Stephen Colbert is a man who has found his niche.
Wickedly smart, always clever and occasionally goofy, what other career path to take than comedy? But it took a cathartic moment to convince him to abandon his fears and pursue the art of making people laugh, or, as he has described his career to his young children, ‘saying silly things for a living.’
Born and raised in South Carolina, Colbert began making a name for himself in Chicago as a member of the famed “Second City” improv troupe where he met two friends that shared his twisted sense of humor — Amy Sedaris and Paul Dinello. The threesome moved to New York and developed “Exit 57,” a half-hour sketch comedy series that ran for two seasons during the mid-‘90s on Comedy Central.
A correspondent and standout on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” since 1997, Colbert has reported on an eclectic mix of subjects, but shines most when he’s covering the foibles of Washington politicos. As a commerical pitchman, he’s the funniest thing to happen to Mr. Goodwrench since ... well, ever. Now his knack for satire has propelled him into no less than three films set for release this year.
While still maintaining his post as political correspondent on “The Daily Show,” Colbert has reunited with Sedaris and Dinello to create the big-screen version of his successful Comedy Central series, “Strangers with Candy,” an ‘interpretation’ on the classic and typically moralistic afterschool specials ... except the central character happens to be a 46-year-old ex-junkie prostitute who’s back in high school. Why not?
You recently returned from The Sundance Film Festival, where the film version of “Strangers With Candy” was one of the first films purchased. Explain to us non-insiders what this means and why this is a great thing.
It’s great because it looks like your funders might get their money back, which means you might get to make another movie at some point. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to have a hit or anything.
But it’s a good sign!
Well, it just means that someone will see it!
You work for, literally, years trying to get something together, and you show it at the festival in order to get a distributor. Well, you show it at the festival for someone to see, and if you’re lucky, someone decides to distribute it.
How did you find out about the deal?
We were in the middle of the air, in the middle of the night, on the red-eye. We were flying back from Sundance to New York and we got a call at 3 a.m. — (our production company) had just closed a deal with Warner Brothers independent.
Sounds like an excellent wake-up call…
The best reason to get up at 3 a.m. at 40,000 feet.
Someone once told me that it has never really been your interest, or your goal, to be famous. Is that true?
Who told you that? Liar! Some person whose more famous than me ... threatened by my burgeoning fame!
It has never been your motivation though.
Well, no. I’d just like to continue to work. That would be sufficient for me.
It must be devastating to be going through such a meteroric rise then.
(laughs) It really is.
The way I see, it, when people interview you, they want one of two things — they either want you to ‘be’ funny, or they want you to talk about ‘what it is’ to be funny.
That’s exactly right, I’m hoping to deliver neither to you.
Well mission accomplished. Okay, I’m just teasing. What was the point in your life when you realized that you were going to pursue comedy? In of itself it requires an admission to yourself that you’re funny — and that strikes me as a difficult thing to do.
The point for me in which I had to admit to myself that I was going to pursue a career in comedy was about 5 minutes before I had a nervous breakdown. When I finally realized ‘Oh gosh, I’ve done this too long to really go do anything else.’ I had a panic attack that I had to be medicated and therapized for. I really have painted myself into a career corner, haven’t I?
Yeah, no pressure at all in show business. You chose a career that’s much less stressful than ...
... Than say, law. It didn’t go down well. It didn’t play well to the camera when I realized, ‘Oh s—t, I really don’t have an option at this point in my life.’
So then there had to be a point in your life when you realized that you really could make a living at this. Was that around the same time?
I guess, but every single job I do, before I do it ... I have to fight the urge to sign out a confession that says I’m a fraud and have it distributed among the entire staff.
Speaking of fraud, even though the mainstream media acknowledges that “The Daily Show” is fake…
…a fraud we perpetrate upon the American public, yes...
…Do you find it interesting that mainstream networks have still tried to inject “The Daily Show” into their newscasts?
Do you really think so? I just got asked that by someone who is doing a senior thesis on satire and I didn’t know how to answer that question.
Well, by having you, or other cast members on their show, don’t you think they’re hoping that you’ll inject some ‘funny’ into the newscast?
I think that the news media in some ways appreciates what we do more than the general public does. They understand how crazy news has become today, and I think maybe they enjoy being ribbed in person.
Before doing “The Daily Show,” you did some spots for a major network — I won’t name names … did it have a satirical bent to it?
Let’s just say it was an ‘American Broadcasting Company.’ I won’t say which one!
I only did two pieces, only one of which was ever broadcast. They didn’t like what I was doing, and I certainly didn’t like what I was being asked to do. It just wasn’t a good mix. They wanted me to be witty like the weatherman is witty. They wanted me to ‘quip’ — they didn’t really want satire.
All I know is I pitched 20 pieces in a row and they got shot down. So I thought ‘maybe there is something else out there for me.’
I was only doing it as a day job — I didn’t have any pretensions of being a Correspondent, but I had a wife and a child, and I was living in New York, and I was unemployed. I thought: ‘that sounds like a good idea … that sounds like it might have cash associated with it.’
But it actually set me up well to go over to “The Daily Show” because when I went to “The Daily Show” I had press credentials from ABC news, where ‘more Americans got there news than from any other source,’ at the time.
You initially stayed away from politics in your early days as an improvisational actor, is that right?
Yeah I did, because when I first started out doing comedy in Chicago there were no present political comedians that I really liked, you know? No contemporaries. And so I decided, ‘Oh, that’s a rocky road,’ because you fall into telling the audience what they already think — “Ted Kennedy: ‘nuff said,” things like that. Probably for the first seven years of my career, I’d make no references to the real world, or real places or real events or real America in any way. No pop culture references, none of that. No ‘What’s the deal with Britney Spears?’ None of that.
What caused the change?
I was paid to change it! I was in need of a job and I got hired to do a great show, “The Dana Carvey” show. It was on an ‘American Broadcasting Company’ — I won’t say which one. I got hired and they asked me to do things I had never tried before. They said ‘why don’t you try impressions? Do an impersonation of Geraldo Rivera or Oliver Stone or something like that’ and I found that I could. I had the ability to do it, and I enjoyed doing it and it was all topical. Nearly all the stuff I did was topical, and I had something of a facility for it and I thought, ‘Oh, this is an interesting arrow to add to the quiver!’
But that’s what changed it. I literally got a job where they asked me to do it and I did my best.
And now you’ve got three, count ‘em, three films coming out: “Bewitched,” “Strangers with Candy”and “The Great New Wonderful.” Is this the face of things to come? “Stephen Colbert: Movie Star, Journalist, Denture Wearer?”
Actually, Depends wearer. Hopefully I’ll be doing this until I’m a Depends wearer.
“The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” airs Monday through Thursday at 11pm ET, 10pm CT, on Comedy Central.