An Interview with Stephen Colbert
The Daily Show senior correspondent & Strangers with Candy
co-creator/writer/star discusses his career.
By KEN PLUME
Published: August 11, 2003
Stephen Colbert is perhaps best known as one of the senior correspondents for Comedy Central's The Daily Show.
Comedy fans, however, also know him as co-creator/writer/star (alongside Amy Sedaris & Paul Dinello) of Comedy Central's decidedly surreal take-off on preachy afterschool specials, Strangers with Candy (the complete first season of which recently made its DVD debut).
Perhaps less well-known, he co-created (with Robert Smigel) The Ambiguously Gay Duo, providing the voice of Ace to boot. And speaking of cartoon voices, he also does a few for Cartoon Network's Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law.
Colbert's first book, co-written with Sedaris and Dinello, has recently hit bookshelves the world over. Wigfield is a somewhat disturbing, completely hilarious view of a small town's triumphantly pathetic struggle to survive.
A Strangers with Candy movie is on the horizon until then, though, here's our in-depth interview with everyone's favorite fake news anchor...
IGN FILMFORCE: Am I correct in understanding that you're from South Carolina originally?
STEPHEN COLBERT: I am.
IGNFF: Am I also correct in understanding that as a high school student, you weren't terribly motivated?
COLBERT: Oh no, I was not. I was motivated to play Dungeons & Dragons. I mean highly, highly motivated to play it.
IGNFF: How often?
COLBERT: Every day, if I could find someone to play with me. If I couldn't find someone to play with me, I would work on my player character.
IGNFF: That was the heyday of D&D, wasn't it?
COLBERT: It was, actually. I started playing Dungeons & Dragons the first week it was introduced to the market at least the first week it was introduced down here. Before Dungeons & Dragons, there was a game called Metamorphosis Alpha, which was also created by Gary Gygax, the guy who created Dungeons & Dragons. I played that, and then we heard this other thing was going to be coming out, called Dungeons & Dragons. The first week it was out, we played it and we were hooked. That was in 1977, I think.
IGNFF: What was the big difference between the two that appealed to you?
COLBERT: Well, the difference between the two was Metamorphosis Alpha was Dungeons & Dragons in space, and Dungeons & Dragons was sorcery. I was a huge fan I read a lot of sorcery.
IGNFF: So a big Lord of the Rings fan?
COLBERT: Lord of the Rings, Stephen R. Donaldson, Fritz Leiber you know, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series. Gosh, who else? I can't believe I can't remember more of them. Michael Moorcock, The Chronicles of Corum, the Elric so many.
IGNFF: What would the teenager of then think of the Lord of the Rings films?
COLBERT: Well, that part of me is not dead, really. He would be just as apprehensive as I was, before the first film came out. Really, really, really hoping excited, obviously but really, really hoping that they don't blow it. Because they were going to go in with a big enough budget, they were going to create some pretty startling images, and you didn't want those images to replace the images in your mind.
IGNFF: I'm assuming you had bad memories of the Bakshi film.
COLBERT: Oh gosh. That was really important to me at the time, when the Bakshi film came out, and that was pretty devastating. There's no way I couldn't see an upside to that one at all.
IGNFF: Yeah, I don't think there was much of an upside to that.
COLBERT: No. But this one, I have some friends who work at New Line, and so when this film was coming out, they got me into early screenings and that kind of stuff. Like the 28-minute trailer that was shown to press ahead of time. The summer before the movie came out, I saw that 28-minute trailer. I was just shaking by the end of it, I was so excited, at the end of the Moria sequence. They have the unedited, like, 18-minute Moria sequence uncut 18-minute sequence at the center of it. I was blown away. It wasn't how I imagined it, and it was fine.
IGNFF: Have the films continued to impress you?
COLBERT: I was a little distressed in the second film by what they did with Faramir.
IGNFF: Oh, the evilization?
COLBERT: The fact that he succumbs to the power of the ring. Or not so much the power of the ring as he succumbs to ...
IGNFF: He's a bit of a bastard in the film.
COLBERT: Well, in the film, he says, "You're going to Gondor." I thought, "No, no, no!" One of the greatest moments in the book is when he looks at the ring, he knows what it is, and he says, "Alas for my brother, Boromir. He loved Gondor too much. He was willing to take this thing and use it, but I told you if I found this thing by the side of the road I would not pick it up. And I'm a man of my word." You know, it changes his tone completely. Then, they go to Osgiliath, where they have this encounter with the Nazgul that doesn't happen in the book, and then Faramir just changes his mind? Like, the one person in the history of Middle-earth, who when confronted with possession of the ring just changes his mind at some point? That was really heartbreaking.
IGNFF: He's a bit flighty.
COLBERT: Yeah, and actually, I went to go see the world premiere of that, because they had it in New York, and as I'm walking out, a friend of mine who went with me he knew I was sort of obsessed with the books said and I was really upset said, "So, what did you think?" But Brad Dourif, who plays Grima Wormtongue, was standing right next to me. I couldn't say anything. I was like, "It was good. It was good." But then I saw it a second time and I managed to leap that particular puddle, and loved it. I mean, it's wonderful but there's so much that they don't cover.
IGNFF: I think the second film is the most radical departure from the text.
COLBERT: Well I hope so, because that third film's got a lot riding on it.
IGNFF: Of course, who knows what the extra 40 minutes on the deluxe DVD are going to add back in...
COLBERT: Yeah, who knows?
IGNFF: Gosh, where did we get off on this tangent?
COLBERT: Oh yeah "So you weren't a good student."
IGNFF: Was there anything besides that that interested you? Was there any inkling of performing or writing?
COLBERT: I used to write things for friends. There was this girl I had a crush on, and she had a teacher she didn't like at school. I had a real crush on her, so almost every day I would write her a little short story where she would kill him in a different way. But, in sort of a James Bond-ian kind of explosives in the gas tank of his car kind of way.
IGNFF: Of course, those kind of letters today would have gotten you thrown out of school.
They really would have. They really would have. And all I was doing was I was just trying to impress a girl. I can't tell you how many of those I wrote. I wonder whether she kept them. I'd love to see them.
IGNFF: Put them in a collection?
Or hide them. And I wrote things for the school's newspaper, and like all teenagers I dabbled in poetry.
IGNFF: Dabbled in a lot of poetry directed towards this girl as well?
No. I should have... that would have been much wiser. I hear girls are weak for that sort of thing.
IGNFF: I guess few people realized just what a creative enterprise role-playing was at that time.
Yeah, nobody realized it. They thought it was warping their children's minds. Which it might have been, but it also took a lot of creativity to play it.
IGNFF: Well how many of those people now are multi-millionaires... or were, before the Internet bubble burst....
IGNFF: So, would you say that your parents pushed you in any one direction, or they were just hoping that you would find a direction?
No, they were just hoping that I would find a direction. Just very supportive of what I eventually decided to try to do. But would have been perfectly happy if I had been lawyer or been a potter.
IGNFF: Just something productive?
Just something that could pay the rent.
IGNFF: Was it difficult getting into Hampden-Sydney?
Oh no, it was not. It was easy to get in, hard to stay. They accept a lot of people, but they failed a huge percentage of the freshman class.
IGNFF: So was it a bait and switch?
No, it was a "playtime's over" kind of place.
IGNFF: They lure you in with easy admittance ...
And then they hammered you. It was really hard work. I would have to say it was harder at Hampden-Sydney than it was Northwestern.
IGNFF: At any point were you on the verge of dropping out?
No, no, no, no. I did very well. I applied myself.
IGNFF: How much of a wakeup call was it?
I knew that I had never been applying myself when I was in high school, and so I knew that this was my last chance. So, I worked very hard. The hardest part was I didn't have the disciplinary skills. I didn't have the self-discipline, so it took a lot more time to do the work I needed to do than it took the better students.
IGNFF: How long did it take to finally learn that discipline?
Probably my freshman year. By the time I got to my sophomore year, I realized that you actually had to be like an Ovaltine commercial. You had to finish classes, come back to your room, and immediately start working. Then, after that was over, then it was playtime.
IGNFF: I've never really heard of Hampden-Sydney being a party school ...
Well, it was to a certain extent, but I wasn't Greek. I didn't become part of the fraternity system, which is where that would happen and I purposely didn't join them, so I would work harder.
IGNFF: What was the major that you were leaning towards there?
I don't know. Philosophy is what I took most classes in.
IGNFF: So, nothing that would have been applicable after college.
IGNFF: Was performing something that you did at that time?
Yeah, I did a few plays in high school and I did a few plays in college. I had a teacher there, named Steve Coy, who was a professor there, who was really a great guy. Very supportive, and very different from the rest of the teachers at Hamp-Sydney. He was sort of a fun an unreconstructed liberal, in an organically conservative place.
IGNFF: This was, what, the dawn of the Reagan era?
This was '82, yeah. It was "Morning in America," if you remember. We were all very sleepy. I'm not such a morning person.
IGNFF: I'm assuming that your professor was a complete night person...
He was a complete person. He was very open, saying that the reason he went to the Yale Drama School is because the actors he met had the best parties. And I did some fun things there. My favorite thing we did was Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Momma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad
, by Arthur Kopit, which was sort of a surreal, very dark farce. I thought, "This is for me. Dark farce."
IGNFF: So that was the epiphany moment?
Kind of. Yeah. "These people are saying interesting things and saying it in a very silly way."
IGNFF: And getting away with quite a bit.
Getting away with yes, yes.
IGNFF: Was there ever a sort of anarchic spirit?
Sure, I'm sort of an iconoclast, in an odd way.
IGNFF: Sort of a button-down iconoclast?
I am. I'm a khaki-pants, blue blazer, brass buttons iconoclast.
IGNFF: If I remember the Strangers with Candy commentary well, just not pleated pants...
No, no no pleats. No pleats. So yeah, I have a healthy disrespect for authority.
IGNFF: Do you think the sort of covert nature of that disrespect often ingratiates you towards the establishment, before you undermine it?
Absolutely. Absolutely. I think my look gives me a subversive quality at least I've been told so.
IGNFF: Something that you consciously pursued, or it just happened to be that that's way it is?
It's just I happen to be comfortable this way, and I don't see how I look having anything to do with how I think.
IGNFF: Do you think at the time I mean, you've obviously experienced different college cultures and different performing cultures do you think there's generally a disrespect for the type of person that doesn't go all out?
COLBERT: In what? Where?
IGNFF: As far as appearance the person who seems to be button-down. Do you think there's sort of a, you know "if you don't look it, then you don't walk it" kind of attitude?
COLBERT: What, among performers?
IGNFF: Among performers, or among the college crowd at that time that was still desperately trying to cling on to the counterculture...
COLBERT: Not Hamp-Sydney, because it was all male and all of them wore blue blazers. But at Northwestern, there certainly was. By the time I got to Northwestern, it was an "I'm going to live forever." It was torn sweatshirts and legwarmers, on both the guys and the girls. I didn't fit that at all.
IGNFF: But again, that was morning in America...
COLBERT: But not there. Again, those people were there to be artists, and so they were by nature sort of iconoclast the time was Reagan, and they weren't going to buy into that stuff.
IGNFF: So you were living in an episode of Fame.
COLBERT: I was. I was, actually. I was living in an episode of Fame. Not only an episode, I would say maybe even the pilot.
IGNFF: Before everything was fully solidified and people knew what their direction was. What lead to your decision to transfer to Northwestern?
COLBERT: Well, there were girls there, you see. I wanted to study performing I had decided that the one thing I worked hard at was performing, and it seemed like a hint to me that when I was doing that, when I was working on that, nothing else seemed as important. I was willing to work hard and long, with virtually no reward. Not even anybody coming to the show... not a big theater crowd at Hamp-Sydney. And I didn't care. I was so happy to do it. I thought, "There's a hint. I should do that, then." I wanted to get an undergraduate degree, and I heard that Northwestern had the best undergraduate program. So, I was happily and luckily accepted.
IGNFF: Was it something that your parents supported?
IGNFF: Because they saw it as a future career path, or they just knew that you were enjoying it?
COLBERT: Knowing I was enjoying it ... and that it wouldn't kill me.
IGNFF: How big was the culture shock when you went to Northwestern?
COLBERT: It was huge. There was a sizable, openly gay student population especially in the theater. There's a whole theater school there, it's not just a major. They have their own building, they have their own dorms. I didn't live in those dorms, but if you wanted to, you could virtually see no one else on campus if you were a theater major. You could go to those buildings, you could go to those dorms, you had your own little snack area everything. Your own little field behind buildings. It really got very insular.
IGNFF: Did you try to avoid that insular nature?
COLBERT: Yeah, I had no interest in that. Again, that seemed like, "Why don't I just join a frat if I'm going to be that insular?" I didn't have to, but I still took I had finished my core curriculum at Hamp-Sydney, but I still took regular old classes when I got to Northwestern.
IGNFF: So you transferred after your second year at Hampden-Sydney?
COLBERT: Yeah, I came there as a two-year, and then really had to cram, because it was a three year program at Northwestern, and I did it in two years.
IGNFF: With a theater major did you have a minor?
COLBERT: No. I didn't have time. So, I was a theater major and you know, I came from a place where everyone was a doctor or professor, and at Hamp-Sydney, everybody was Ann, and Bud, and David it was all first names, and if you called them sir or ma'am, they thought you were being a smartass ... It was cold as bejeezus. The coldest winter in Chicago's history was my first winter there.
IGNFF: I guess that definitely would be a bit of a shock.
COLBERT: Yeah, it was negative 70 with the wind chill, one night. Negative 39 in a phone booth like negative 39 with no wind.
IGNFF: Did that make you reconsider your choice in schools?
COLBERT: No, absolutely not. I loved it there.
IGNFF: How intense was the theater program at Northwestern?
COLBERT: I don't have anything to compare it to, but I had dance in the morning at 9:00 A.M., I went from dance into water performance class, and another performance class, then into dramatic criticism, then I went into the history of costume and d?cor, and then into scene design, and then at night I had to do crews for the shows that were running there. They had better facilities than practically anyplace else that I've ever worked professionally. There're huge, gorgeous theaters there with every professional amenity. And everybody there was very serious "I'm going to live forever," sort of is not an exaggeration. Everybody there was there because they were very serious about it. So, it got a little bit too serious sometimes, but everybody worked very hard and the teachers were very demanding.
IGNFF: Any cautionary tales as far as the seriousness there, or something you reacted against? I mean, not someone cracking in a bell tower with a shotgun, but ...
COLBERT: No, no, no. There were people who sort of emotionally cracked under the strain of being asked to express ourselves in ways that we hadn't before. I was one of those, but there was nobody in the bell tower.
IGNFF: Cracking how so?
COLBERT: You know, the objective of all of the acting classes really was for you to show how you feel, and not to be clever and not to show all the tricks you could do a lot of people came there with some experience and a lot of times they would bring whatever tricks they had, to be entertaining to the classes. The teachers wanted to strip all those away, and say, "No, could you be emotionally honest onstage?" The first stage of emotional honesty, or at least the resistance to being emotionally honest, is to be angry. When anger doesn't work, you try crying. But those are all just defense mechanisms to shut off how you actually feel about everything. We all build these sort of walls to keep ourselves from showing our true emotions, because they can be seen as weaknesses.
IGNFF: Conscious defense mechanisms, or unconscious defense mechanisms?
COLBERT: You consciously want to defend yourself, and you unconsciously I don't know if conscious or unconscious is the right way. When you're being asked to be open emotionally, you defend yourself emotionally. So, I don't know if it's conscious or unconscious, but the emotion of defense is anchor. Then, after anger doesn't stop the person from trying to get inside your defenses, the next one is sort of the emotion of pity, which is crying or sadness. I think these are all just emotional gambits, to get someone to leave you alone. Everybody went through that.
IGNFF: Which one did you latch on to, more so than the other?
COLBERT: Oh, anger. My teacher was afraid I was going to punch her. She did. She came up to me once, she said, "I think you probably could use a little therapy." "Oh really?" "Yeah, because I was physically afraid that you were going to punch me today in class."
IGNFF: Did you ever consider yourself, prior to that, to be repressed in any way?
COLBERT: No, no. Not really.
IGNFF: Was it just getting past that button-down nature, to a certain extent?
There's a detached, judgmental quality I have, that put me in great stead for The Daily Show
. But now I'm aware of it, at least.
IGNFF: But something at that time you had to definitely overcome?
IGNFF: At least to get a grade...
IGNFF: So, was it the kind of curriculum that allowed you to gravitate towards a certain genre, or it was broad-based and made you experience every genre, as far as performing?
It was very broad-based. Of course, the students wanted to do whatever was popular at the time.
IGNFF: Would that be Cats?
No... what was on Broadway? Chorus Line
was on Broadway. A Bomb in Gilead
... and what else? I forget. I didn't go in for that, because I didn't have a theatrical vocabulary, or much experience in that world.
IGNFF: Were there any roles that you found yourself being assigned to more often than not?
No, they tried not to do that. They actually left it up to us to choose, on assignments.
IGNFF: Was there a type of role you personally gravitated towards?
There was a role that I've always wanted to do, and that's to play Richard Rich in A Man for All Seasons
, by Robert Bolt. But that's the only one I can tell you.
IGNFF: Have you?
No, I never have. He's sort of... I like weak characters.
IGNFF: That would explain Strangers with Candy.
Yeah. I do, I like ...
IGNFF: Characters that resent their ineffectualness?
Probably. Who feel like they should have a better place in the world, but are too weak to assert themselves in any way.
IGNFF: And express it through, what, anger and resentment?
Yes. And betrayal. Richard Rich in A Man for All Seasons
feels like he should have an appointment in court, and his friend Thomas More won't get it for him. So, he eventually betrays him.
IGNFF: That's a through-line for a lot of characters you've played.
IGNFF: Conscious, do you think?
Sure. I think there's something conscious about it. I think in my own life I play a high status character in my own life, so that's a quality. I like the revelation in weakness in the high status package. I think everybody's got weaknesses, and I think if anything was taught to me at Northwestern, it was don't be afraid to display them. Because people don't generally like to display them, I think there's a place for me in performance and being willing to do that. On The Daily Show
, I'm essentially a very high status character, but my weakness is that I'm stupid. Like, that's my character's weakness. I'll go into an interview with a guy who runs a Beatles museum, for instance, for The Daily Show
, and I'll confess to him that I don't know who The Beatles are. Like, I mean, obviously I know who they are, I just don't know like, "What was their big hit? I know obviously they had more than one big hit, but what was that big one? The one they always whistled?" I don't mind seeming like a fool. I truly don't mind seeming like a fool.
IGNFF: But it's an informed fool.
Well, a fool who has spent a lot of his life playing not the fool.
IGNFF: And is able to cover it at least well enough to deal with the subjects that he deals with.
IGNFF: If not in a conversation with someone who would be knowledgeable and able to put up a fight...
COLBERT: No, generally not. But, what happens at The Daily Show, often is that I'll bring that idea to someone who is knowledgeable enough to put up a fight, and then they call me on it.
IGNFF: And then you change the subject.
COLBERT: Exactly. Or I just say, "Of course, of course. I knew that, I knew that."
IGNFF: Or it turns into a personal attack.
COLBERT: Like, last week I interviewed a bio-ethicist at Columbia University, and I kept calling him a bio-ethnicist. And he would correct me, very kindly correct me and say, "No, no, no, it's a bio-ethicist."
IGNFF: I had spoken a few years ago with Dave Thomas, and we spoke a bit about the great Chicago improv teacher Del Close, and I wanted to ask you what it was like studying under him...
COLBERT: I didn't do much of it. He's the first person who taught me improvisation when I was in Chicago, but I didn't become one of his regular students. What I liked about him is that he was asking you to improvise, without necessarily asking you to be funny. The first thing he wanted you to do was to listen to what the other person was saying and react in some way that was organic to what they were doing. And to just sort of trust that if you were honest about it, you'd come up with something interesting for the audience to watch. I liked that.
IGNFF: Was he the fun, raving maniac that many people describe him as?
COLBERT: Not raving maniac so much. He was a pagan, if that helps. But I wouldn't necessarily call him a maniac. He was actually very calm all the times that I ever saw him. He was no longer doing mind-altering substances or anything like that by the time I came along.
IGNFF: Was it another thing that pushed you towards Second City?
COLBERT: No, actually, that kind of pushed me away from it. The little cult, that little group of people that I first started to improvise with were very anti-Second City. They often said that they didn't really improvise at Second City, and that what we were doing was supposedly real improvisation. We would take a single word and then do a one act play, essentially, based on that one word, for 45 minutes to an hour. And we were all very proud of ourselves and we were really improvising. Then, years later when I actually went to Second City and saw what they did, I didn't care whether they were really improvising. I wanted to do it. And it turned out that they really were improvising. They just weren't doing this particular form that I had been taught originally. So, it was in spite of my association with the ImprovOlympia, which is what Del ran.
IGNFF: Was that as close as you came to being part of that sort of closed-minded fraternity type atmosphere?
COLBERT: Maybe so. Maybe so.
IGNFF: I guess you had to give in eventually.
COLBERT: Yeah, I guess so. But it turned out that Second City was a great place to work, and really all about just freedom and fun.
IGNFF: Didn't you essentially luck into or were pushed into or guided towards auditioning for Second City?
COLBERT: I needed a job, desperately. I'd been traveling in Europe, as a lot of young men do, and I came back without a dime. I mean, not a dime in my pocket this is not, like, an exaggeration. I was sleeping on someone's floor, and a friend of mine was the box office manager at Second City, and she said, "Come here and I'll give you a job." So, I answered the phones, but then I found out you could take classes there for free, if you worked there. I met some really great people. So it was a happy accident in that way, in that I never intended to do it. Once I was there for a while, I realized that this sort of was a place for me. I liked the atmosphere of it, I liked the fact that a lot of people who worked there were sort of damaged I enjoyed that.
IGNFF: What was the appeal of that?
COLBERT: Damaged people are very interesting. The way they behave to cover up their damage is usually very entertaining.
IGNFF: In an observational kind of way?
COLBERT: No, no, in a hanging out kind of way.
IGNFF: So, they're not boring people.
COLBERT: No, they're not.
IGNFF: Who were your troop mates at that time?
COLBERT: The same day I was hired as Amy Sedaris, Paul Dinello, Scott Allman, Rose Abdoo, Ian Gomez, Jenna Jolovitz, and Chris Farley.
IGNFF: What kind of bond forms with that kind of freshman class type atmosphere?
COLBERT: We were all we felt thrilled and privileged to be about to be paid for what we loved to do.
IGNFF: Were there any bad feelings or clashes resentment between the established members and the sort of freshmen members?
COLBERT: We wanted to be them. We weren't tearing down anyone. We wanted their jobs.
IGNFF: If I understand correctly, Second City's always had a bit of a caste system...
COLBERT: Yeah, there is. There's the touring company, and then there's different sort of castes within the touring company. Which company you're in... do you get the good gigs? Do you get to tour the ski resorts for a month, or are you doing one night in Bloomington, Indiana?
IGNFF: With the ultimate goal being, what, the main stage?
IGNFF: How quickly do you and how difficult was it to move up that ladder?
COLBERT: I don't know about the difficulty I mean, everything seems difficult when you're doing it, I think. Because you're working as hard as you can, if you succeed at all, you work as hard as you can and we were all working as hard as we could. You know, it happened incrementally, so by the time you got to main stage, it didn't feel like, "Wow, I made it!" It felt like, "Okay, well, it seems fairly logical that I'm here." You know, "I didn't completely suck, compared to my co-workers, and so I guess I belong here." But no one was leaping up in the air and going, "I made it!" So obviously, we should have.
IGNFF: Wasn't this around the same time that Bob Odenkirk made his ...
COLBERT: Odenkirk was a little bit before me.
IGNFF: ...Direct transition to the main stage...
COLBERT: Yeah, I had just been hired to the touring company when he did that. So, I wasn't any part of any of those feelings.
IGNFF: Was there a natural gravitation towards working with Amy and Paul?
COLBERT: Yeah, we shared a sensibility.
IGNFF: Is it a sensibility that can be summed up, or is it just a gut feeling?
COLBERT: It really was more gut. We certainly didn't put it into words then, and we've tried to put it into words since, and I don't think it ever really covers it very well.
IGNFF: Within Second City, is there a definite feeling of, "This is the career progression..." that you move onto SNL, or you move onto ...
COLBERT: There's less of that than you think. I think people there really were just there to do the work there. You could tell if somebody was looking at it as a stepping stone to something else, and I don't think they did very good work.
IGNFF: What were the feelings when Chris left?
COLBERT: Very happy for him.
IGNFF: Was there a sense of, "That will be the direction I'm going in, as well."
COLBERT: No, not necessarily. I never imagined that that was going to be where I would end up.
IGNFF: What lead to your eventual brief association with SNL?
COLBERT: Oh, that was I was working for a show called The Dana Carvey Show
. I had written some things for that show, that Robert Smigel who was our executive producer brought over to SNL
. As a result, I got a short-term writing gig over there. I helped Robert put his cartoons over there, and I still do.
IGNFF: An atmosphere that you enjoyed?
I did. I did, actually. It was very hard work, but I liked it.
IGNFF: The cartoon would be, what predominately The Ambiguously Gay Duo?
Yeah, but his other Saturday TV Fun House
IGNFF: Was that the time that you started doing the voices as well?
Yeah, I'd actually started with the voices and we'd be talking about the scripts, and I would help him rewrite them. He said, "Why don't you just help me write these?"
IGNFF: At what point did Exit 57, as a concept, come up?
That was before The Dana Carvey Show
. That was Paul and Amy had gone to New York to do a play of Amy's brother's, and while they were there, the people who had seen us at Second City also came and saw this play, called Stitches
. They were approached about doing a sketch show for HBO Downtown Productions, that they helped us out at Comedy Central. They said, "Remember that guy, Stephen Colbert, in Chicago? We'd like to involve him, too." So, that was that and I left Second City and I came to New York. I moved to New York to do that.
IGNFF: What was the process of putting those shows together? I'm assuming the budgets weren't terribly high.
No. Those were like, "Well, here's an idea. A guy gets woken up by a jackhammer. The jackhammer operator ..." and our producers would say, "First of all, before you go any further do you have a jackhammer? Because I don't have a jackhammer." So, that sums up what our budgets were like. "Do you have a horse? Because I don't have a horse."
IGNFF: The show lasted two seasons, right?
IGNFF: It's a shame they're not still showing it.
I don't know about that, I've seen some of them since. I think shame could be associated with it, but not necessarily with not showing.
IGNFF: Well, it's better than some of the sketch shows that are actually still currently airing.
IGNFF: How did that process evolve into your participation in The Daily Show?
It didn't, actually. After that was cancelled, then I worked for The Dana Carvey Show
about six months after that, and that lasted like six months. Then I had a year where I wasn't doing anything. Then a year later, I got hired for The Daily Show
. There was a long period of time it was a whole new administration at Comedy Central. There really wasn't an association between the two things.
IGNFF: This was, what, after the departure after [network head] Doug Herzog?
No, this was when Doug first got there.
IGNFF: What were the concerns during that year of unemployment?
Oh, not being able to feed my wife and child. Pay rent. I thought I made a huge mistake in what I decided to do for a living.
IGNFF: Did it get to the point where you actually considered not doing it for a living?
No, it was too late. That's the big concern. Like, you couldn't just turn back. It wasn't like I was going to go to law school. It was too late. The die was cast.
IGNFF: Stuck in the New York area?
Yeah, and I didn't really know anybody in New York. I knew a lot of people in Chicago, but New York, I was a complete neophyte.
IGNFF: Was there anything that popped up during that year, or was it just a complete year ...
I helped Dana write a movie. I worked for VH1 for a while, I worked for MTV for a while. It was sort of just make-work, like script consultant stuff.
IGNFF: I'm assuming you were still freelancing with Robert?
Yes, I was, actually. But, if you think you can feed a child on that ...
IGNFF: No, I don't see how you could. So, how big of a boon was the appearance of The Daily Show on the horizon?
It was nothing. I did not believe in the show, I did not watch the show, and they paid dirt. It was literally just sort of it was just a paycheck to show up.
IGNFF: That was when they first started, with Lizz Winstead still on staff...
Lizz Winstead, Madeleine Smithberg, and Craig Kilborn.
IGNFF: Which I understand was a tension-filled time...
Yeah, I guess Lizz and Craig didn't get along... that's what I understand. Again, I was so new there that I was kept completely out of any sort of political machinations there.
IGNFF: So it's nothing that filtered out to the crew or the cast.
Other than the fact that Craig said, in an article in Esquire
, that she'd blow him if he asked her, and that got him suspended for a week.
IGNFF: How would you compare the pieces that you did then, and the involvement you had in the show then, to what you have now?
Those were more character-driven pieces. First of all, there were no desk pieces. Correspondents didn't do stuff like editorializing at the desk. The field pieces we did were character-driven pieces like, you know, guys who believe in Bigfoot. Whereas now, everything is issue and news-driven pieces, and a lot of editorializing at the desk. And a lot of use of the green screen to put us in false locations.
IGNFF: That's what, merely more of a budget issue than anything else?
No, no, no. It's editorial tone that Jon has changed. We're more of a news show we were more of a magazine show then.
IGNFF: I hear a lot regarding how involved Jon is in the show, and I'm wondering if there was that same kind of involvement in the pieces you did, and the tone of the show, when Craig was there?
COLBERT: No, he wasn't involved in the field department at all.
IGNFF: So is it almost a night-and-day difference in the tone of the show?
COLBERT: No, it really wasn't night-and-day, because you had the same writers, the same executive producer, Madeleine Smithberg. You had the same correspondents at first. And so, it was a gradual evolution. Jon didn't come in and say, "It's closing time, folks." He came in and said, "And let's see if we can't push this in this direction. Let's see if we can't maybe make the field pieces reflect something that's happening in the headlines of the day, so there's more of a natural transition, the show doesn't change tonally, completely." Which it would often do, from headlines into field pieces. It would be, like, something fairly clever about the Clinton administration and then straight into a guy who was a Bigfoot hunter. It was quite jarring. That was the first thing I noticed, was that our field pieces were coming out of the news, and not in sort of opposition to them.
IGNFF: How involved were you in the writing and production of the field pieces that you did then, as opposed to now?
COLBERT: In some ways, I was more involved, because there were less other things for us to do.
IGNFF: As far as different segments within the show, or editorial content?
COLBERT: In the olden days, I wasn't doing things in the studio at all. So, if I wanted to fill my days, I filled them with the field pieces, and I was far more involved in the conception and the execution and the editing and the preparation for them. But now, as much as I'd like to do that, I have less time because I might get a call from the head writer at 11:00 saying, "Can you come up with three minutes on the weapons of mass destruction hunt for tonight?" And that will take the rest of the day to write that, so I can't go to the editing room anymore.
IGNFF: Do you think that's also, to some extent, allowed you to be more engaged and focused on the show, as opposed to going off and doing a piece?
COLBERT: I would say I'm more involved with the show, just because the show is really what happens in the studio. The field pieces these days are additions to that. The more you do in the studio, the more involved you are with the true tone of the show. Because the tone of the show is Jon's tone, and so the in-studio stuff is all interaction with Jon, so you seem more integral to the show that way. Field pieces are valuable addenda.
IGNFF: How do you feel about the fact that The Daily Show has especially in the last year almost become a valid news source?
COLBERT: I hear that. I hear people say that. It's a repackager of news. In that way, I suppose, it is in some ways a valid source. As long as people can understand when we're goofing and when we mean it. If they're not reading the normal news, I doubt that they can. People say, "Was that story real?" And I've thought, "Oh, you should really watch the real news before you watch our show, if you can't tell whether our stories are real." I wish people would watch the real news before they watch our show, because we have two games. Our game is we make fun of the newsmakers, but we also make fun of the news style. They're missing half our joke if they don't keep up with the day-to-day changes of mass media news.
IGNFF: Do you think, for a large segment of the audience, The Daily Show almost becomes their primary news source?
COLBERT: I don't know. People tell me that... mostly people who are interviewing me. If it's true, it's a very interesting aspect of what's happened to the show. But I don't know if it's true. I don't know what the source of that is, do you know what I mean? I don't know what the primary evidence of that is. It sounds apocryphal, a little bit, to me, but I like the idea.
IGNFF: There are more insightful interviews coming out of Jon's interview segments than there are on MSNBC, or FOX, or CNN combined.
COLBERT: Oh come on "Scarborough Country"? Come on...
IGNFF: I love news that sounds like a cigarette ad. I think that's a good indicator of where our culture's at right now, that that could be a valid way to carve out a block of time on a news network. I guess in comparing The Daily Show to real news when you talk about "Scarborough Country," here's a whole block of time where it's not news it's all editorial... so, it's like The Daily Show writ large, and they're completely unaware that it's editorial masquerading as news.
COLBERT: I don't know if it's unaware of it. I think it's completely aware of it. I don't think it concerns itself with being news.
IGNFF: Much to the public's dismay... or the public just eats it up, do you think?
COLBERT: I don't think the public cares. I don't. I think concerns over what is editorializing and what is news are the concerns of editorialists and newsmakers.
IGNFF: How difficult is it for you, when you guest host for Jon?
COLBERT: It's great. Great writers, a crack staff that knows exactly what they're doing what more do you want? "Just don't flub your lines, mister."
IGNFF: How often do you have to arm wrestle Steve Carell for stories?
COLBERT: He loves doing the stories. He'd come back any time he could, it's just that he had the opportunity to do Watching Ellie out in California, and he's got a wife and his child, and he can't go popping back all the time, so he's out there. The show uses him whenever he feels like he can come back to the East coast. When he comes back, they have him do a ton of in-studio stuff ...
IGNFF: And paired up often with you.
COLBERT: Yeah, we're old friends. I was his understudy at Second City.
IGNFF: Oh really? So he actually predates you at Second City?
COLBERT: Yeah, he was like you might say one class ahead of me at Second City. Then we did The Dana Carvey Show together, and now The Daily Show. We've worked together a lot.
IGNFF: He's also your co-voice on Ambiguously Gay Duo, right?
COLBERT: Right, he's Gary and I'm Ace. That was from The Dana Carvey Show... that's when that started.
IGNFF: What lead to the decision to leave The Daily Show to go do Strangers with Candy?
COLBERT: Well, when I was hired at The Daily Show
almost at exactly the same time we had done this pitch... this after-school special pitch. It's a long process from pitch to development and all that. I don't know if it's longer in cable or network, but it certainly was long. They were developed at the same time. Strangers
took so long to get going that by the time that was committed to series, I had been sort of ensconced at The Daily Show
, and I was a regular there as opposed to a temporary guy. I was sort of a used-as-needed guy when I first started. It just so happened that I had to do double duty. I mean, I never really left The Daily Show
I just went down to like 20 pieces a year instead of 120.
IGNFF: Was Strangers shot locally, in the New York area?
That was shot in New Jersey.
IGNFF: At a school you basically were given, right?
We shot at two different abandoned schools in the Rutherford area.
IGNFF: Both of which are gone?
One of them is completely gone, and one of them has been rebuilt for something else. I can't really remember.
IGNFF: So you don't have either one to use for the movie.
No, we'd have to find a new location.
IGNFF: Tonally and in execution was the show essentially what you had originally conceived, or were there any drastic changes in the development process?
Did you see the pilot?
IGNFF: Yes, I did see the pilot.
Well, you can see the tonal difference between the pilot and the series. The pilot's a little more cartoony ...
IGNFF: And also it seems not as subversively brutal as the show eventually became.
Well, you know, comedy writers have to keep upping the ante for themselves. Whatever the game is, they have to make the game more extreme they get bored with their own writing, I think. So, that's why the show became progressively more brutal. I have to say the brutality of the show doesn't appeal to me.
IGNFF: Do you think it went as far as it could within the TV concept?
COLBERT: Absolutely. I think we had a good time, and we were as lucky to get as many, you might say good games, out of the idea as we did. But, when we saw the writing on the wall and knew that we were going to be cancelled, it was refreshing to be able to say, "Okay, so it's coming to an end. How would we want to end it?" And then to be able to put a button on it, which a lot of shows don't ever have the opportunity to do. We had 30 episodes, which is a healthy number of shows.
IGNFF: And they still hold up well on the DVD.
COLBERT: I hope so.
IGNFF: So now what are the challenges of translating that into a film?
COLBERT: I don't know. I don't know. We haven't done it yet. Really, I suppose I can tell you know what I guess they're going to be. I guess they're going to be taking the simplicity of that, and stringing that simplicity out into a film length. Because the shows were really simple simple moral dilemma. How will Jerri deal with it? Three acts later, she's learned something. Or she's got something to say. We want to maintain that level of simplicity, but still having something of a large enough scope that it's worthy of being on film. That's going to be the hardest part. None of the characters have to change. I don't think the visual language will change that much. I think just finding an issue large enough to hold a film.
IGNFF: And I guess it will be constructed for the uninitiated?
COLBERT: Yes, we'll have to be very expository.
IGNFF: We'll have to see how much odder Jerri's hair is on the big screen.
COLBERT: Well, we'll shoot in cinemascope, just for her overbite.
IGNFF: I got quite a kick out of the book you wrote with Amy and Paul, Wigfield. What was the genesis of that? Living in the area I do, the character types are quite archetypal to the area. I guess they're quite archetypal to the entire country...
COLBERT: Right, but you know, it's interesting. People from all over have talked to us about it, and I don't know they tend to think that it's from their part of the country. People from upstate New York, or people from Southern Illinois, or people from the Pacific Northwest, or people from the deep South. We keep on saying, if you listen, the characters are from all over the country. There's not a particular place that they're from. They're just people who are, you know, sort of ignorant, weak losers who are not self-aware of their own predicament.
IGNFF: But I think that strikes a cord as an archetype in any area within this nation of ours...
COLBERT: Maybe so.
IGNFF: Are there any plans to expand it beyond book form?
COLBERT: We might. We wrote it to be a book, and there's been some interest to do it elsewhere, but everything's so preliminary that it's not even worth talking about.
IGNFF: And what is the live tour?
COLBERT: That's just to promote the book.
IGNFF: At this point, what does the immediate future hold for you?
COLBERT: Well, we're going into the election cycle for 2004 for The Daily Show. We've got to write a script for the Strangers with Candy movie, to see whether that's any good. We might develop Wigfield and do a larger performance piece for stage or for TV. For the next two weeks, play with my kids. That's on the immediate horizon for me.
IGNFF: It's a good life.
COLBERT: Yeah, it's a great life. I couldn't ask for more. I'm so very lucky.
Also read Ken P's 10 Questions: Stephen Colbert
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