes, ”I’ll ask. [Pause] Yep, she’s in!” That was a real thrill for me. I think people enjoy amplifying my character’s incompetence through association. They’re reasonable in the face of my unreasonableness, and that they seem to enjoy being an accomplice to my stupidity gives me a great deal of pleasure.
The Democrats rebounded in the midterm elections, which could shift the direction of our country. More importantly, was that good for your show?
Oh, it’s wonderful. Because my character’s essentially adversarial…The other night we used the new Wii videogame to create an avatar of me and an avatar of [soon-to-be Speaker of the House] Nancy Pelosi, and I virtually boxed with her on the videogame, and it was like, ”This is great! More of this, please!”
Let’s sift through some of the accolades you received in 2006 and hear your response.
I don’t know if we have time for this.
Named one of People‘s Sexiest Men Alive.
I get it, you know? I’m not going to argue with them — I just hope that when the people who did not consider me one of the Sexiest Men Alive see that, they can admit they’re wrong. I’ve got some old girlfriends I sent several copies to, because I’m sure the first ones will get tear-stained.
Served as grand marshal of the homecoming parade at your alma mater, Northwestern University.
I’ve never had women’s underwear thrown at me before. It was alarming. I’m glad my children weren’t there.
Received an honorary doctorate from Knox College.
Well, it’s good to finally have something I can shake back in the face of my internist. When I go for my checkup, I go, ”Hey, hey — who’s sticking their finger up what today? My turn, doc!”
A Canadian minor-league hockey team, the Saginaw Spirit, named its mascot ”Steagle Colbeagle the Eagle.”
I don’t think that the Ontario Hockey League gets the coverage it deserves in the media, and I’m glad that my relationship with them can finally give them the national attention they deserve, especially the way that the Spirit has brought the pain to the Frontenacs.
A chain of barbecue restaurants paid $50,000 for a portrait of you, with proceeds going to charity.
I’m a big barbecue fan, especially South Carolina barbecue. I just ask that the people who eat underneath it at the restaurant go with a mustard-based sauce, because that’s my favorite.
NEXT PAGE: Colbert on the Correspondents’ Dinner, losing the Emmy, and his plan to ”get ripped”