To use a word coined by Stephen Colbert, the writer and actor, there’s a certain “truthiness” about Stephen Colbert, the character and host of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.” Indeed, Colbert the character, a right-wing blowhard on a one-man mission to reeducate the ignorant, is convincing enough that a recent Ohio State University study found that a majority of conservatives polled believed Colbert the man was one of them.
The irony couldn’t please him more. “I’m thrilled by it!” he says, sitting in his New York office, a pack rat’s homage to the show crammed with pictures and props and a “Lord of the Rings” pinball machine. “From the very beginning, I wanted to jump back and forth over the line of meaning what I say, and the truth of the matter is I’m not on anyone’s side, I’m on my side,” he says. “The important thing is that the audience laughs.”
The audience has been obliging him for the last 3 1/2 years, when Jon Stewart crowned the “Daily Show” correspondent with his own realm. While Colbert, a South Carolina native who trained in improvisation at Chicago’s famed Second City, earned three Emmys as a “Daily Show” writer, he has since proved himself a competitor. Last year, his show won a writing Emmy, and for the last three years, it has been pitted against “The Daily Show” for variety, music or comedy series. “Jon said, ‘Don’t think you need to thank me if you win because you don’t need to perceive me as the reason you’re doing this,’ but it’s the truth,” says Colbert, who speaks with Stewart weekly. “He’s very generous.”
Colbert works hard not to disappoint. He and his staff of 90 put in a minimum of 12-hour days. “It’s a new show, and I’m a control freak,” admits Colbert, who keeps a piece of paper taped to his desk that reads “work.” But, he continues, “What we’re doing is difficult. We deconstruct the news into a joke, and then we falsely reconstruct the news into how my character would see it. The writers and I talk about how it’s like driving an 18-wheeler backward down a highway. It’s possible, but you have to constantly readjust the steering.”
While the comedian’s personal life is staid -- he and his wife and three children live in suburban New Jersey, where he teaches Sunday school and roots for Little League -- Colbert has taken his share of professional hits. He wrote for the short-lived “Dana Carvey Show”; “Strangers With Candy,” a series he created and starred in along with Amy Sedaris in 1999 for Comedy Central, earned a cult following but lasted just 30 episodes. Perhaps his most public gaffe was his 2006 performance at the White House Correspondents Dinner, where a stunned audience listened to him reel off lines about then-President Bush such as, “Events can change; this man’s beliefs never will.” Says Allison Silverman, executive producer of “The Colbert Report,” “I was really impressed with him continuing when it was not the audience we expected. My feeling there was pure respect for him having the cojones to continue.”
Colbert says sinking the ship by himself is much less fun than having a playmate to go down with, one of the many reasons he entices such recent and diverse personalities as Meghan McCain and Ron Howard to join him on the show. But a certain fearlessness is a job prerequisite. “The first director I had at Second City said, ‘You have to learn to love the bomb,’ and I didn’t know what he meant for a very long time,” Colbert says. “But there’s something nice about getting to the point where you enjoy the feeling that people aren’t laughing. Imagine a child drinking beer for the first time and they can’t possibly understand why you like it, and you can’t possibly explain why it tastes good. But there’s a buzz to failing and not dying.”
These days, Colbert -- whose character seemed to tear up when Stewart announced Obama’s victory on election night -- is playing a bit nicer with the establishment. He leapt at the chance to head to the Persian Gulf this summer, along with a bare-bones production staff, to entertain the troops and broadcast the show for a week. “It’s an honor,” he says. “My grandmother always said, ‘Never refuse a legitimate adventure, and it’s up to you to figure out what legitimate means.’ This is a legitimate adventure.”
As for what else might lie in his professional future, Colbert says the next goal is trying to work fewer hours.
“Jon has been doing this for 11 years, and I want to like this as much as I do now 11 years down the road. But I like it as much now as I did when I started, even those days when I feel like I’m going to get physically sick from the exhaustion,” he says earnestly. “Just last week, it was a day when we were killing ourselves but right before the show, I had this sudden feeling of, ‘I can’t believe I get to do this again. This is the greatest job in the world.’ ”