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The blurred reality of Stephen Colbert’s world

Presidential candidates would do well to play along with Stephen Colbert, even though their appearances on "The Colbert Report" aren't always flattering.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The walls of “The Colbert Report” studio are plastered with letters and artwork of the show’s fearless leader submitted by loyal fans. In one painted portrait, Stephen Colbert, astride a horse, is substituted for George Washington.

Outside Colbert’s office sits a brand new GPS system, which he had pleaded for on the show just days earlier. A publicist shrugs, “Ask and you shall receive.”

Inside, Colbert’s desk is surrounded by leftover props and gifts from guests — a veritable record of the absurdity he’s created from this place Jon Stewart calls “bizarro world.”

This is where Colbert and his staff hatch plans for where they might next fling their bloviating, perpetually suit-clad creation. Like a malfunctioning heat-seeking missile, he might go anywhere.

Colbert may inject his character into politics and media, just as he might wind up in the Smithsonian or Canadian junior league hockey. He’s created a kind of satire in action, teetering between his self-made universe and an often equally absurd real world. It’s a constant balancing act that last year nearly had him on the road to the White House.

“The Report” recently aired its 400th episode. On June 16, he will stroll into the Waldorf-Astoria and accept the prestigious Peabody Award for his show. Colbert says he also expects to play the role of “kingmaker” in this year’s election. The race has already been swayed by “Saturday Night Live” (whose debate parody altered how the press covered Barack Obama), but the comedy of Colbert has a different effect.

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In his hall of mirrors, reflections may be distorted, but never unflattering. A study has even shown that his self-declared “Colbert bump,” an upswing in popularity for a politician after appearing on the show, is largely factual.

The presidential candidates have already had to reconcile themselves to dealing with Colbert, and the presumptive nominees — Obama and John McCain — would be wise to play along.

That’s because Colbert doesn’t demand a particular agenda of anyone, only the tacit, wink-wink acknowledgment that most any agenda — and all the image-conscious apparatus behind it — is a bit absurd, don’t you think?

His particular talent is in blurring reality while at the same time illuminating it. In a world where kids on MySpace trumpet a cult of personality just as politicians do on the stump, his act has larger reverberations.

We all have a truthiness.

‘Truthiness’ started show off with bangHastily finishing a sandwich at his desk, Colbert is busy. Lining the wall to his right are index cards of segments that may or may not make the week’s shows.

“Mostly I know what I’m doing today and tomorrow and have an idea about the day after that,” he says. “And tomorrow might change and I’m not sure about tonight.”

On this day, Colbert has already conferred with his executive producer Alison Silverman and co-executive producer Rich Dahm and discussed the current news with head writer Tom Purcell. They’ll soon have what Colbert calls “a bake-off” to decide what makes the show.

“The Colbert Report” has been working this way, more or less, since it debuted on Oct. 17, 2005. The show began with what might still be its biggest success — the coining of the term “truthiness.” The term, which means a truth one feels in the gut rather than learns in books, was a home run in the first at bat that Colbert calls the “thesis statement” to everything that’s followed.

“The Report” was then seen (and largely still is) as a parody of Bill O’Reilly’s “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox. While that was indeed the inspiration — a satire of conservative political punditry — anyone who’s watched the show consistently knows that its tentacles of farce reach far beyond any simple spoof.

“People say, ‘Aren’t you going to be sad when Bush goes?”’ says Colbert. “No. The show is not about that. The show is not about O’Reilly. The show is not about the shout fest. The show is about what is behind those things, which is: What I say is reality. And that never ends. Every politician is going to want to enforce that, or every person in Hollywood — every person.”

The 43-year-old Colbert grew up in Charleston, S.C., the youngest of 11 children in a Catholic family. In 1974, his father and two of his brothers were killed in an airline crash. His mother, Lorna, recently said of her son on South Carolina public television network ETV, “I can never nail him down as to exactly what he is” — which makes you wonder what hope the rest of us have.

The young Colbert’s fondness of science fiction and fantasy — “Dungeons & Dragons,” “Lord of the Rings” — is easily apparent on “The Report,” where the serialized sci-fi story of his intergalactic alter-ego Tek Jansen plays out. One of Colbert’s prized possessions — which he gleefully brandishes — is Anduril, the sword from “The Lord of the Rings” films, theatrically bestowed to him by Viggo Mortensen on the show.

After studying acting at Northwestern University, Colbert joined Chicago’s revered improv troupe, Second City. Comedian Robert Smigel was blown away by Colbert on a night when he was just an understudy, and hired him for his first TV gig on “The Dana Carvey Show.”

“I didn’t really think it was possible to be honest with you,” says Smigel of Colbert’s one-man show. “He’s a force of nature. I don’t know who works harder than that guy.”

Colbert voices Ace in Smigel’s famed “Ambiguously Gay Duo” animated sketch, and Smigel’s comment on the role is symbolic: “He was born to play a cartoon super hero, not a real one.”

With collaborators Amy Sedaris and Paul Dinello, he moved to New York to make the short-lived Comedy Central sketch show “Exit 57,” and later, the series (and movie) “Strangers with Candy.”

In his nearly decade-long tenure, Colbert became a standout correspondent on “The Daily Show,” and “The Report” was spun-off by Stewart’s company, Busboy Productions.

“Stephen has such encyclopedic knowledge and I figured using himself as the foundation of a character like that, there was no question he could do this every day,” says Stewart. “He was just ready. He wears that character so perfectly.”

Colbert, who is more at ease in a sweatshirt, agrees: “I just look like a suit, which is the best part. The best part is, boy, do I look the part.”

Politicians appear on show at own risk
So far, Obama has appeared on “The Report” via satellite and Clinton has made a quick cameo, but McCain hasn’t yet stopped by. His preferred Comedy Central visit is “The Daily Show,” where he’s guested 10 times.

A politician’s appearance to “The Report” certainly comes with risks. In a sit-down interview, Colbert memorably — and in a keen journalistic fashion — asked Georgia Congressman Lynn Westmoreland, who had lobbied for the Ten Commandments to be displayed in government buildings, to name them. Westmoreland managed only two and got one wrong, while Colbert sat patiently counting.

Another sly comment came during the writers strike, when Comedy Central’s parent company, Viacom Inc., pushed “The Daily Show” and “The Report” back into production without writers. Colbert, desperate for material, rebroadcast an interview with CNN pundit Lou Dobbs, renown for his tough stance on immigration.

Dobbs’ segment aired exactly as it had months earlier, but Colbert’s side was redone with him dressed as “Estaban Colberto,” a Spanish-speaking, mustachioed alter-ego (yes, alter-egos can have their own alter-egos). Estaban arrived at the interview by creeping under a chicken-wire fence.

Still, few lose when they enter Colbert World. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee’s unlikely rise late in the Republican primaries could be partly attributed appearances on “The Report.” Though viewership for the program is relatively small (it draws around 1.2 million nightly on average), Huckabee showed himself to have a better sense of humor than his competitors.

A study conducted by political scientist James Fowler of the University of California found that politicians often receive a slight uptick in donations following guest appearances on the show.

Former New York governor Eliot Spitzer appeared on the show several times, including one visit that records show came just minutes before he telephoned to schedule a meeting with a prostitute. Colbert later joked that his “whore-dar” wasn’t functioning properly.

Spitzer had been a guest for one of the show’s most memorable episodes: a complete with a cameo from Henry Kissinger. How Colbert views having who many consider a war criminal on the show is reflective of his politics: humor trumps all else.

After Kissinger’s appearance on the show, Colbert wrote him, thanking him for being such a good sport. He wrote, “Thank you for lending us your dignity because it was the source of our comedy.”

Colbert explains: “We do the same thing for the candidates. They’re all invited and they all understand — I hope they understand — we really are a comedy show. There’s opportunity for everyone to have a good time here.”

What’s separated “The Report” from other political (or not) comedy, is how Colbert uses reality as mere fodder for his absurdist humor. There’s no question that he’s best when right in the mix: on the campaign trail in Philadelphia, at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, causing havoc in South Carolina.

'Report' is different from 'Daily Show'The presidential run was the comedian’s ultimate attempt to inject himself into the news, and many pundits and politicians resented the mockery — especially since Colbert was polling ahead of half the Democratic field. Eventually, party officials voted to keep him off the ballot, claiming he was a distraction.

“When a fictional person declares something news, is it responsible for you to agree? Isn’t that interesting?” wonders Colbert. “But so many real people declare fictional news and the press agrees. For instance, the surge is a success, don’t you think?”

Does it scare Colbert that a fake person can be taken so seriously?

“It does not scare me at all because I don’t take myself seriously,” he says. “My character wants to do these things. We’re making jokes. We never stop making jokes.”

On camera, his devotion to staying in character is total, but off-camera he’s himself: intelligent, relaxed and quick to laugh. Before taping episodes, he asks the studio audience if anyone has any questions “to humanize me before I say horrible things.” He begins every interview by telling his guest that his character is “an idiot” and to “disabuse me of my ignorance.”

“The Report” may exist in relation to “The Daily Show,” but the difference between the programs is huge. “The Daily Show” has a clear ideological point of view, commenting from the outside, whereas Colbert is a mock-insider. It’s no coincidence that when the two do a split-screen hand-off at the end of “The Daily Show,” Stewart is always the straight man.

“Jon Stewart can say he doesn’t influence all he wants, but you know what? I’ll take up that mantle. I’ll pick up that sword,” Colbert says archly. “That’s the big difference between my character and Jon’s persona. Jon would demur that responsibility, but my character gets right at the head of the lynch mob and he goes like, ‘Let’s go get the monster in the tower!”’

Many of the show’s greatest hits have been entirely apolitical, like the “meta-free-phor-all” with Sean Penn, or singing “Go Down Moses” with civil rights activist and politician Andrew Young, author Malcolm Gladwell and the Harlem Gospel Choir.

After such shows, Colbert likes to sarcastically announce to his staff: “Remember, it’s just like O’Reilly!”

Since falling while running around his “C”-shaped desk and breaking his wrist, he’s advocated “wrist awareness” by selling “WristStrong” bracelets. All proceeds go to the Yellow Ribbon Fund to assist injured service members and their families.

When asked how long he plans to keep wearing the band and stick with the joke, Colbert turned more serious than at any other point in our conversation. He replied firmly, “Not until the war is over.”

That’s about as close as Colbert comes to any kind of political statement. His interests are in people and in comedy.

“It is a sketch comedy show,” he says. “So far, it’s a 2 1/2-year sketch. I think of the entire show as a single scene. I’m just working on an 84-hour comedy project, and that’s how we think of it.”

'I am not a passive verb'In such a comedy project, Colbert compares himself to a “wind-up toy.” Unable to plan ahead, he must always react to the news, to the initiations of his devoted audience and to his reflection in the media.

“I am not a passive verb,” he says. “This is first person, present tense, at all times. I am a verb. As Buckminster Fuller said, ‘I seem to be a verb.’ The show is present tense, present active. We’re not passive, we don’t observe. We set the news agenda. We create the news. We throw the pebble of the show into reality and we report on our own ripples.”

It’s a clearly frantic, near-insane job (“I’m tired all the time,” he admits) and one can’t help but wonder how much longer Colbert — who lives with his wife and three kids in Montclair, N.J. — can keep it up.

When asked this, he puts his head down and is silent for a full 20 seconds. He finally breaks the quiet, “The short answer is, I don’t know. The facile answer but maybe the true answer is, as long as it’s fun.”

For now, the circus goes on. Backstage at the Philadelphia shows, the surrealism was in full force.

Ralph Archbold, a Ben Franklin impersonator (and therefore a man simpatico with Colbert in leading a dual life), was blown away that Colbert knew the Star Spangled Banner was written after the War of 1812. “How many people in showbiz know that?” he wonders.

Watching from the wings, R&B singer John Legend — who had just sang the Star Spangled Banner with Colbert — marveled at the comedian. Like Archbold, he gives him credit for his skill in a craft not his own: “He can sing. He really can sing.”

It becomes apparent how welcoming and joyful Colbert’s act is. Grammy-winner, historical impersonator; Democrat, Republican. Colbert will make a mockery of you, but you’ll love every minute of it.