NY Times

Covering the Convention for Laughs

Published: August 27, 2004

The celebrity aura is beyond palpable. Right here, plastered to the door of the second-floor men’s room at 513 West 54th Street, the studio/headquarters for Comedy Central’s Emmy-winning “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” is a blue star with Stephen Colbert’s name on it.

Mr. Colbert, an alumnus of the Second City comedy troupe who pretends to brag about his status as the show’s senior correspondent, once used this men’s room as a prop for a skit called “How to Be a Correspondent.” The lavatory was his dressing room. A few years later, the star remains as testimony to his, ah, comedic stamina.

When you are a correspondent for a newscast that advertises itself – on a gigantic billboard adjacent to one for Fox News just across 34th Street from Madison Square Garden, the site of the Republican National Convention – as “the most trusted name in fake news,” hanging your star on the men’s room seems logical enough. Mr. Colbert, who deems the campaign trail one big snooze fest, covered (sort of) the Democratic convention last month and pledges to give next week’s Republican convocation in Manhattan fair and equal treatment. It’s a balance thing.

” The conventions are like industrials – they’re sales rallies where politicians say things people have already heard to people who already believe them,” he says. Ferreting out the hypocrisy in both conventions is easy pickings.

“I have the luxury of not being a real reporter, and in fact, I’m not even a pundit,” admits Mr. Colbert, whose actual dressing room/ office is a shrine to all things “Lord of the Rings,” including a Gandalf for President button and an animated cave troll that serves as arbiter of his writing sessions with fellow “Daily Show” parodists.

If an idea is funny, the troll raises a trident. If a gag falls flat, it lowers a mace and grunts. Mr. Colbert doesn’t trust his own judgment. “I always love all of the ideas,” he says, giving the troll a peck on its ugly cheek.

When Mr. Colbert – who relinquished his adolescent dream of being, not just playing, Hamlet to write and perform improvisational comedy – turned 40 recently, one of his gifts was a Lettermanesque list, the Top 10 Reasons Why Stephen Colbert Is Secretly a Republican.

It is, he says, why he will blend in nicely at the convention. His fondness for navy-blue blazers, button-down shirts, khakis, the suburbs (he, the wife and three children live in New Jersey) and church every Sunday figure prominently.

On his wall is a 1972 Nixon campaign poster that, he says, represents the awakening of his political consciousness. “That’s when I became aware of the abuse of power,” he says. “I became a true believer. I’m the last of 11 kids; my brothers and sisters, with just two exceptions, are all Republicans, and they always used to say to me, ‘Why are you such a pinko?’ ”

What he really is, behind the facade of Stephen Colbert, faux correspondent, is a liberal in conservative’s clothing. He is, he says, way too square to be hip, way too well informed about politics to be anything but skeptical in private and, hopefully, nothing but funny on the air.

“I don’t have to pretend to be impartial,” he says. “I’m partial. I’ll make fun of anybody. I wish we had an effect on the way people think about politics, but I don’t think we do. I see the show as a relief from the political process, especially now, when so much of politics is built on the idea of fear. We’re about falling down and going boom on camera.”

He does, however, have one earnest convention agenda, provided he wangles sufficient access: “We want to find out actual information about Republicans. We want to know where the pods are, where they’re grown, and we want to photograph them before they’re harvested.” Just kidding.

Can a guy who displays a bottle of Screaming Sphincter cayenne pepper sauce beside his velvet “swooning couch,” who writes and stars in the just-completed film version of “Strangers with Candy,” the Comedy Central series he wrote with Amy Sedaris and Paul Dinello, and who performs the voice of Ace on “The Ambiguously Gay Duo” cartoon that he and Robert Smigel invented for “Saturday Night Live,” be anything but a kidder?

MR. COLBERT grew up in Charleston, S.C., in what he calls a ” humorocracy where the funniest person in the room is king.” Dad was a doctor of immunology; Mom was an aspiring actress whose stage career was doomed by her 11 pregnancies. Mr. Colbert’s thespian aspirations had her full blessing.

After two years in Virginia at Hampden- Sydney College, which he recalls as “an inorganic rock of ultraconservatism,” he switched to Northwestern’s theater program, and came under the sway of the improvisational guru Del Close.

He auditioned for and was accepted by Second City, where he met Ms. Sedaris and Mr. Dinello, who are still his writing partners. Initially he was part of the Second City touring company, then was promoted to company resident in 1989 and remained there five years before decamping, with Ms. Sedaris and Mr. Dinello, to develop “Exit 57” for HBO Downtown Productions.

He was a writer and performer on “The Dana Carvey Show,” which lasted just eight episodes, flunked a two-report tryout with “Good Morning America” as a field correspondent and was mainly unemployed in New York City in 1996 and 1997, an unfunny experience that causes him to overextend himself these days.

“I work all the time,” he says, “mainly out of fear that the day will come when I can’t think of anything funny.”