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A Fake Newsman's Fake Newsman: Stephen Colbert

Comic and journalist Stephen Colbert is the fake senior correspondent on Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. We talk with Colbert about his reports, from "Rathergate" to "This Week in God."


Other segments from the episode on January 24, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 24, 2005: Interview with Stephen Colbert; Interview with Fred de Cordova.


DATE January 24, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Stephen Colbert discusses his work on "The Daily Show"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In the world of fake news, Stephen Colbert is a trailblazing political
reporter and analyst. Colbert is a correspondent for "The Daily Show" with
Jon Stewart. His work is a hilarious satire of the news and the TV
journalists who report it. He got his start with the improv group Second
City. He co-created and co-starred in the Comedy Central series "Strangers
with Candy," and is also in the new film adaptation of the same name which is
showing at the current Sundance Film Festival.

Let's start with one of Stephen Colbert's reports. Here's "The Daily Show's"
anchor, Jon Stewart, introducing Colbert's commentary on the CBS News internal
investigation into the accuracy of Dan Rather's report on President Bush's
National Guard service.

(Soundbite from "The Daily Show")

Mr. JON STEWART (Host): For more analysis of this news news, we go out to
"Daily Show's" senior news analysis analyst, Stephen Colbert, standing by at
CBS headquarters on West 57th Street here in Manhattan.

Stephen, thank you for joining us. CBS was caught red-handed presenting
deceptive information. Can you shed any light on exactly what has happened
here at CBS and how?

Mr. STEPHEN COLBERT: Absolutely, Jon. So hasty was CBS News to get the story
they wanted that they took obviously flawed intelligence from highly
questionable sources and rushed to present it to the American people as
reality. Then, even in the face of overwhelming countervailing evidence, CBS
refused to back down. They unilaterally invaded our airwaves based on false
pretenses. That's perhaps why tonight CBS finds itself isolated, without
allies, its reputation in tatters. I cannot think of another example of this
having happened.

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)

Mr. COLBERT: Wait! No, I can't think of anything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: But, Stephen, to CBS' credit, they did admit that not
authenticating the evidence presented in their report was a mistake.

Mr. COLBERT: Yes, that was their second biggest mistake.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: What was the first?

Mr. COLBERT: Presenting evidence.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: You see, Jon, evidence can be checked. That's the old news
paradigm. CBS stated in the report the president was derelict in this duty.
Cable news knows you simply need to raise the question: Was President Bush
derelict in his duty? You see, you don't need the right facts when you've got
the right inflection.

Mr. STEWART: Well, that's just--no, I see your inflection and the way you
move your head with it, but that's just inuendo, and that can't be the only
thing in a news story.

Mr. COLBERT: Can't it? I ask you: Does Jon Stewart orally pleasure
Teamsters for pocket change?

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: Well, you are certainly entitled to that opinion, but I'm sure I
can assemble an impressive panel who thinks you do. The truth lies somewhere
in between. Let's talk about it for eight weeks and let the public decide.

GROSS: Stephen Colbert, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd love to talk with you
about how your reports are produced for "The Daily Show." Let's take the
report on Rathergate, which we just heard.


GROSS: OK. How did you...

Mr. COLBERT: Real high-brow ending on that one. We really, really shot for
the intellectual elite on that ending there.

GROSS: How did you figure out what your angle was gonna be? You know, like,
for instance, comparing what CBS did to the information that the Bush
administration gave about Iraq before we invaded.

Mr. COLBERT: It's the first thing we thought of, and then we said, `Oh, nah,
nah, nah, that's too obvious. Let's just do something else.' And then we
eventually went back to it and--'cause we couldn't think of anything better,
and we said, `No, that's clearly the joke for us here.' And the hardest thing
about that joke for us was how hard do we push that idea? Because we started
writing this by saying, `Oh, they went forward with flawed intelligence,' and
we thought: Is that obvious enough? Are people gonna get that parallel as
clearly as we see that parallel? And that's why we had to add in things like
`invaded our airwaves,' you know, `bereft of allies,' you know, `isolated in
the world.' We were surprised it took that long in the monologue for the
audience to catch on to what our game was, because it's the very first joke
that occurred to us.

GROSS: OK. And then in the second half of that sketch, you talk about cable


GROSS: And talking about how all you need to do in cable news is just raise
the question and then let the audience decide whether it's true or not. So...

Mr. COLBERT: Right.

GROSS: a little bit about making that analogy to cable news and
making that critique of cable news.

Mr. COLBERT: Well, it--the fascinating thing about cable news to me is how
little information you actually get from cable news. They don't live in a
different world than the evening news, the national nightly news on the big
networks, and yet they manage to spin it into 24 hours. And that beast that
has to be fed of the 24-hour news cycle has forced, I think, cable news to
rely too heavily on analysis. 'Cause what do you do once you've said this
thing happened in the world? Then you have an expert on to talk about what
affect it's gonna have, then you have someone else come on and say, `No, it's
probably gonna have an opposite effect,' or someone's gonna talk about the
political ramifications or someone's gonna talk about what it's gonna cost,
and all these things are opinion.

When you present two different ideas that are diametrically opposed in terms
of how they see the world and you let the audience to--decide, the audience is
generally, even if they're someone who's left wing or someone who's right
wing, isn't gonna say, `I'm all one way or I'm all the other way.' They're
gonna--you know, they're gonna mix these two things together and come up with
the least informed mishmash of ideas you could possibly have.

GROSS: When you started doing "The Daily Show," did you think that in your
own way you were gonna become a media critic and a political critic?

Mr. COLBERT: No, absolutely not. Oh, God. I desperately needed a job, and
I'm a comedian, I'm not a news person. And in my--right before--well,
actually right before "The Daily Show" I was working for "Good Morning
America" because then I really needed a job. I had come to New York to work
on "The Dana Carvey Show," and that had gotten canceled, and then I wrote for
"Saturday Night Live" for a very brief period of time, and I then was just
doing pickup work in comedy around New York and somebody said, `Do you want to
come work with "The Daily Show?" And I thought, `Sure.' I didn't know anything
about it. I have a, you know, wife, I had a baby, and so I went over there to
work on the show. And then it wasn't till later--I had worked there for
several years--that I realized that I'd stumbled on to the best possible job
for me.

GROSS: Have you become much more political since doing "The Daily Show?"

Mr. COLBERT: Yes. I started off at the Second City in Chicago, which is
ostensibly--it's an improvisational theater that ostensibly does social and
political satire, but when I was there we generally didn't. We did character
work and we did just the silliest things we could think of. We weren't all
that concerned with, you know, changing the world through mime. And I made a
conscious effort then not to do political stuff when I first started out
because I found so much political humor false, stuff that just told the
audience what they thought already about a political situation.

I mean, the example is people making Ted Kennedy drinking jokes, which didn't
seem to be informative or satirical. They just seemed mean-spirited and just
told the audience what they thought already. And that kind of stuff turned me
off. There wasn't a lot of, you know--I don't think there was a lot of good
political comedy when I first started. And I took that over into everything I
did. I just had no interest in actually reflecting anything that was
happening in pop culture or the real world. The people that I worked
with--Paul Dinello and Amy Sedaris for the most part--we had a little pact
that we wouldn't talk about politics, we wouldn't talk about pop culture and
we wouldn't make references to real places or people. We would just do scenes
of--between--relationship scenes.

And then when I got to "The Daily Show," they asked me to have a political
opinion--or rather Jon did. When Craig was there, it wasn't so political.
Jon asked me to have a political opinion, and it turned out that I had one,
but I didn't realize quite how liberal I was until I was asked to make
passionate comedic choices as opposed to necessarily successful comedic

GROSS: Boy, I like the way you put that, passionate comedic choices.

Mr. COLBERT: Well, yeah. I mean, Jon has asked us to be political and to
share his interest in doing political comedy that actually has some thought
behind it, and as a result, if you don't do something that you feel
passionately about, if you're not talking in a passionate way about it, you're
gonna sound just as false as a politician who's doing a stump speech that is
to please his audience and doesn't reflect a dearly held political idea. And
more than anything else, we don't want to sound predictable and we don't want
to sound--or I don't want to sound like I don't believe what I'm saying.

GROSS: My guest is Stephen Colbert, a reporter and news analyst for "The
Daily Show" with Jon Stewart. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Stephen Colbert, and he's an
actor and comic. He's a correspondent for "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart.

I want to play another example of your work. You often do something called
This Week in God, and before we go any further, why don't you explain the
premise of This Week in God and how you developed the concept?

Mr. COLBERT: It's a semi-weekly segment on "The Daily Show" that explores
religious news, and we have something called the God machine, and the sound
effect for the God machine is (makes beeping noises), and it has images behind
me, religious iconography going on behind me like, you know, Jesus, Buddha,
Starbucks, all the major icons of our day. And it's just like a little weekly
wrap-up of what's happening in the world of God.

GROSS: And I'm gonna play an example of a recent This Week in God. Here's
Stephen Colbert.


(Soundbite of "The Daily Show"; beeping noises)

Mr. COLBERT: Christianity. Pharmaceutical Christianity. Some devoutly
religious pharmacists are refusing to fill prescriptions for birth control
citing their moral opposition to contraception. Viagra, on the other hand,
that crank makes your jimmy thicker.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: And that is the gospel truth.

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)

Mr. COLBERT: Texas pharmacist Steve Mosher explained why he doesn't dispense
the pill.

Mr. STEVE MOSHER (Pharmacist): I just cannot go with participating in taking
the life of an innocent human being.

Mr. COLBERT: Remember, he's talking about birth control pills, the ones that
prevent fertilization, because for Mosher, life begins as soon as you think of
having sex.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: By the way, the average adult male creates life every seven

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: There she goes.

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)

Mr. COLBERT: One more. In their defense, pharmacists say they've received no
complaints from their customers who aren't huge sluts.

GROSS: That's Stephen Colbert.

Did you actually talk to the pharmacist, or was that a news clip from somebody
else's report?

Mr. COLBERT: No, that's a news clip. We get our stuff off of the AP wire.

GROSS: OK. Did you ever hear from him?

Mr. COLBERT: No. Oh God, I don't want to ever hear from anyone. I try not
to hear from the people I talk about...

GROSS: What...

Mr. COLBERT: ...for fear that they're gonna be upset about the things I say.

GROSS: Well, particularly when you're dealing with religion, you have every
reason to think that they will be upset about what you say to...

Mr. COLBERT: Oh, absolutely. This Week in God is--you know, This Week in God
is, for me, a tightrope, because I--while I'm, you know, not a particularly
religious person, I do go to church, which makes me kind of odd for my
profession. You know, most people can't understand why I do, other comedians.
And I have to walk that thin line because I don't want to criticize anyone's
religions for the fact that it is a religion, and what's funny to me is what
people do in the name of religion.

GROSS: So how do you walk that line? What kind of test, in a way, do you
administer to your material before doing it to make sure that you can live
with it, and that you're not being offensive...

Mr. COLBERT: That is it disre...

GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.

Mr. COLBERT: Does it disrespect the concept of their belief? And if it does,
then I really don't think I can do it, because who am I to say that what they
believe is wrong? But if they are doing things, using religion as a tool in
some other behavior, you know, hypocritical or destructive, then it's fair

GROSS: Now how did refusing to give birth control prescriptions pass the

Mr. COLBERT: Because it has a central hypocritical quality to it. It
pre--birth control prevents abortion, and so if you are anti-abortion, it
seems like that would be one of the first things that you would do is give
people birth control. And also the fact that pharmacists have no trouble
passing out Viagra, which is a sexual enhancement drug with absolutely no
license or restriction on how it would be used, seems like a very easy
conflict of ideas. I'm sorry, my parsing of my jokes is so dry, but talking
about comedy is such--talk about walking a tightrope, it seems so dangerous to
me to talk about comedy in this sort of dry way because nothing will take the
juice out of a joke faster than talking about what made it funny.

I remember when I was a kid, I was such a huge fan of John Cleese, and he was
on "Dick Cavett," and I thought, `Oh, this is gonna be wonderful. They're
gonna do a three-part series.' And I was bored to tears listening to him, and
my fear has always been that if I talk about what I do in a sincere way, that
I'm gonna bore some young boy out there like I was bored by John Cleese and
Dick Cavett. So I'm--you know, if I seem reticent to talk about my own stuff,
it's merely for fear that I'm just gonna bore the tears out of people.

GROSS: Well, first of all, I want to say I perceive it as part of my job to
drain the humor out of comedy, and in that I think I succeed quite well.

Mr. COLBERT: You...

GROSS: No, but really, I'm so...

Mr. COLBERT: I'm enjoying this interview, but--I'm enjoying this interview
because I just love it, but I just love the fact that you're interviewing me
and you would care to hear what I think, but do you understand my fear?

GROSS: I absolutely do. I absolutely do. And I was concerned about that
myself that I would be, you know, asking you to do that. On the other hand,
I'm so interested in the way your mind works...


GROSS: ...and in how the show is put together, and also on--since you're
dealing with--you're dealing in landmine kind of material. I mean, you're not
dealing in little quips. You're dealing with satire of religion and politics,
and it's really important...

Mr. COLBERT: You see, I don't actually think...

GROSS: I'm so interested in how you...

Mr. COLBERT: I don't think it's that...

GROSS: ...navigate through all that.

Mr. COLBERT: I don't actually think what we do or what I do is navigating
through minefields of material. I mean, navigating through minefields is
navigating through minefields of material for me. You know, as Noel Coward
said, `When I think of miners and waiters and diners, those are people who are
doing something hard. We're just saying what makes us laugh.' And while it
may take, you know, intellectual sweat to get it out, we're having a great
time doing it, and the walking the tightrope quality of it where--how can you
talk about one thing and where do you draw the line about what you talk about
next--is--that's actually--if you maintain your humanity, if you don't think
like a joke is more important than being humane, like not talking about
tragedy or not questioning someone's dearly held beliefs religiously, if you
can keep in mind a certain level of humanity, then that's a good guide as to
what you can and cannot talk about.

GROSS: You know one of the things that's so interesting about "The Daily
Show" and about your reports on it is that, you know, the sensibility of the
show is so about, like, being comfortable with the fact that people have sex
with each other, and that there's homosexuality in the world and that...

Mr. COLBERT: Yeah.

GROSS: ...there's religion and there's also secularism, and the sensibility
is so different, just so inherently different than the sensibility of the
Christian right or of most of the people in the Bush administration, that just
the sensibility-wise you're, like, kind of automatically coming from a
completely different place, and it's a place that the most left-wing pundit
couldn't necessarily come from because as late-night comics you can do things
about sex that, you know, a pundit on CNN is not gonna do, not gonna say.

Mr. COLBERT: Well, he has to stand by what he says, and we don't. I can
retreat from any statement I've ever made on "The Daily Show" without anyone
impugning my credibility 'cause I've never claimed any.

GROSS: Good point.

Mr. COLBERT: But a pundit has to back up what he says with statistics and
some study from the Pew Research Center on the effect of homosexual parents on
adopted children. I don't.

GROSS: Well...

Mr. COLBERT: And so I can say anything because I'm not asking you to believe
that I mean it. I'm just hoping that you'll laugh at what I say. It doesn't
mean I don't mean it, but I'm not expecting to change your mind.

GROSS: Right. Do you have lawyers who look at your material and tell you
what is suable?

Mr. COLBERT: We--you know, we have lawyers, but we get people to sign
releases that basically say that we get their kidneys, you know, when they
die, and I don't know why anyone would sign a release ever. I don't know why
anyone ever talk to the press for any reason whatsoever. I mean, the press is
like a lamprey that latches on to a subject and just sucks and sucks and sucks
until your brain and your soul is as dry as a crouton, because they need what
you've got inside you to make their story, and they don't care anything about
you. They care about their story. And so, you know, I've advised everyone in
my family: You never, ever, ever talk to the press for any reason, unless
you're trying to maybe redeem your character from having talked to the press
earlier. You know, the only way you should speak to the press is if you've
already spoken to them once by accident.

GROSS: Stephen Colbert is a reporter and news analyst for "The Daily Show"
with Jon Stewart. He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Coming up, reporting the fake news from the Republican convention. We
continue our conversation with Stephen Colbert of "The Daily Show." And we
remember Johnny Carson. We'll hear an excerpt of our 1988 interview with his
longtime producer, the late Fred De Cordova.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Stephen Colbert, a
towering presence in the world of fake news. He's a reporter and
correspondent for "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart. I asked him about his
report from the Republican National Convention.

When you were at the Republican National Convention and you were interviewing
some people on the floor, did they have any clue...


GROSS: ...who you were?

Mr. COLBERT: Less than the Democratic National Convention but not completely
clueless. Tom DeLay didn't know I wasn't real, but all of his handlers did
and they wouldn't let me near him.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. COLBERT: Actually I said, `Congressman DeLay, do you have a second to
speak to me? Stephen Colbert from "The Daily Show."' And he goes,
`Absolutely,' and he starts walking over to me. And, you know, this moon
eclipses Tom DeLay between the two of us and someone says, `Hi. I'm a big fan
of the show. The congressman is a little busy right now.'

GROSS: Right.

Mr. COLBERT: And the congressman said, `No, I'm not. I've got an hour.' He
goes, `Nope. You've got to go talk to CNN.' `That's at 11:00.' `Sir, this
is not the time.'

GROSS: Well, there goes one interview down. There was--I think it was a
delegate you were talking to at the Republican National Convention...


GROSS: ...and you told her that you were a reporter from NAMBLA, which is the
National Man/Boy Love Association.

Mr. COLBERT: Well, yes. Well, she--I was desperate at the Republican
National Convention because not a lot of people would talk to me. It was a
really dead house. Unlike the Democratic National Convention, which felt like
a tent revival, the Republican National Convention felt, you know, much more
like a Presbyterian Church. Everyone was very enthusiastic for the certain
hymns they were going to hear and they were going to sing loudly and clearly,
but once the sermon was over, we're all going to go to, you know, the coffee
and the doughnuts outside.

The people left before the balloons stopped dropping, and so there wasn't a
lot of life on the floor. And there was this slightly robotic quality and it
was really hard to get things out of people, and so I was just stopping anyone
I could and just saying, `How are you?' That's--you know, I actually
complimented that woman's blouse. That's how I decided I would get someone to
talk to me. And she said, `Oh, thank you. Where are you from?' I said,
`NAMBLA.' And she said, `Well, welcome.' I said, `Thank you.' `I hope you
have a good time.' `I plan to. I plan to.' See, now the danger is that
woman turned out to be a friend of my sister's, and...

GROSS: Did she really?

Mr. COLBERT: Yes. And...

GROSS: Seriously.

Mr. COLBERT: Yes, absolutely. My sister called me later and said, `The woman
you introduced yourself to from NAMBLA, I work with her.' I'm, like, `I'm so
sorry. I'm so sorry.' At the Democratic National Convention, I--there was
one bit I wanted to do when Kerry was giving his speech and that was interrupt
someone who was listening to the speech and clearly enjoying it, ask him how
he's enjoying the speech. And I found a guy in the corner who was just
clapping his hands and thumbs-up and rocking his head and, you know, popping
up and down on the back of his heels and I thought, `I've never seen anybody
so enthusiastic about a speech in my life.' So I go up and say, `How are you
liking it so far?' He goes, `It's great. It's great. It's great.' `What
did he just say?' `I don't know 'cause you're asking me what he just said.'
`OK. I'm sorry. I missed--what was that then?' `I--please, go away.'

And I ran into that guy in Penn Station a week ago and he came up to me and I
had this really warm feeling when I saw him. I was, like, `Wow. Why did that
guy make me feel so good?' and I found out later it was because, you know, I
associated his face with a bit that went well, which is, you know, the really
selfish way comedians think. And he said, `I'm the guy you interrupted,' and
I said, `Oh, God, I'm so sorry. Are you OK with it?' He goes, `I'm a huge
fan of the show. I didn't recognize you that night, but I really enjoy the
show, you know? Good work.' And I said, `Well, I've never seen anybody so
into a speech in my entire life.' And he said, `Well, that's because I wrote
it.' And...

GROSS: Oh, you're kidding.

Mr. COLBERT: And I said, `Oh, I'm so sorry. Like, your career was peaking at
that moment.'


Mr. COLBERT: `That was, like, the highlight of your career and I interrupted
you.' And he goes, `I'm one of the people. I wrote on it. You know, I'm on
the communications team.' But he was fine with it, but, I mean, inherent in
the show in what I do is an obnoxiousness that is not necessarily in my
nature. I mean, I was raised by very polite people in a nice family in a nice
little Southern community and, you know, you have to sort of get over the idea
that you can invade people's spaces with the job. And I'm always afraid that
I'm actually going to genuinely upset people, but like that guy, for the most
part, I find that people have a pretty good sense of humor about themselves.

GROSS: Who are some of the press people you have modeled your persona on?

Mr. COLBERT: Stone Phillips, number one, A, for his hair, which is majestic,
or used to be. He got this close-cropped kind of Matt Lauer thing recently
that I can't pull off and, therefore, I don't emulate. And what a neck on
that guy--just a beautiful manly, like, lacrosse player's neck and a name like
Stone, and he's got a way of tilting his head when he talks, you know, when he
makes a point and he goes, you know, `There were no survivors,' you know? He
tilts his head to go, `It's true. There weren't. There were none. We
looked. There were none there. It's sad.'

And Geraldo for his--you know, I read an interview with him once saying, `I'm
like a battleship on patrol when I go jogging in Central Park. I'd love to
see somebody get mugged 'cause I'd bring the hammer down,' and I think--well,
that's the heart of his persona. He really is changing the world with every
interview he does. A little bit, just syllable by syllable, he is just
changing the great ship of human destiny with his will toward justice. And
those are two great guys to emulate 'cause, one, you've got this manly, sexy,
trustworthy package, and then the other one, you've got somebody with a

I mean, my character on "The Daily Show" is essentially a very
well-intentioned, poorly informed person and, you know, very high-status idiot
who, you know, really thinks that he's--`You know, we're going to bust things
wide open with this report,' when, in fact, he never has an idea of what he's
talking about.

GROSS: You know what I love about that character? You have such, like,
incredible diction when you're doing "The Daily Show" correspondent character.

Mr. COLBERT: `Why, thank you very much, Terry. Amidst the mist with
fiercest frost and barest wrists and stoutest boasts, he thrusts the fists
against the post and still insists he sees the ghosts. Jon.'

GROSS: That's really great. Is that an acting exercise for diction?

Mr. COLBERT: `It is, indeed. Martha and Margaret walked arm in arm to the
charming park not far from their father's house. Jon.'

GROSS: That's wonderful.

Mr. COLBERT: Thank you very much. Thank you very much. It's a skill.

GROSS: Does it come in handier as a correspondent on "The Daily Show" than
it's come in on stage?

Mr. COLBERT: I--well, it's really hard for people to buy me as somebody
who's not sort of high status, because I grew up in a family that valued
intelligence and so it was drilled into me. `Now you speak a certain way,'
and it wasn't drilled into me. It was just sort of valued that you should
seem intelligent. As a matter of fact, as a kid, when I was watching--I grew
up in the South but I don't have a Southern accent, not because I don't like
Southern accents. I'm actually sort of sad that I don't have a Southern
accent, but as a kid, I'd look at TV and I would see that Southern people or
people with Southern accents were portrayed as being stupid, and I didn't want
to seem stupid. I wanted to seem smart. And so I remember thinking, `I kind
of want to talk like John Chancellor. You know, I want to talk like
Cronkite.' I wanted to talk like newspeople 'cause they seemed smart and high
status and, I mean, what could be better than that? And--not being a great
athlete. And so it just comes naturally to me. It was a choice I made, you
know, when I was still in knee pants.

GROSS: OK. So...

Mr. COLBERT: I mean, is that a shocking revelation--I don't know...

GROSS: No, no, no.

Mr. COLBERT: ...that a child would make a choice like that?

GROSS: And the choice was to be smart and have good diction?

Mr. COLBERT: Oh, to seem smart.

GROSS: To seem smart.

Mr. COLBERT: There's a difference between being smart--I never said I am
smart. I said I wanted to seem smart.

GROSS: And that's where your good diction comes from?

Mr. COLBERT: You just go into a room. You gauge the intelligence of the
room, and then if you can take one step above it, then you talk. If you
can't, you just stay quiet the whole time. That's what, you know, wanting to
seem smart does to your persona.

GROSS: Now you grew up in a family with--What?--11 children?

Mr. COLBERT: Yeah, I'm one of 11 kids. I'm the youngest.

GROSS: And was it a religious family? You say you go to church and...

Mr. COLBERT: Oh, absolutely.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. COLBERT: We're, you know, very devout and, you know, I still go to
church and, you know, my children are being raised in the Catholic Church.
And I was actually my daughters' catechist last year for First Communion,
which was a great opportunity to speak very simply and plainly about your
faith without anybody saying, `Yeah, but do you believe that stuff?' which
happens a lot in what I do.

GROSS: Can I ask you a kind of serious question about faith?

Mr. COLBERT: I've been turning all of your funny questions into serious
things for an hour or so. I don't see why you can't do the same to me.

GROSS: In the sketch we heard earlier from "This Week In God," you talked
about the Christian pharmacist who refused to fill a prescription for birth

Mr. COLBERT: Right.

GROSS: Now the Catholic Church opposes birth control, which...

Mr. COLBERT: They do.

GROSS: ...I presume you do not and...

Mr. COLBERT: Presume away.

GROSS: how do you deal with contradictions between, like, the church
and the way you live your life, which is something that a lot of people in the
Catholic Church have to deal with?

Mr. COLBERT: Well, sure. You know, that's the hallmark of an American
Catholic, is the individuation of America and the homogenation of the church;
homogenation in terms of dogma. I love my church and I don't think that it
actually makes zombies or unquestioning people. I think it's actually a
church that values intellectualism, but certainly, it can become very
dogmatically rigid.

Somebody once asked me, `How do you be a father'--'cause I'm a father of three
children--`and be anti-authoritarian?' And I said, `Well, that's not nearly
as hard as being anti-authoritarian and being a Roman Catholic,' you know?
That's really patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time. I
don't know. You know, I don't believe that I can't disagree with my church
and I'll leave it at that.

GROSS: My guest is Stephen Colbert, a reporter and news analyst for "The
Daily Show" with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Stephen Colbert. He's a correspondent for "The Daily
Show" with Jon Stewart. He's an actor and comic and will be in the new movie
"Strangers with Candy," which is based on the TV series, a series that he

Let's talk a little bit about "Strangers with Candy." It's a...


GROSS: ...series and now soon to be a movie that was conceived by you, Amy
Sedaris, who's David Sedaris' sister, among many other things, and...

Mr. COLBERT: Also a great baker.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. And it was supposed...

Mr. COLBERT: And Paul Dinello.

GROSS: And Paul Dinello. Yeah. And it was supposed to originally be an
after-school special or was it just like a parody of an aft--I know it's a
parody of an after-school special, but did you...

Mr. COLBERT: Well, the first thing that Amy wanted to do was do straight
after-school specials, literally take an after-school special script and just
perform it and try to do it sincerely, because she had, along with some other
friends of ours, done "Night, Mother" very straight, done "Come Back Little
Sheba," you know, as straight as she was able to, which is not very straight,
I have to say, and she wanted to take something that was also very
melodramatic and very heartrending and, you know, I think all three of us
value the comedy that can come out of the most heartrending moments, you know,
real human vulnerability.

And after-school specials are all about vulnerability, all about trying to fit
in some place where you feel unwanted or trying to find how to behave among
people who will criticize anything you do--you know, high school, the jungle
of high school. And that idea eventually transformed into transferring that
kind of tortured emotional reasoning of a teen-ager on to adults. So while
the school may take place at a high school, the adults are all the main
characters, but they have high-school issues like, `Do people like me? Do I
fit in? Should I be a snitch on my friend?' But it's all the teachers who
are going through this problem, and Jerri Blank, who's the main character,
who's a 46-year-old high-school freshman, who's an ex-junkie, ex-con,
ex-hooker, who decides to pick up her life exactly where she left off, which
was 14 when she ran away from home. And so she takes that phrase literally
and goes back there.

GROSS: And you play a teacher and assistant principal.

Mr. COLBERT: Yeah, I'm a teacher. I'm a history teacher, a science teacher,
assistant principal, book club adviser. We're anything we need to be on the
show, but, yeah, I'm a closeted homosexual history teacher who's having an
affair with the art teacher who just detests Jerri Blank because he actually
has no personal authority and no sense of himself and lives a completely
unexamined life and hates the fact that anyone--this Jerri Blank character
comes into his classroom and questions his authority because he has no way to
back up his authority with action, with integrity or with information.

GROSS: In the first episode of the TV series, "Strangers with Candy," you're
in the men's room...

Mr. COLBERT: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: ...urinating, and the art teacher comes in and starts talking to you.
And it's clear eventually that he's trying to pick you up, and then the scene
turns into a direct quote from the movie "Perk Up Your Ears" about Joe Orton,
and he kind of lifts you up and you knock out the...

Mr. COLBERT: Well, it be--he lifts me up and I punch the light out with my

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. COLBERT: And as my darling mother said, `And then you started wrestling.'
And I don't want to say my mother's not a hip chick. She is really hip.
She's down with anything I do, but, yeah, we started wrestling. Yeah.
Exactly. The idea of that scene was that we had planned the entire thing. It
was a complete farce and that this is the way that we hooked up. This is the
way that we had our illicit affairs is that we would pretend that we didn't
know each other and we'd run into each other in these contrived ways and then
have sex someplace. Like, we wrote another scene where we get into a
preplanned car accident and then we're yelling at each other and we go, `Well,
I'm going to need your insurance information. Get in the back of my car and
let's exchange information. Yeah. I can't wait to exchange information with
you.' And then the car is all steamed up by the end of the scene when you cut
back to us.

GROSS: Who was the most ridiculous teacher you had when you were in high

Mr. COLBERT: I had a very poor high-school experience. The most ridiculous
teacher that I had in high school wasn't actually comedic in any way. I had a
teacher at my high school who has now been in jail and is no longer living who
had affairs with 50 students...

GROSS: Whoa!

Mr. COLBERT: ...and many of my friends, it turns out. He was a man and he
was having sex with young boys at my school. And everyone at the school knew
that he was an odd bird. I mean, he was the team trainer, and if you got hit
on the head with a baseball, he'd ice your groin...

GROSS: Oh, gee.

Mr. COLBERT: ...and we--I know. You see, you can't help but laugh at that,
but--which is sort of the nut of "Strangers with Candy," is that that's a
terrible thing and yet there's something funny about the obviousness of that
behavior that never got caught. And he was obviously a twisted individual and
we made jokes about how Mr. Fisher would ice your groin at chapel. We'd get
up and, like, give speeches and we'd talk about crazy Mr. Fisher, and yet
nothing was ever done about him. I mean, and it turned out the administration
must have known that he was the baddest of bad eggs because when the
headmaster, just a few years ago when this all came out, was to be deposed,
the day before he was to be deposed about what he knew about it, he killed
himself. So, you know, that's sort of the high school I look back at and that
darkness, I think, translates into the writing about "Strangers with Candy."

GROSS: Wow. So, you know, looking at that, you've even with that had to find
a way of taking something that's very dark, very upsetting, very damaging,
both in terms of what he did to himself and what he did to all the students,
and find what's really absurd and ridiculous about it.

Mr. COLBERT: Yeah. I mean, I would say that, you know, something like that
hasn't necessarily been the source of humor so much, though, you know,
selfishness is always funny to me, and also people who are supposedly in
authority who turn out to be selfish is particularly funny to me because it's
the worst type of hypocrisy.

GROSS: So "Strangers with Candy" has been adapted into a film. It's playing
at Sundance--be shown at Sundance.

Mr. COLBERT: Yeah, Monday night, actually. I mean, I know this is broadcast
later, but...

GROSS: So what are some of the differences between the movie and the TV

Mr. COLBERT: You learn a little bit about more Jerri's past, how she came to
the town, and other than that, we just tried to do--what we did in the TV
show, was to put our characters in moral quandaries and then think of what
would be the wrongest choice they could make at every juncture. It's actually
an exhausting way to write because, you know, I think it's in Philippians Paul
says, you know, `Whatsoever things are true, whatever things are just,
whatever things are, you know, holy and righteous, you know, set your mind to
these things and you will become like that,' you know? You know, `You'll move
toward the mind of God.' But, you know, if you spend years thinking about,
`What is the worst? What is the most selfish? What is the least holy?' it
can really wear you down to think like these people.

GROSS: I want to thank you so much.

Mr. COLBERT: Does that answer your question?

GROSS: Yes. Yeah.

Mr. COLBERT: I'm sorry. I'm sorry I interrupted your trademark.

GROSS: My thank yous.

Mr. COLBERT: Thank you so much. I looked forward to it so much. I was
trying to prepare what I would say to you. `I enjoyed it so much,' and I
thought, `Well, me, too,' or, `So much,' or, `It was my pleasure.' I had a
whole list of them and now they're all gone. So let's just improv this.

GROSS: OK. Let's just try it. Let's just try it.

Stephen Colbert, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. COLBERT: Thank you.

GROSS: Stephen Colbert is a reporter and fake news analyst for "The Daily
Show" with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central.

This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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