Colbert's alter ego lets America laugh at itself
As most Americans know by now, there are two Stephen Colberts. One is a quick-witted, classically trained 43-year-old actor, husband and father of three from Charleston, South Carolina, who drifted into comedy at Chicago's famed Second City improv troupe and fractured our funny bones as a clueless TV news correspondent on Comedy Central's Emmy Award-winning faux newscast, "The Daily Show." The other is the character Stephen Colbert (that's kohl-BEAR, as in beware of), the mirthfully egotistical uber-pundit whose nightly half-hour assault on reason, "The Colbert Report" (silent Ts, please), takes the huffing and puffing of the Bill O'Reillys, Sean Hannitys and Rush Limbaughs to hilariously absurd lengths.
We were frankly uncertain which Stephen would be handling the interview honors for I Am America (And So Can You!), the first book from the Colbert Nation. When an actor creates a monster like the irrepressible "Report" host, interviewers naturally wonder if they'll have another Borat on their hands. It turns out we wound up with a little bit of both.
"I like to jump back and forth between them," says a relaxed, congenial Colbert by telephone from New York. "It doesn't really matter to me how much of what I believe the audience knows. Do I believe what I'm saying or not? I sometimes cross that line."
Taking his lead from the success of the 2004 bestseller from "The Daily Show," America the Book, to which he contributed, Colbert and his dozen writers spent nine months crafting this warped populist manifesto on race, immigration, class, aging and the media.
As on the "Report," the deadpan Colbert here assumes laughably irrational stands on just about everything. A sampling: the elderly ("like rude party guests. They came early, they're always in the bathroom and now they just won't leave"), the New York Times ("I call it 'The Juice' because like steroids, [it] fills you with rage and shrinks your genitalia"), India's caste system ("These castes forever determine what level of tech support questions they are allowed to answer"), bass players ("It's like you made a poorly worded deal with the devil to be a rock star") and talking around the race issue ("If race were a sweater, it would be made of cashmere, and you could only wash it by hand").
Borrowing from his TV show's popular segment "The Word," Colbert underscores his satirical opinions in the book with equally outrageous margin notes.
"We've got a slightly different flavor in that 'The Word' is a counterpoint, and the margin notes in this book are my ability to add opinion to myself, so they're supportive," he explains. "I heard somebody say it's as if I'm reading the book over your shoulder and whispering in your ear."
Books, of course, are anathema to the Colbert character, who holds his truths alone to be self-evident. It's a paradox he tackles on the opening page: " I am no fan of books, and chances are, if you're reading this, you and I share a healthy skepticism about the printed word. I want you to know that this is the first book I've ever written, and I hope it's the first book you've ever read. Don't make a habit of it."
In reality, Colbert's a big reader. "I love them," he says of books. " I personally am a big fan. They're my best friends." Books—particularly science fiction and J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings—helped him through a family tragedy. The youngest of 11 children, Stephen was 10 when his father and two of his brothers were killed in a plane crash in North Carolina.
His teenage penchant for Dungeons & Dragons led to an interest in drama. Colbert pursued serious theater at Northwestern University before a post-graduate gig in the Windy City lured him to the light side.
"I was a drama guy. I had a classical actor's education, doing the classics and studying Stanislavski. I pictured myself doing classics," he recalls. "But then I fell in with the comedy crowd in Chicago at Second City, and that just corrupted me for the rest of my life. I had to go do things that made people laugh because I got addicted."
Colbert broke in at Second City in 1986 as understudy to Steve Carell, now star of NBC's "The Office." The two would eventually share the Second City stage and team up again on "The Daily Show" in the point-counterpoint takeoff, "Even Stephven."
Colbert blossomed creatively on "The Daily Show," where his take on the clueless field reporter continues to set the standard for news parody. His most beloved segment, "This Week in God," lives on in his absence; those are still his "boops" on the God machine.
Colbert's solo shot came almost by accident when "The Daily Show" ran a fake promo for a nonexistent show called "The Colbert Report." "One of the early clues that we should maybe go do the show was that people kept contacting Comedy Central saying, when is that on? We want to see it," he says.
His oblivious TV reporter quickly morphed into the over-the-top narcissistic pundit with a thing for O'Reilly and an irrational fear of bears.
"The character that I do now is an extension of the self-important news correspondent in that I always wanted (him) to be, well-intentioned but poorly informed and high status, really on a certain level an idiot," he says. "I don't think guys like Sean Hannity don't want what's best for America; I just think their idea of what's best for America is wildly misinformed."
Colbert has abandoned, perhaps wisely, any dramatic aspirations.
"In 2004, I did a 'Law & Order' where I played a murderer and it's just hilarious. I'm completely serious, but for the entire thing you're waiting for me to do a slow take to the camera. It's like a 45-minute setup to a punch line that never comes," he says.
"After you say the things that I've said for the past few years with a straight face, who's ever going to take me seriously again? I think that's crossed the Rubicon. It's not going to happen."
Jay MacDonald writes from bear-free Austin, Texas.