Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Stephen Colbert answering thoughtful questions

Note from the reddit admins: back in October, when reddit was helping raise money for DonorsChoose, Stephen Colbert (major reddit fan, BTW) provided us with an extra incentive: if we raised $500,000 before the rally, he would let reddit ask him anything. Well, you guys held up your end of the deal ($575,000 and counting, with the vast majority of donations coming from redditors). You asked some great questions. And now, we have answers to the top 11, as voted by you.

Stephen's original response was in all-caps, due to being composed on a special iPad app while he was presumably curled up on the couch in a post-turkey coma. If you want to see that rough cut, it's available here. Otherwise, what follows is a slight reformatting.

Hi there,
Right off the bean, let me apologize for the all caps. It's the default style for our script writing program, and I'm just comfortable with it.

Secondly, I'm sorry this response is so long in coming, but until Thanksgiving week, the show didn't have any break after the rally. We were all shambling to the finish line, and my addled brain was in no shape to answer your questions. I'd like to think you couldn't tell how tired I was on air, though you probably could.
So without further ado, here we go...

#1 by Killfile
To this day I'm convinced that your appearance at the White House Correspondents' Dinner was because the Bush Administration didn't understand your show.
Did they? What happened behind the scenes there? Was it more "non-alcoholic beer in the Roosevelt Room" or "Dick Cheney peppering your limo with bird-shot as you beat a hasty retreat?"
I was as surprised as the next guy that I was invited to roast the President and the press corps that spring.
Here's how it works. The White House Press Association (or some name close to that) actually does the inviting, not the President or White House. The president of the press association that year was a man named, I believe, Mark Smith, I think from the AP. He invited me. When all was said and done, I wrote to thank him and said I hoped I hadn't made trouble for him. He said there was zero fallout.

As for the backstage aspects of the night, the President has a nice, small gathering in a room near the banquet hall. The presidential seal is etched into the granite on the floor. A few news anchors, football greats, cabinet members and advisors (I remember Rove and Chertoff, there were others I think), Rich Dahm, Allison Silverman, my brothers and sisters and mom, my wife Evie, and the President and Mrs. Bush.

Let me say that the President could not have been nicer, especially to my mother. I have some lovely pictures of her with him. The President and I had a brief conversation before we went on stage. There were in total maybe 60 people at the party, many of whom I should remember more about, but I was pretty focused on my job that night. There was no backstage event after the dinner, but several parties around town.

I had my family up to our room for a drink then hit a party, don't remember which one. We all had a great time. but I had no sense of public reaction until Monday at work.

#2 by linsage
You gained your fame and fortune slightly later in life, was there ever a point in your career where you thought about plan B? What kept you going as an actor, why did you keep trying?
At what point did you realize that everything was probably going to be okay, was it a specific gig you landed? What did you do to excel your career when you weren't booking gigs? Lastly, do you have any advice for 20 somethings pursuing a tough career during this economic downfall where it isn't just actors who aren't getting jobs?
When you are young and single, there really isn't anything to worry about.

Will you starve? Not likely. I worried that I didn't have enough gumption to get work. That I wouldn't know how to network or something. But at a young age several people, some professors and directors, told me I had talent, and that it was mine to husband if I was willing to work. Those kind words sustained me, many times.

I mostly just said yes to any opportunity to get on stage. Pay or no pay. Equity, amateur, comedy, avant garde, and improv especially. Chicago has a great improv community, and I could get up on stage a lot after I got to know the other members of the community. I called it getting in trouble. You say yes to something, then you are in trouble. You have to deliver. Each mini-crisis I forced myself into made me work hard.

As for true doubt, it got under my skin deeply only once. I was newly-married and I was offered a part I would have loved, but no pay. I had worked for six years doing anything, but had made a deal with myself that if I ever was to have family I could support, I would have to insist on pay. A small rule, right? But hard for a young actor to keep. Mostly you don't really get paid.

I said no to the part and immediately (I mean within minutes) went into a spiral of panic that lasted for months. I was sure I had made the wrong decision (I hadn't) and would never get a part like it again. But the worst feeling was that I knew I truly wanted to be an actor and there was no turning back now. I was too old to do anything else. This was a feeling I wouldn't wish on anyone.

Importantly, I was wrong on all counts. Just keep working as long as you can't think of anything else you could happily do. Keep saying yes.

#3 by DesCo83
After viewing the more candid interaction you had with John Kerry recently, I'm curious:
How often are there times, on the show, or in your day to day life where people will express a strong feeling of agreement with the more ludicrous things you say? Do you ever just want to yell "No you idiot, you can't possibly agree with what I said. What I said was stupid, and you're stupid for agreeing with me!"
I know I often play devil's advocate in arguments for fun, and sometimes I have to stop half way and just say "No, stop agreeing with me!"
There have been many times that I have successfully argued a position I don't agree with. That's a lot of fun. But the sort of thing that gets me is when simple lies are not refuted, like, "The founding fathers were all deeply-committed Christians who believed in the literal word of the Bible."

"Tax increases on the rich are proven to lead to job losses."

#4 by highoctanecaffeine
Do you feel like the comedy news shows by you and Stewart are having any effect on the actual mainstream / cable news networks?
You both pick their stories apart frequently and point out their biases, have you noticed any change in their practices? Is the goal of your show purely to entertain, or would you really like to affect a change on the news media?
I think the phrase "purely to entertain" has a nice ring to it. Much better than "merely to entertain."

I presently have no plans to change the news media. They are changing themselves without any help from me. I seem to remember that when I started the show five years ago there were fewer jokes in the cable news nightly broadcasts. And I was the only one crying on a regular basis. I could be misremembering that.

#5 by Btrash
Who have you tried to get for an interview, but won't come on your show? Who would you like to interview the most?
I've never been heartbroken not to have a guest. Our game doesn't flourish because of big names, but because of strong feelings about the guest or passion from the guest on their subject. And my booker is tenacious.

That being said, I'd like to have more conservatives on. But I can understand guests' hesitancy. They don't always know what to expect from a character. That may make them uncomfortable.

Salinger would have been nice. I'm a fan.

#6 by noncompliantcitizen
Do you sometimes wish you could not be in character for some interviews? Being in character, do you feel that it prevents some people from coming on the show?
Well these questions are really related. I'll say that from my end of the interview, I often have a guest whose subject I happen to know a thing or two about, and I want to engage them intelligently, but I am an aggressively ignorant character. That is frustrating.

Of course knowing their subject lets me make the dumbest possible characterizations of their position or idea. If you ever see me truly being vigorously dense with a guest, I probably know something of his or her subject. And as I said, yes, the character aspect may give some people pause.

#7 by capgrass
Has anyone ever walked off the set/out of the studio either during or before an interview? If so, why?
No one has ever walked out in studio. One congressperson was about to in D.C., but my crew jumped in to stop it from happening. Not I. I just wanted to capture whatever happened. After that moment, strangely, the representative went on to have a great time with me. I'm not sure what precipitated the threat to leave.

#8 by drunkmonkey81
How often do you interview people who still don't realize you're "in character"? Can you share a story of your favorite encounter with a "clueless" participant?
No one doesn't know I'm in character. I tell everyone first.

I admire Sacha Baron Cohen, but I am not doing Ali G.

#9 by Imidazole0
What is your stance on marijuana legalization?
When we were last in California for the Emmys, people came out of pot shops with lists of things to say to the doctor so he wold give you a legal prescription. Anxiety. Sleeplessness. What is the difference between that and legalization? So if it happened, I don't think the world would come to an end.


When I was young, marijuana was everywhere and basically a joke. Then in the eighties it was conflated with crack in the just say no days. I was truly surprised by the return of drug humor and movies in the last decade.

#10 by Willravel
Jon Stewart's interview on Rachel Maddow highlighted Jon's philosophy on the difference between his role and the role of news people like Rachel Maddow.
What, in your mind, is the difference between your responsibility or job and the responsibility or job of a news anchor or 24 hour news host / personality? Do you feel you're fulfilling your role? Do you feel they're fulfilling theirs?
Thanks for doing what you do. You're a funny, funny man.
I think Jon's appearance on Rachel highlighted his ability to be pretty sharp after vomiting for eight hours.
As for the 24 cable hosts / personalities fulfilling their roles, you bet they do -- as those roles are defined by their companies. If not, they are fired. The fact that the roles they fulfill are hard to recognize anymore, and have little to do with informing us, but are instead used to emotionally "engage" us with their brand personas, means I have a steady stream of material.

I too would be fired if I wasn't fulfilling my role as defined by my company. Happily they define that as comedy, and I agree. I have no real responsibility beyond working hard on jokes.

#11 by ManiacMagee
How does your family handle your constantly growing popularity? I know in an interview a while ago you said you didn't want your kids to watch your show because you feared they wouldn't be able to differentiate your character from who you really are. Is that still the case or are they allowed to watch your show now?
It has come to my attention that I can't stop them anymore, but I wish they would ask me which shows to watch. Sometimes the old guy can get on some rough subjects. I don't like the kids seeing that. He drops the F bomb a wee too much as well.

I am lucky to have gotten my flavor of fame after reaching man's estate.

Not that I don't confuse myself at times, but I have a pretty good idea of who I am, and am sustained by a breathtakingly levelheaded girl who married me long ago.

Thanks so much for all that you redditors did for the rally. I am so impressed that your idea of coercion is to do good deeds until they are national news. CNN and others were reporting your charity blackmail just days after you started. A new idea, I think, and something to be proud of. The rally was tremendously supported by you all, along with Facebook, and Twitter. I have no doubt that your efforts to organize and the joy you clearly brought to your part of the story contributed greatly to the turnout and success. Contrary to whatever bullshit quotes you may have heard in the bullshit press.

See you 'round.

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