In August 2005, before he seized the Bush Administration’s collective panties and gave them a breathtaking twist at the White House Correspondents Dinner on April 29, I interviewed Comedy Central’s professional pseudopundit Stephen Colbert. The article concerned the debut of The Colbert Report, a spin-off of The Daily Show that was at the time only a trailer and known semi-officially as The Colbert Réport, with a puckish accent-marked flavor the trailer refers to as “French—bitch.” We talked for about 10 minutes or so, much of which was spent by me giggling incomprehensibly while he chucked zingers in my direction. Afterward, I turned in a roughly hewn article to Student Advantage Magazine, slashed even further to fit onto one half-page in the October 2005 issue.
I had borrowed someone else’s tape recorder, so the actual recording of the conversation is gone. But I do have a partial transcript.
Q. One thing I was wondering about the show. Are you going to be preserving the accent aigu?
SC. That’s all still up in the air. We’re not sure how we’re going to get across the idea that you don’t pronounce anything. You don’t pronounce any of the Ts. We may not pronounce any of the Ts on the show. We’ll save them up for needy children who don’t have enough Ts.
Q. What kind of formats and segments will you have on the show?
SC. I don’t know—I’m open to suggestion at this point. The most important thing is that the show change the world. That’s my only criterion—that we change the world, but we do it in a way that keeps us out of Mallard Fillmore’s crosshairs. That guy brings too hard a hammer down.
Q. [I remember laughing a lot here, thrilled I got the Mallard Fillmore reference]
SC. Well, you know, it’s going to be like [Bill] O’Reilly, sort of—or [Joe] Scarborough, or [Sean] Hannity, or even Aaron Brown or Anderson Cooper. Highly compartmentalized, very much about the personality of the host. I’ll be debating myself in a segment we call “Worthy Opponent.” We’ll do something called “Shame Spiral,” where I look down at a camera below my desk and I shame America for its behavior. We do a section called “Who’s Looking Out For You?” and we do a segment right after it called “Who’s Looking Over Your Shoulder?” We’ll take calls. We’ll have real guests. We’ll go out to the vox populi—real people on the street. We’ll ask some questions of the day. Stuff like that. Odd essays, like I do on The Daily Show.
Q. Will there be an Alan Colmes-type wishy-washy figure?
SC. Great Onion headline was, “Alan Colmes loses argument with 6-year-old.”
Q. Are there any commentators besides Bill O’Reilly that you’re studying for inspiration?
SC. I’m a big fan of Warren Justice. I don’t know if you know his work…
Q. He sounds familiar for some reason.
SC. [long pause] Really?
Q. Well, I don’t know…
[There was a long and uncomfortable moment here. It became obvious that he’d just bullshitted me. I did not at the time and still have not yet found any references to a talk show host or news analyst or pundit named Warren Justice. I’m willing to believe I’m just ignorant, and feel free to correct me by e-mail, but my best guess is it’s fake. Partly because he was sick of answering the “who are you imitating” question, and partly as a test to see if I was paying attention (note the slap-upside-the-head reference to former Chief Justice Earl Warren, which is what sounded familiar). “Warren Justice” being fake makes sense, considering it’s coming from someone whose irony switch is permanently soldered in the on position—but if Colbert was making fun of me, it wasn’t very nice. Pretty mean, actually. Especially considering I’d started out our conversation with a whole friendly togetherness riff on The Lord of the Rings, which I knew he was a rabid fan of, and which was so off-the-cuff and pleasant that I never bothered to transcribe it because I wouldn’t need it for the article.]
SC. I like Geraldo a lot. I like Charlie Rose. I like his self-important quality. His sort of urban hipness. Still kind of regimental striped tie-y, but with a sort of intellectual hipness that he trucks in.
Q. But he’s still got that earthy Texan-type quality.
SC. Yeah, I guess so.
Q. The Daily Show is a lot of young people’s main source of news. For better or worse. Is The Colbert Réport going to be be young people’s main source of hotheaded opinion?
SC. I hope to be their number one source for poorly informed opinion.
Q. Do you have any diva requests for your dressing room?
SC. I’m a big fan of Korean masseuses. If anybody’s looking to do some pro bono work, because I don’t think it’s in the budget…
Q. How much and what kind of prep work do you do for the show?
SC. I have a couch. And I like to stay fresh for the show. So I try to get some Zs in during the day. And I’m a big fan of, like, a tall latte and a tuna sandwich around four o’clock, just to pump up the old caffeine and the protein. And then I try to keep my eyesight sharp so I can read the prompter. That pretty much covers it.
Q. Will you still be doing stuff on The Daily Show?
SC. If I can. It remains to be seen if I’ll have time to do that. I hope so.
Q. Given the wildly popular success of The Daily Show, do you feel a lot of pressure at all to make this show as successful?
SC. All I have to do is get better ratings than a rerun of The Daily Show, which is free to Comedy Central. There’s no pressure and a lot of pressure. I might be able to get better ratings. I’m not sure, but I’ll sure cost more. The fact that it’s a spinoff of The Daily Show doesn’t feel like it’s pressure to me, because we’ll still going to be playing the same game that I’ve been playing for years, so it’s not like I don’t know what I’m doing. But I’m going to cost money in a slot that they get for free right now. So I hope to do well for my masters.
Q. In the trailer, you say you give the truth a five-minute head start and then you hunt it down…
SC. Exactly. [in his canned gag voice] The truth isn’t going to get a free ride this time. ‘Kay?
Q. It’s a funny line, but I think there’s a lot going on there. [I fumbled for words a lot here, and didn’t really transcribe everything exactly. Here’s the gist:] There’s no time for the news to just happen anymore and be digested naturally. Everybody wants fast, immediate analysis without waiting for history to make its point.
SC. They analyze fast. Even in a big news story, you get the basic information out right away. “This has happened in this land, and these people.” Then, you can repeat it for the next group of people who might be tuning in, and then you might be able to repeat it again to drive that home. But after that, you’ve still got 24 hours of news to fill. And that’s when analysis starts kicking in. But analysis might kick in an hour into a news story, when before, there was the evening news, you would watch, and then the next day someone might start analysis. Analysis literally starts within the hour of the event, because they’ve got to fill up the beast, they’ve got to feed the maw of the 24-hour news cycle. And analysis is open-ended. You can do any amount of it you want. There’s nothing wrong with analysis, but it happens very quickly. There’s a sense that they have to be even-handed with it, so even on non-political stories, they have a leftie and a rightie. Even the things that need not be politicized. And they never stop the analysis, because in a way it’s easier to do. And they’re not paying these people to come on, and these people like being on TV, and so that just continues. But it’s not particularly informative, and it ends up passing for news. And people start forgetting, “Oh, that analysis is not news. That’s just opinion.” That’s really where the news has gone wayward. And so we’re going to jump on that wayward train and ride it off the rails for our own benefit.
Q. Nothing like a bandwagon for safe transportation.
SC. [laughs] Exactly. An out-of-control bandwagon, and I’m going to haul me and my children up on top of it. Careening toward success, hopefully. I’m going to pile my children, pile my future, all the eggs—I’m going to put it on the toboggan of The Colbert Report and ride it down the slippery slope of news analysis toward the oak tree of success. [pause] I hope that comes out better than it sounded.
[It might be helpful at this point to know that at the time of this writing Comedy Central has dropped the accent mark from the show’s logo. The show’s name was pronounced with the final T when Colbert was introduced at the Correspondents Dinner, where he manned the podium with his practiced, unctuous charm and delivered a scalding series of shots to President Bush sitting just a few feet away, ranging from the war to his vanishing popularity to accusations of domestic spying, Bush laughing along at first and then, very rapidly, not at all.]