*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Satire In Your Stocking With 'A Colbert Christmas'
TERRY GROSS, host.
This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Stephen Colbert, just finished covering the presidential campaign on "The Colbert Report" where he presented commentaries like this.
(Soundbite of TV show "The Colbert Report")
Mr. STEPHEN COLBERT (Host, "The Colbert Report"): Nation, after last night's convention, two things are clear. First, the Republicans have found their message.
Senator JOE LIEBERMAN (Independent, Connecticut): The real ticket for change this year is the McCain-Palin ticket.
Unidentified Woman: You might call that change you can really believe in.
Mr. COLBERT: Yes, Republicans are the true party of change. Remember, they were the ones who changed the rationale for war and they changed the meaning of words - words like freedom, enhanced, and justice department.
GROSS: Now that the campaign is over, Stephen Colbert is ready to celebrate the holidays. His Christmas special debuts Sunday evening on Comedy Central, the same channel that brings us the "The Colbert Report." Inspired by old-fashioned variety shows, "A Colbert of Christmas" features Colbert singing duets with guest stars including Willie Nelson, Elvis Costello, John Legend, and Jon Stewart.
The songs are really funny. They were written for the show by Adam Schlesinger of the band, Fountains of Wayne, and David Javerbaum, executive producer of "The Daily Show." Early in the program, Colbert does this solo number called "Another Christmas Song."
Mr. COLBERT: Hit it Jimmy.
(Soundbite of song "Another Christmas Song")
Mr. COLBERT: (Singing) Ho! It's another Christmas song.
Whoa! Get ready brother for another Christmas song
They play for a month, ad infinitum.
One day it struck me someone must write 'em,
So! It's another Christmas song.
Santa Clause singing on naughty snow,
Reindeer ringing in the mistletoe,
The manger's on fire, the holly's a-glow.
Hear the baby Jesus cryin' ho ho ho.
Hey! It's another Christmas song.
Yay! Another oft' returning, royalty earning Christmas song.
I've got plenty more so go buy a modem.
Log on to iTunes and pay to download 'em.
Pay! For another Christmas song.
Chestnuts glisten on a silent night,
Sleigh-bells kissing by candle light...
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Steven Colbert, welcome back to Fresh Air. Your holiday special is so much fun and it seems to be inspired by the old, like Andy Williams, Bing Crosby, Perry Como Christmas specials with a little Pee-wee's Playhouse thrown in. Did - did...
Mr. COLBERT: Absolutely.
Mr. COLBERT: We - we, you know, it occurred to us after - we recorded it over, you know, many different days because we shot with the different musical guests on it, all separate days because they are all very busy people. And then we put it together. We wrote in such a way that we could fit it together. And then - then we showed the whole thing to a live audience to get a live reaction which is what you hear when you watch the show. It's not sweetened, that's actually what the audience did.
And after it was over, like, oh, so - we're so thrilled that they liked the parts of it that we liked, you know, because we didn't know until then. And it occurred to us that we had made something that was sincerely strange but also strangely sincere. We really wanted to create something that wasn't really cynical or dark or distant or alienating. We really wanted to do something that was in keeping with the spirit of the show that we do every day, but also really was somehow sincerely celebrating the season. And so that's what our attempt was. And those shows were all the inspiration, you know, let's find out what was actually enjoyable about those. Why did we actually watch the Andy Williams specials when we were a kid? We wanted the songs should be just as good as they could be and to do them just as best as we could.
GROSS: So did you gather up your memories of the Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, Perry Como Christmas specials so that you could draw on them for inspiration? And if so, what are one or two of the things from those old shows that really stand out in your mind?
Mr. COLBERT: Well, luckily You Tube has gathered them for me.
Mr. COLBERT: That you can go on and get the clips. Well, the outfits, the turtle necks and the sweaters and the fuzzy apres ski boots.
GROSS: Oh, I have to say, you know, public television has recently - I think it was like last year or two years ago, rerun one of the Andy Williams Christmas specials. And he and all of his brothers were wearing matching v-neck red sweaters with matching, I think, green socks and - I may be embellishing this a little bit in my mind, but like plaid, matching plaid pants. It was - it was...
Mr. COLBERT: I don't think you're embellishing at all.
GROSS: A spectacle. So describe what you were wearing?
MR. COLBERT: In the special I'm wearing a red turtle neck and a thirsty sort of Aran Isle cardigan. And...
GROSS: White, it's white.
Mr. COLBERT: It's white.
GROSS: It's cabled and white.
Mr. COLBERT: It's cream, yeah, cream-cabled cardigan, jeans that are too tight upon occasion and the giant fur topped mukluk boots like knee high fur, you know, fur-topped, a good foot of fur on the top of the boots, and just the biggest grin.
GROSS: Yes, and in the opening song that we just heard you're doing, you're doing like great variety show choreography. I mean, it's...
Mr. COLBERT: I'm doing it the best I can.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. COLBERT: It was like, oh, that's hilarious dancing. No, that's the best dancing I know how to do.
GROSS: One of my favorite parts of your special is you singing a duet with Jon Stewart in which you compare Hanukkah and Christmas. You want to introduce it for us? Tell us about like who wrote it - most of the songs in the special.
Mr. COLBERT: Most of the songs in the special, with the exception of "Jingleman" and "Christmas Boy" and "What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding," were written by David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger. And David, or DJ, Javerbaum is the executive producer of the "The Daily Show" and an old friend of mine and one of my favorite people to write with when I was used to work at the "The Daily Show." And we always wanted to do something else together and so this was our opportunity to do it.
And in this scene, I really wanted Jon to do the special, and I'm so happy to say he wanted to do it, too. And we thought, well, what can we do about Hanukkah? We know what - what song could we sing because the crisis of the show is that I can't get down to New York to do my big Christmas special. I'm stuck in my mountain cabin and then all my guests just happen to stop by at the mountain cabin and we do the special - the Christmas special inadvertently.
And we're trying to think of how could we have Jon help me. And so, well, maybe he could sell me on the day of Hanukkah because I've got - you know, if I miss the first day of the holiday, I've got seven more nights to possibly make it. And he - and Jon just wanted to make sure that we weren't really selling the idea of Hanukkah hard. So instead, we undersold it wildly.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. COLBERT: That's the idea of the song is that - he's selling Hanukkah, but it's the softest possible sell of Hanukkah you can imagine. And he personally is really uncomfortable with the holiday cheer that I bring to every aspect of the show.
GROSS: So here is my guest, Stephen Colbert with Jon Stewart singing "Can I Interest you in Hanukkah?"
(Soundbite of song "Can I Interest You in Hanukkah")
Mr. JON STEWART (Host, "The Daily Show"): (Singing) Can I interest you in Hanukkah?
Maybe something in a festival of lights.
It's a sensible alternative to Christmas and it lasts for seven, for you? Eight.
Mr. COLBERT: (Singing) Hanukkah, huh? I've never really thought about it.
Mr. STEWART: (Singing) Oh, you could do worst.
Mr. COLBERT: (Singing) Is it merry?
Mr. STEWART: (Singing) It's kind of merry.
Mr. COLBERT: (Singing) Is it cheery?
Mr. STEWART: (Singing) I got some cherry.
Mr. COLBERT: (Singing) Is it jolly?
Mr. STEWART: (Singing) Look, I wouldn't know from jolly but it's not my least unfavorite time of year.
Mr. COLBERT: (Singing) When does it start?
Mr. STEWART: (Singing) On the 25th.
Mr. COLBERT: (Singing) Of December?
Mr. STEWART: Kislev.
Mr. COLBERT: (Singing) Which is when exactly?
Mr. STEWART: (Singing) I will check?
Mr. COLBERT: (Singing) Are there presents?
Mr. STEWART: (Singing) Yes, indeed, eight days of presents which means one nice one then a week of trash.
Mr. COLBERT: (Singing) Does Hanukkah commemorate events profound and holy? A king who came to save the world?
Mr. STEWART: (Singing) No, oil that burned quite slowly.
Mr. COLBERT: (Singing) Well, it sounds fantastic.
Mr. STEWART: (Singing) There's more. We have latkas.
Mr. COLBERT: (Singing) What are they?
Mr. STEWART: (Singing) Potato pancakes. We have dreidels.
Mr. COLBERT: (Singing) What are they?
Mr. STEWART: (Singing) Wooden tops. We have candles.
Mr. COLBERT: (Singing) What are they?
Mr. STEWART: (Singing) They are candles and when we light them, oh the fun, it never stops.
GROSS: That's my guest Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart singing "Can I Interest you in Hanukkah" from the new Stephen Colbert Christmas special "A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All" which premieres on Comedy Central this Sunday. Was it hard to convince Jon Stewart to actually sing?
Mr. COLBERT: It was remarkably not. It was - because he's not known as a crooner and he's made it clear that he doesn't think he can sing, but he sounds pretty good there. I think he's been hiding his light under a bushel. The hardest part was finding time when Jon Stewart could come shoot with me, just like the hardest part of the special was finding time to actually do it because we're doing the election at the same time. We never - we didn't take a break to do this. This was all done the same time we're covering the campaign.
GROSS: How do you actually celebrate Christmas outside of doing a Christmas special?
Mr. COLBERT: You know, in the Catholic manner. Well, I grew up as an altar boy, and so when I was a kid I would always do midnight mass. That was the big gig. It was - you want to do a midnight mass gig because you'd get like 10 bucks for doing midnight mass plus you got to stay up till midnight.
And my family - we had 11 kids, Christmas Eve - because there's so many of us, Christmas Eve we would give to each other our presents. And Christmas morning Santa would come, and on Christmas Eve from the youngest to the oldest we would arraign in a line in the house, and then we would process throughout the house singing "Silent Night" just over and over again until we got to the manger.
And then if you were good, and somehow we always were, if you were good, you got to put straw in the manger for the Baby Jesus. And then my mom always had a manger where the Baby Jesus was detachable, you know, from the manger and then the youngest person, you got to put the Baby Jesus in the manger, and then we said Merry Christmas, kissed each other and went to bed.
GROSS: That sounds really sweet.
Mr. COLBERT: Yeah, it was. It was nice. And we still do it, actually, even as adults now. We're arrange as brothers and sisters from youngest to oldest when we're together for Christmas, and we do the same exact thing over again. And my mother who's 88 gets at the back because the rules are the rules. And then Christmas morning, we weren't allowed to go the room until mom and dad were up and give us the go ahead. And so we would line up from the middle of the stairs to the top of the stairs. Again, youngest to oldest on the stairs, with my brother Tommy in the middle, being the middle child, and then mom and dad would say like 'you can go.' And Tommy, being athletic, would leap over all of us and land at the bottom of the stairs like a cat, and go running in to find his presents first.
GROSS: Wow! Sounds spectacular.
Mr. COLBERT: It was. It was dangerous, it's what it was.
GROSS: My guest is Stephen Colbert. His holiday special, "A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All," premiers on Comedy Central, Sunday. The DVD will be released next Tuesday. We'll talk about "The Colbert Report" after a break. This is Fresh Air.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Stephen Colbert. His holiday special, "A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All," premiers Sunday on Comedy Central, the same channel that brings us "The Colbert Report." Let's talk about what it's been like for you covering the campaign and now covering the election of a new president. Let's start with how you opened your show the day after Election Cay? The first day that Barack Obama was president-elect.
(Soundbite of TV show "The Colbert Report")
Mr. COLBERT: Tonight, Barack Obama has been elected president. My rage will be historic. Then, has Obama's election already changed America? Yes! But don't worry, not the real America. And I sit down with civil rights pioneer, Andrew Young. I'm not sure what we'll talk about now that racism is over. I didn't vote. If I wanted to stand in line for hours, I would be an audience member at my show. This is "The Colbert Report."
GROSS: It is such a great intro. You got so much into that.
Mr. COLBERT: I did. I did.
GROSS: You know everyone is asking the late night comics if it's going to be more difficult to find jokes about Barack Obama than it's been to find jokes about George W. Bush, and if it's going to be more difficult to satirize Obama. I think it's going to be a lot easier for you because your character is going to remain an opposition to Obama. So you're going to have a lot to talk about.
Mr. COLBERT: I have no doubt that I'm going to have a lot to talk about. But my ultimate answer to those worries are I don't care.
Mr. COLBERT: I will always come up with something that is funny to me. Like there are more things in the world necessarily than who is in the White House. And I'm very interested in talking about the things that would make my character angry or passionate , you know, because my show is about emotions that aren't necessarily who the president is, though I'm sure he'll have ample opportunity to be frustrated with the , you know, hope or not over 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. But I'm eager, after two years of covering politics intensely, of finding once again, like, what are the societal things that are worrying my character?
GROSS: You mean like how homosexuals are ruining the country?
Mr. COLBERT: Well yeah, I mean, the battle, the ongoing battle between black people and gay people over Proposition 8. That's what I hope to cover, the "gay-black ellipse" that's coming. You know there's more to talk about than who's the president. I mean, it's hard to avoid because that's where the news is and we're a shadow of the news. But I don't necessarily think that my show or Jon's show or anybody who does late night comedy or anybody doing satire, has to stay strapped to that galloping political horse. I'm exhausted by it.
And one of the things I was excited about doing the Christmas special is that it's completely apolitical but completely keeping with my show. And it's a great palate cleanser. I don't necessarily want to jump straight back on a political horse when this is over.
GROSS: Nevertheless, what does your character not like?
Mr. COLBERT: Nevertheless, I will return to my questions, sir. Senator, answer the question.
GROSS: What doesn't your character like about Barack Obama?
Mr. COLBERT: He's not a fan of change, he's a conservative. And so change, in of itself, is dangerous. The idea of hope, you know, St. Paul says that there are three things remain - faith, hope, and love, or sometimes, referred to as charity. And, you know, Barack Obama has talked about his faith, and we as a nation are always talking about our faith. We're talking a lot about hope right now. I think it's very dangerous how close we're coming to talk about love because we left that behind in the 60's. We tossed that baby out with a bath water of the drug culture and the sexual revolution and sort of the excesses of that time.
GROSS: You managed to find a way to have your character endorse Barack Obama. Can you talk about writing that, like, how you and the writers came up with a convoluted way of endorsing him?
Mr. COLBERT: Well, I really wanted to - very often, the concepts of the show are generated by the writers or by Allison Silverman, who's my executive producer, that was a case of, like I said, that I really want to endorse him because I see guys like Scott McClellan or Colin Powell or Chris Buckley endorsing Barack Obama and getting attention for it. And I thought there's no way my character would sit on the sidelines while these conservatives are getting attention like news making, like groundbreaking news making paradigm-shifting news for crossing the line and endorsing Barack Obama and being part of an historical moment. He wanted to be a part of that. And so we just thought like maybe there's a way for me to endorse him, but not support him. He wanted to make sure that no one voted for him, but he wanted credit for having endorsed him.
GROSS: Let me play a short clip of your endorsement of Barack Obama, and this comes from a middle of the segment after you've played clips of a lot of other Republicans endorsing him, and you've played a clip William Weld endorsing Obama and you come out of that clip saying this.
(Soundbite of TV show "The Colbert Report")
Mr. COLBERT: Nation, I have no choice but to respond to my fellow prominent conservatives who have the gall to endorse Barack Obama which brings me to tonight's word. I endorse Barack Obama.
(Soundbite of clapping and cheering)
Mr. COLBERT: I know this is shocking and I can tell that you're angry. But it's the only solution to what I see as a crisis, namely the crisis that these guys are getting attention and I'm not. It is time for the media to stop covering these has beens and start covering this 'is be.' I mean, all over the news yesterday, I'm hearing the words William Weld. I believe the last time that name made news was when Eliot Spitzer used it to check in to a hotel. They should be talking about me because my endorsement of Obama just now took real courage, the courage to cross party lines from a party that is a staggering mass of flaming agony to the party that looks like it has a good pretty shot at winning this thing.
GROSS: That's Stephen Colbert from "The Colbert Report."
Mr. COLBERT: I like backing a winner.
GROSS: And of course, you explained at the end you're not actually going to vote for him. You're just endorsing him.
Mr. COLBERT: Well, now, of course, I'm cashing in my chip, I want a position.
Mr. COLBERT: I want a cabinet position. It's time to pay back.
GROSS: Stephen Colbert will be back in the second half of the show. His holiday special, "A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All," premiers Sunday on Comedy Central, where he also does "The Colbert Report." "A Colbert Christmas" will be released on DVD next Tuesday. Here's Colbert with Elvis Costello from "A Colbert Christmas." I'm Terry Gross and this is Fresh Air.
(Soundbite of DVD "A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All")
Mr. ELVIS COSTELLO (Musician, Singer-Songwriter): Thanks, Stephen. I like this one.
Mr. COLBERT: Oh, I know this one.
Mr. COSTELLO and Mr. COLBERT: (Singing) There are cynics, there are skeptics,
There are legions of dispassionate dyspeptics,
Who regard this time of year
As a mordant, insincere, cheesy, crass, commercial travesty of all that we hold dear.
When they think that, well, I can hear it,
But I pity them, their lack of Christmas spirit.
For in a world like ours, take it from Stephen,
There are much worse things to believe in.
A redeemer and a savior,
And a beast man giving toys for good behavior.
Have faith in what might be,
And the hope that we might see.
The answer to all sorrow in a box beneath the tree.
I find them foolish, sentimental,
Well, you're clearly not too bright so we'll be gentle.
Don't even try to start vaguely conceiving
Of all the much worse things to believe in.
Believe in the judgment, believe in Jihad,
Believe in a thousand variations on a dark and spiteful God.
GROSS: This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross back with Stephen Colbert. This year, his Comedy Central show, "The Colbert Report," won a Peabody and an Emmy. The show has become so popular that Colbert was a character in a recent addition of the Marvel Comic's "Spiderman." Colbert has a new holiday special, "A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All" that premiers Sunday on Comedy Central. Let's get back to our conversation about "The Colbert Report."
Now, this is probably the first time, I think it's the first time, that you've had an interaction with a man who became president before he became president. You had Obama on your show, and I don't know if this is the only time you had him on the show, but when you did your show from Philadelphia in the spring, this was the week that one the debates was in Philadelphia, the primary debates, and the last night of your week in Philadelphia, it was an incredible night. I think it was one of your best shows ever, and it was a particularly great show for me because I was in the audience watching it. You had Hillary Clinton and then we knew that Hillary was going to be on. But the surprise, surprise guests were John Edwards was there doing The Word and then...
Mr. COLBERT: The Edwards.
GROSS: The Edwards, yes, right. And then the huge surprise was the show ended with Barack Obama live from a remote location where he was doing a rally interacting with you. And the show started really, really late. I think there were a lot of technical problems getting all of that together. Tell us a little bit about what happened behind the scenes to make a show like that work where you had on Clinton, Edwards, and Obama and a lot of Secret Service people.
Mr. COLBERT: A lot of Secret Service people.
GROSS: Involved in one show. Yeah.
Mr. COLBERT: Well, we didn't know whether it was all going to come together. We had invited everybody to do this, but we didn't know if everybody was going to make it. We didn't know for certain until the middle of the week whether Mrs. Clinton would be making it, and we didn't know until quite late that day whether Mr. Obama would be making it. We knew Mr. Edwards would be coming. We'd written the thing, and he had approved the script that we'd done for him already. But the show was going up late, and we wanted Obama's appearance to be a surprise, partly because we didn't want to set up expectations of something that we didn't know whether was necessarily going to get pulled off, but to the point where I said, don't even put it in the script. Like, I don't want anybody to see this, in case it doesn't happen.
So, like, even my stage manager is, like, what's happening in the fourth act? I'm like, we'll see, we'll see what's happening. And the Obama people were ready to go ten minutes before we were ready to get to his section of the act, and I didn't want to do him before John Edwards went out because the show would kind of be over once we had Barack Obama on because it was meant to be the closing moment. And of course, in television, you can rearrange things later, but I wanted the evening to be a real, organic four-act experience for the audience, especially because there's a thousand people in that theater. But then, we were going lose our satellite because it was a satellite feed from, I think, North Carolina to Philadelphia, and I don't exactly know what happened because we missed our satellite. But I think somebody from CBS lent us their satellite time or something like that in order to get Obama on. But the whole night was a tight-rope walk.
GROSS: You know, I have to say, here you are, going through this like behind the scene's nightmare, because you don't know if the show is going to work, you don't know if you have your fourth act, and if Obama is going to make it or not. You don't have the satellite feed, but at the same time, you wanted to keep the audience entertained. So, you came out during one of these like long technical delays. We're just waiting there. You came out and you literally stood on your head to entertain us. And I thought, if that is not the highest level of show business, someone who's under this pressure, everything's on your shoulders, but he's worried about keeping the audience entertained in the downtime, so he's going to stand on his head for us.
Mr. COLBERT: Well, it's all worthless, it's all worthless if we lose you people. We're not doing it for our health, we're doing it for laughs.
GROSS: And then, after standing on your head, you said, ouch! That really hurt! I think I threw my back out. Did you really because I was worrying about you? You did?
Mr. COLBERT: Oh, yes. Because I was like jumping around, and I turned to my stage manager, and I said, just catch my feet, and I did a hand stand, and he held my feet. Now, the audience is going crazy, and it was really nice, but it was so loud that what my stage manager could not hear me say is, let go of my feet. Let go of my feet, and I'm screaming it at the top of my lungs, let go of my feet, because my arms about to give out, and I'm going to snap my neck. And finally, I hear over his headset, people from the studio, from the control room going, let go of his feet! Let go of his feet! Because they can hear me through my mic. And I really did, I really did hurt my back. It took a while to get over that little moment. But, you know, one of the most fun things about that week was, you know, I really wanted that show to have everybody on it, that final show.
And you know, I don't ever want the show to be - for what everybody might think of the show - I don't every really want it to be a hostile environment for my guests. My character is aggressive, and my character is egotistical, but I really want my guests to have a good time, you know, and to have fun. And so, I knew that we would be honored to have those three guests on that night, and we worked very hard to find a joke and a game for John Edwards to do and happily, he came on and did it. And then we worked just as hard to say like what is the message that Hillary wants to get out? And the message is of competence, handling emergencies, so we created an emergency which just happened to be my big rear projection screen behind me going out, and then she came in and fixed it. And we just had a lot of trouble figuring what Obama's problem was, like what was the thing that he would even want to talk about on the show?
And it seemed to me, it occurred to me at around noon of the day that we wanted them, and they had said they couldn't make it at this point, that his message was he was being hounded by petty political distractions, like the flag pin issue, like why don't you wear a flag pin? And that's one of the issues that have been brought up in the debate that week. And so, we had the on notice board which is this board I use to put things on notice that I'm suspicious of, things like, you know, the black hole at the center of the galaxy or Lutherans or grizzly bears, they're all on notice.
And so, I said let's see if Barack Obama would be willing to come on the show to put petty political distractions officially on notice. And so we quickly wrote a script in which he did that, appearing on this 25-foot high rear projection screen right behind my head which is what we had for the set in the Philly. And at the very end of the show, I said, well, it was a great week, thanks for having us. I only wish that Barack Obama had a chance to stop by. And then, he just appeared on the screen behind my head. And he said, so do I, Stephen. And then, we did the scene, but the excitement of putting yourself in - I love being in situations where I feel like I'm in trouble.
Like I've said, such and such will happen, but I don't know how to make it happen and it reminds me like Ernie Kovacs said that every good idea he ever had was because it was 3:15, and he had a 3:30 production meeting. That sense of, oh, we're in trouble, we've got to make this thing work, because I sort of promised myself and others that I would get all the candidates on, that I would get Barack Obama on, but I didn't know how. I didn't know how to make it inviting for him, that in any way worthwhile, and I'd say that's one of the things that is like the most fun for me on the show and maybe the thing that's eventually going to kill us on the show is that we love trying to do something that we probably shouldn't get away with, or that we shouldn't be able to achieve, and it was because it was so hard that I loved it. I'm a junkie for exhaustion, and I'm a junkie for setting up my expectations too high and then trying to meet them.
GROSS: I think masochism might figure into this.
Mr. COLBERT: It might be. Maybe I don't like me. Maybe I don't like me at all. Maybe it's not an ego after all.
GROSS: So, we're almost out of time. But I want to save a moment to ask you an important question. A lot of people have paid tribute to you. There's a spider named after you. There's various animals, a plane named after you. There's an edition of Spiderman in which you're a character. So, if I want to pay tribute to you on Fresh Air, what can I do?
Mr. COLBERT: You already did it. On your 20th anniversary show, you ended the show with the ending that you and I did...
GROSS: That's right.
Mr. COLBERT: On the first time I was on your show, and I accidentally caught it. I dropped my kids off at school, and I was listening to the radio, the rebroadcast, and I sat in the driveway. I had one of those driveway moments, and I listened to the last half of your best of 20th anniversary show, and you got all the way to the end, and I was like oh, I wish, I'd made her best of show. And then I was the last thing on it. It was our goodbye, it was the last thing on your 20th anniversary show. And so, you've already done it. Thank you very much.
GROSS: Oh, thank you very much. Yes, it was the place of honor.
Mr. COLBERT: Yeah. I think so.
GROSS: The final note.
Mr. COLBERT: Wherever I would have been, I would have considered the place of honor, but it happened to be the actual place of honor.
GROSS: Yeah. And I want to end with you and John Legend singing a duet of the National Anthem from one of your shows in Philadelphia. And you got to sing some really deep notes as you sing in harmony with him. I mean, you can go high and you could go real low in your singing. Is this about as low as it gets, as we're going to hear in this?
Mr. COLBERT: Yeah. I imagine so. I imagine so. That day, I became a man.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Stephen Colbert, thanks for coming on our show. It's always so great to talk with you.
Mr. COLBERT: Thanks for having me back.
GROSS: And thank you so much.
(Soundbite of song "Star Spangled Banner")
Mr. COLBERT and Mr. LEGEND: (Singing) Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light. What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming? Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight, o'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming? And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there. Oh, say does that star spangled banner yet wave, o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
GROSS: Stephen Colbert's program, "The Colbert Report," is on Comedy Central, where you can also see his new holiday special "A Colbert Christmas." It premieres Sunday, and the DVD will be released Tuesday. Coming up. Ann Leary talks about her new novel, "Outtakes from a Marriage," which is based, in part, on her marriage to actor and comic Denis Leary. This is Fresh Air.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Mrs. Leary Offers 'Outtakes From A Marriage'
TERRY GROSS, host:
In the new novel, "Outtakes from a Marriage," Ann Leary writes about a woman married to an actor who, years after they marry, becomes famous and stars in a TV show. She finds herself having to balance her life as a mother with her public life as the wife of a celebrity while at the same time trying to figure out how to pursue her own aspirations as a writer. The novel is based, in part, on Ann Leary's own marriage. Her husband is Denis Leary, who is famous for his abrasive comedy and for his starring role on the TV series "Rescue Me," as a firefighter with a very messed up personal life. The character has ruined his marriage because he's incapable of fidelity or handling responsibility. I asked Ann Leary if people assume that her husband is that way in real life.
Ms. ANN LEARY (Author, "Outtakes from a Marriage"): Right. Well, you know, the Denis Leary who people know is very different than the Denis Leary that my children and I, and also Denis Leary's good friends, know. Denis - he kind of became famous later in life than some people. He was in his 30s, and he had had a lot of adult life to kind of form his own friendships, his relationships, and he's still, to this day, is - his closest friends are the friends he made in college. So, he is not really very much like the Joe Ferraro character that I created in my novel, and he's nothing like, really, the Denis Leary that I think a lot of people think they know.
We live a very quiet life in the country. We dote on our pets. We love our children and raise them and are very involved in this little community we live in. We're not really part of the Hollywood scene, and so that too, we kind of are not like the couple in this novel of mine. And you know, he's just a pretty sweet guy. He's really not the guy that you see on "Rescue Me," and others that know him will tell you that, too. I'm not just his biased wife.
GROSS: I'm going to ask you to do a short reading from your novel, "Outtakes from a Marriage." And this describes a period in your main character's life when she's had just had her first baby, and her husband is first starting to become known in the acting world.
Ms. LEARY: OK.
GROSS: And at the same time, she's also wondering whether the romance has started to go out of the relationship.
Ms. LEARY: Right. Yes. She's just trying to see what part she might have played in the problem that they right now have in their marriage, which is not what it used to be.
Was our house, our marriage, cold? Had I caused Joe to stray? There was certainly no disputing that our sex life wasn't what it had been before we had kids. Whose was? Babies change you. Before I was pregnant with Ruby, I used to watch mothers tend lovingly to screaming babies and toddlers, and I worried that I might never be able to summon up the appropriate maternal instincts toward any future offspring of my own. In my mind, I was witnessing an extremely annoying little person and an adult with an almost Christ-like capacity for love, tenderness and forgiveness. I didn't understand their history the way I do now, the history of the mother and child's love for each other which, for me, began almost immediately after Ruby was conceived.
Nine months before Joe ever saw or touched Ruby, I was awasg with her in my every waking moment, consumed by thoughts of her. Then, in those first days and nights of her life, when she needed to suckle almost hourly, everything beyond her spiky pink hair - really, it was pink - those dimpled knees and elbows, those gorgeous lips, everything beyond Ruby disappeared into a sort of soft focus backdrop. We spent endless hours gazing into each other's eyes. Nobody had told me about the urge to gaze, about the instinct that compelled Ruby and me to peer at each other over and over, again, between feedings, passing the gaze back and forth. All night and all day, milk, breaths, gazes and sighs were passed back and forth between us like life-giving transfusions, until both of us were just pumped full of love for each other.
And every now and then, from somewhere far off in the murky distance, I'd hear Joe's voice saying, I got a call back for that Barry Levinson film. It's not a big part, but it could be good because - and when he was finished with whatever nonsense he was droning on about, I'd say something like, the skin on her cheek is so soft. It's like kissing air. Kiss her. It's like kissing nothing. I can't stop kissing her.
GROSS: And that's Ann Leary reading from her new novel, "Outtakes from a Marriage." You know, reading this, you can't help but wonder what it's like for a couple when they marry when they're young, and then years later, one of them becomes famous - because that's what happened in your marriage...
Ms. LEARY: It did.
GROSS: And that's what's beginning to happen in the scene.
Ms. LEARY: Right.
GROSS: That you just read. And they're really, at that moment, living in two different worlds. She is in the world of new motherhood, and he is in the world of, you know, new celebrityhood.
Ms. LEARY: Exactly.
GROSS: And those worlds are so far apart.
Ms. LEARY: They are, and you know, these are two people who are changing drastically from the people they were when they meet each other. And I think, in any marriage that lasts a long time - and maybe this is why all marriages don't last a long time - is that, you know, people change and whether the relationship is going to be able to stay the same is up in the air, really. And at this point in the novel, it certainly is.
Julia was not prepared at all for what motherhood really entailed - the really intense, you know, kind of almost asphyxiating, you know, love and really obsessive love she had for this baby. And Joe, at the same time, was on this completely different trajectory where he was falling in love with having people love him and being famous. And so, both of them found quite rewarding what they were doing, but they were not really overlapping in their what the, you know, kind of the course their lives took.
GROSS: There's a funny section in the book when, you know, the husband is nominated for a Golden Globe and the wife realizes, wow, she's got to get a dress and she...
Ms. LEARY: Right.
GROSS: Is finding it very difficult to go from, you know, mommyville to the red carpet.
Ms. LEARY: Right.
GROSS: You know, it's very difficult to become red carpet ready.
Ms. LEARY: Right.
GROSS: And so, one of the things she does is goes to like a swell fashion boutique, and the person who she is working with at the boutique, her name is Monica. And you write, it's possible that petite Monica had never seen a normal middle-aged body up close before. The shock might be too much for her. Should I explain about the little pouch of skin that hangs over Caesarean scars? Has it been...
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Go ahead.
Ms. LEARY: I think that Julia, in my novel, most women will relate to her in the sense that if their husband became famous, this is probably how they'd behave. When Denis first became famous, and we went on our first red carpets, we really had no idea what people did on these red carpets, and so, we were a little bit unsophisticated and as well, the couple in my novel do some kind of silly - they just have no idea how to behave. They actually drive their town car to a - they drive a black town car to a red carpet, but they're driving, they didn't know you were supposed to have a driver. That's actually something Denis and I did once, a very long time ago, in LA. And then, with the dressing, too.
I think that people think that if your husband's nominated for an Emmy or a Golden Globe, there's all these designers trying to give you clothing, but that's never been the case for me. I have often had to go kind of shopping and then if you do go to a designer showroom, they're used to seeing models. They're really used to fitting models or really glamorous actresses so you do feel like you know - and they just expect you to feel comfortable undressed. And when you're not a model, and you have to stand in your underwear and haven't pre-thought which underwear you should wear, it can feel a little self-conscious.
GROSS: My guest is Ann Leary. Her new novel is called, "Outtakes from a Marriage." We'll talk more after our break. This is Fresh Air.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Ann Leary. Her new novel, "Outtakes from a Marriage," is based in part on her marriage to actor and comic Denis Leary. It's about a woman balancing her life as a mother, aspiring writer and wife of a celebrity, and having to figure out how to go from mommy one minute to red carpet worthy the next. What's the biggest fashion mistake you've made over the years?
Ms. LEARY: Oh, my God. I wouldn't even know where to begin. My biggest fashion mistake is always listening to my husband about what I should wear because I never see these invitations. They somehow go to publicists or to him and so I get his take on it, which is always, it's casual. Don't worry. Nobody's going to be dressed up. Or that it's very dressy, and I one time went to this - President Clinton was doing some kind of huge fundraiser, and we had been invited as somebody's guest. And Denis had said, it's very dressy, you know.
Oh, you have to - you know, the president is going to be there. So, I wore - I honestly looked like I was going to the Oscars myself. This incredibly elaborate kind - it was almost a gown and it wasn't eve - it was like 5 o'clock in the afternoon. And I showed up at this thing, and everyone was in business attire. I really looked like, you know, I had all this cleavage and even the Secret Service guys, they were laughing at me. They just couldn't believe what I was wearing and really, it was so inappropriate.
And then similarly, I have shown up in jeans and a tank top, and all the women have been dressed to the nines because it was a very dressy, black tie occasion that kind of eluded Denis. That was what it was. So, I've had to really do some - you know, I have to do my own research if I'm going out and not count on him. Because, you know, men, it doesn't matter what they wear. They always look fine.
GROSS: So, when you wore the elaborate gown to the function of the president was that, did you find yourself having to go up to the president and say, let me explain why I'm wearing this?
Ms. LEARY: I mean, it was so embarrass - I can't even describe how - it was so - it was like this - and I don't - it was this very sexy, like plunging neckline. It was right in the middle of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and it really looked like I was desperately trying to get this man, you know, to be next in line behind Monica. I mean, it was really - I was so - and there were people I knew there, and I just felt like such a rube, you know. And often, you feel that way as the wife, you know. It's just so - I can't even - it hurts to talk about it. It was so off base, but I've done it more than once.
GROSS: What was it like when he started getting well known, and you watched him change and you also watched reactions to him change? When people started to actually recognize him and think of him as the characters that he played, whereas you had already known him for years. I mean, you knew him outside and inside.
Ms. LEARY: Right, right. Yeah, well, it was interesting. It happened suddenly. I was home a lot with the kids. I didn't go out. He was performing. He would be out a lot. People would start recognizing him. He did this series of MTV spots that were very popular, and so suddenly, people would yell his name when we were walking down the street. We would be offered, you know, police would pull over, are you Denis Leary, and then you know, get in, and give us a ride I mean maybe - I don't know if I was supposed to say that. I don't know if police do stuff like that anymore. But I was like, how do all these people know who you are? It really hurt his feelings that I kept not really believing how famous he was. He kept telling me, and I kept not really understanding until going out with him more.
And you know going - I do very well remember the first time we went to a premiere and all the photographers started yelling, Denis, Denis, Denis, and it really was - I was blown away. I had no idea that photographers knew who he was. So, it was exciting. Again, it was something that he had worked really hard for for a long time. We had been together years before that. So, we were both kind of - we'd look at each other and say, oh, my God. Can you believe this? And we still do. I mean, we'd never been to a big red carpet event until maybe 2002, I think.
He was nominated for a Golden Globe, and so we had never been on one of these huge red carpets where it takes an hour to get through and all these questions. And it was a blast. We had so much fun. We were dying. It was just, we couldn't believe the behavior of the people around us and the kind of desperate maneuvering for space and the grabbing, you know, the kind of vying for attention. And also the really gracious - some of our huge - people we love - you know, big stars that we thought were great meeting them and having them be very gracious, and it was just great. And again, because we had kind of grown up together, and it was really special that we got to do this thing together that we could laugh at it and know it was silly and still think ha, this is really cool. We're doing this!
GROSS: Ann Leary, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. LEARY: Thank you.
GROSS: Ann Leary is the author of the new novel "Outtakes from a Marriage." You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org.
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.