What follows is a transcript of
TV critic Ellen Gray's April 10 interview with Stephen Colbert, host of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" (edited, mostly to remove parts where Gray feels she might sound particularly stupid, Colbert having sounded reasonably smart throughout):
So last week — a Peabody Award and an interview with R.E.M. Which was more exciting?
"And I moved to the National Treasures [exhibit at the Smithsonian]. It was a pretty big week. It was a ton of fun.
"Having R.E.M. come play makes you look pretty cool to your wife and your daughter. Might have to put that at the top. But the Peabody's a close second. If the National Treasures made me a permanent member, that might take everything."
What do you think the chances of that are?
"I don't know. I think if [his portrait were] there with Archie Bunker's chair and Seinfeld's puffy shirt, that'd be pretty nice. I've got my fingers crossed."
You've never taken the show on the road before, but other than the fact that we have this primary that unexpectedly turned out to matter, how'd we get so lucky?
"No, we were supposed to take the show to South Carolina, but the WGA strike killed that. And then when we thought the strike was probably going to be ending, I said to the network, 'Everybody says Philadelphia, or probably Pennsylvania is going to be the showdown [for the Democratic nomination], let's go there, let's be in the middle of that mix.' "
Amtrak's been there all along.
"I come through Philly all the time."
Everybody comes through Philly.
"Hey, I've been to the Arden Theater...
"My wife performed down there. It's not completely unknown space to me. And my character's happy to claim he grew up there."
Your character will claim anything.
"You bet he will."
Tell me a little about your plans for your time here — is there stuff being produced in advance? Are there spies in our city even now?
"They actually are already there, shooting around your fair city. Keep an eye out for them. We obviously have got to get to know the city, we've got to get to know the culture, we have to focus on your contributions to American political organization and democracy in the rest of the world. We'll have to learn a bit about Ben Franklin, of course."
You mean about him and the Liberty Bell?
"The fact that he gave the Liberty Bell syphilis. [Also] we're looking forward to Mayor Nutter, we're looking forward to [Gov. Ed] Rendell. We hope the [presidential] candidates stop by. We've got our fingers crossed."
I should have known Rendell would be there.
"Rendell's going to stop by. We have a camera."
[As for Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or John McCain], "it would be nice. Any one of them could get the Colbert Bump."
But if all three of them got the Colbert Bump, wouldn't that kind of cancel it out?
"That's true, that's true. Maybe we could have a self-canceling vortex of Colbert Bumps. Could form a black hole."
What is it about Pennsylvania that makes you think the Spicy Sweet Chili Doritos are right for us? Because here in Philly, we put mustard on pretzels.
Colbert laughed, then said what he liked was "the dichotomy of spicy and sweet in the candidates. Both of them has the possibilities of being spicy and sweet. Chili, Philly, that worked out nicely for me. And the city of Brotherly Crunch.
"We were so happy with our partnership with Doritos for the South Carolina primary, so we were just saying, 'Don't you have a new flavor? Let's do it again. We're basic cable — we can take all the sponsorship we want."
But you guys came up with this idea yourself, to have Doritos sponsor you, right?
Does money change hands?
"No, we just do it for the love of the game."
Which Stephen am I talking to here?
"They're paying for our trip. And the nice thing is that my character believes in [product] placement. I don't think Jon could get away with it. He'd be above it."
No, people would be upset if Jon Stewart did something like that. But for some reason, nothing you do upsets them.
"For some reason, my character can get away with a lot. My character reminds me a lot of me in this way, in that I'm the youngest of 11 children. All my brothers and sisters used to say to me, 'You get away with everything.'"
I'm the oldest of seven, and I agree that the youngest tended to get away with more, but I think it's hard to become too self-centered in a large family.
"Being the youngest kind of makes you like an only child in a family of 11, because you get all this attention and you get all this freedom because your parents — at least ours — they were just too tired."
I've gotten the feeling over the past several years that some of Jon Stewart's fans are beginning to scare him — particularly the members of the Television Critics Association who voted for "The Daily Show" as best news or information show a few years ago. (I think I voted for "Nightline" that year.) I'd think, though, that some of the fans of Stephen Colbert might really be scary.
"They might be [scary]. I would go so far as to say they might be disturbed."
Does it every worry you? Especially when they scurry to obey your every command?
"No, that part I like. They are a mercenary army. I do not have entire control of them. I can suggest things for them to do but I can't really turn them off. I can only turn them on, if you know what I mean."
And that doesn't worry you?
"No. I'm careful where I point them."
(As an example, I mention the Peabody stickers showing up on bags of Doritos at Colbert's behest.)
"That's fantastic. We're not going to talk about that for a little while, because we're in Pennsylvania, but when we come back from Penn, we're going to start dealing with that. Because there's some nice video out there of people plastering all the Doritos at a shop with the Peabody stickers. I mean, Doritos should be grateful — they're a Peabody Award-winning snack, the very first.
"I wouldn't eat them. I'd keep those bags closed. They're more valuable than when they're open.
"I've actually been asked to sign a bag, with the Peabody sticker on it. It was pretty cool...I was in Buffalo, and someone walked up to me with a bag with a sticker on it, and I was so pleased to sign it. I love engaging the audience with a game and having them play along.
"One of the things that makes me proud about our show is that we've found ways to engage an audience on par. You may think I tell them to do something, but we respond to their initiations as well. It's not just me telling them what to do. Sometimes they'll do something and we'll react to what they're doing."
They do seem to feel as if they're being heard.
"We acknowledge that it's happening."
I'm just glad that you're not really that guy.
"You're glad? Talk to my wife."
It looked to me as if you broke character a little bit at the end of the Madeleine Albright interview the other night. Is it difficult dealing with people who clearly know you're not the guy you're playing and sometimes forget to play along?
"I never want them to play along; I want them to play themselves. Too often people try to play along and then they're not themselves, they're not actually presenting their idea intellectually. They're not presenting their beliefs or making their arguments. They think they have to satisfy some need I have.
"But I say the same thing to everyone, which is, 'I'm ignorant, willfully ignorant, about what you're going to talk about. But I'm going to be passionate about it. Disabuse me of my ignorance with what you believe to be the truth of your belief or your book or your political position. Because that genuine resistance to my ignorance is where the comedy happens.'
"When someone won't actually be themselves, when they think they have to play my game to me is when the interviews go to hell."
I did think it was a decent interview, though.
"I loved her to death."
But at the end you clearly were more fond of her than you would be if you were completely in character.
"Listen, the character's on a sliding scale. I dial it up and I dial it down, based on the feel of the guest. Sometimes there's a lot of resistance, or sometimes there's a particular idea that is worth my character embracing and us satirizing or maybe there's something worth myself attacking and actually editorially embracing, if you know what I mean. But sometimes, you know, I figure we'll land in the middle. And I would say Albright kind of lands in the middle there. Because I don't want to be too aggressive against her, especially right now in a very fractured political season.
"My character's a great fan of conventional wisdom. He's not so much a fan of Bush as he is a fan of monolithism. One overriding conventional wisdom and toeing the line on the laziest way of thinking. But, while there's still a lot of options, a lot of decisions being made, it's much harder to be a lazy thinker. I can't just say, 'OK, it's Clinton.' Or, 'It's Obama,' or, 'It's McCain.' There is not one monolithic power structure for me to get behind. That's going to shake out into two by this summer and one by next November, and our game will settle down. Right now I have to play the character far, far looser than I had to do during the beginning of the show. Because there is not one political thought to get behind. It's a fractured atmosphere.
[As for Albright], "I can't just attack her. I have to walk through the woods of ideas with her."
It occurred to me during the R.E.M. interview that "The Colbert Report" had reached a point in the culture where you could probably get people to come on who would never ordinarily think about doing a basic-cable late-night show, though I'm happy to see you continue to have people like that garbage-architecture guy on. Has booking become a lot easier? Is there a dream guest who's so far eluded you?
"That's nice of you to say because I'm glad that people like that. What we try to pursue is what interests us. Big guests are not that big of a deal for me. I mean, it's great for ratings and everything and certainly I'd love it if the candidates came on. But it's not necessary because my character gets interested in something — and often it's something that I'm interested in myself — and we can elevate that to the idea of a big story because anything my character cares about becomes important enough for news.
"I remember the night the Canadian government fell and [California Congressman Randy] "Duke" Cunningham was caught with the single largest bribery case in the history of Congress. O'Reilly did the entire evening on the supposed war on Christmas. Which is completely fabricated. And yet he made them more important than those two stories because he actually cared about it...
"The nice thing about my show is that anything I decide is news is news. That's why I can have the garbage guy on and it's just as good as having the candidate or the adviser."
But is there a dream guest? Besides the pope?
"J.D. Salinger would be nice."
Also, "I would like to talk to the candidates, I would like to talk to artistic figures like R.E.M., who have some sort of political point of view, who are also great artists. I'd like to do more of that. The opportunities, or rather the context for talking to them, is a rarer thing for my character."
It seems as if the character's evolving.
"When the show started, everyone said, 'Oh, it's O'Reilly.' But every time we do a show like R.E.M. or singing with John Legend or when I have a metaphor-off with Sean Penn or ...the Green Screen Challenge or we run for president, when we do these things that are aberrant, I always say to my staff afterward, 'Remember, it's just like O'Reilly.' Because a year and a half ago, we really stopped doing O'Reilly's show. But that's still the take on our show.
"We've really gone far afield. Really since I saw the monolithic nature of political thought changing, about 18 months ago."
As for O'Reilly, "he's still always going to be a model in terms of ego, because that willful ego is something that's always going to be at the heart of the character. But I certainly don't watch his show anymore."
Was the White House Correspondents Dinner two years ago a turning point? Not so much the dinner, but the YouTube phenomenon it became?
"Probably. I would say it woke me up to the investment that some people had made in what my character was saying. I didn't actually read the blogosphere reaction, because I thought it wouldn't be good for for me — it wouldn't help me be funny. My wife has saved everything, like thousands of pages — she literally has — and I'll read it someday, but I tried not to pay attention to that. But it certainly changed people's knowledge of me. We became known on a much broader level as a show. And that was only good for us."
I had an e-mail this morning from Comcast, announcing they'd be offering papal masses On Demand. I don't know what to do with that — I'm just throwing it out there.
"You are kidding. I've got to get me one of them. I have a ticket to Yankee Stadium when the pope is here. I'm thrilled."
I don't think you're going to get him as a guest.