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A Tribute To Stephen Colbert, A Self-Proclaimed 'Junkie For Exhaustion'

Ahead of The Colbert Report's last episode, Fresh Air listens back to interviews with Colbert. "I didn't realize quite how liberal I was until I was asked to make passionate comedic choices," he said.



December 18, 2014

Guest: Stephen Colbert

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, we pay tribute to "The Colbert Report."


STEPHEN COLBERT: Folks, this is my last week here at The Report.

GROSS: And tonight is the final night. Oh no, I miss him already. After nine years, Stephen Colbert is retiring the character he created for "The Colbert Report," the conservative, self-important blowhard who opines about the news and the news media. Since the show began, Colbert has seldom appeared in the media out of character, so we feel very lucky to have recorded several interviews with him. We'll listen back to some of the highlights.

Colbert got his start satirizing the news as a correspondent on "The Daily Show," which he joined in 1997, back when Craig Kilborn was hosting. Jon Stewart didn't take it over until two years later. In a moment, we'll hear part of the first interview I recorded with Colbert in January 2005 when he was in his final year on "The Daily Show." But first, here's an example of one of his "Daily Show" reports from that month. It was just after U.S. inspectors ended their search in Iraq for WMD - weapons of mass destruction - after being unable to find any. President Bush was still standing by his decision to have invaded Iraq.


JON STEWART: Stephen, the Bush administration staked a lot on those WMDs and now they've got to face up to the fact that the weapons will never be found. How is this going to affect them?

COLBERT: Jon, it's already affecting them deeply. You know, if you've never lost a rationale for war, you can't possibly understand what they're feeling. The administration has gone through their own five stages of grief over these weapons - anger, denial, angry denial, denial of their anger and now finally acceptance - that there will be no repercussions.


STEWART: But the whole case for the war was built on this threat of WMDs. No matter what they're saying now, it was clear at the time. Is there no price to be paid?

COLBERT: Jon - Jon, it is time to call off the search for accountability. It's not there. It's never going to be there. If you have to blame somebody, why aren't you blaming Saddam Hussein? He's the one who didn't have the weapons.


STEWART: But he...


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

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 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 choices.

GROSS: But I like the way you put that - passionate comedic choices. (Laughter).

COLBERT: Well, yeah. I mean, John 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 going to 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.

GROSS: That was Stephen Colbert in January 2005 when he was a correspondent on "The Daily Show." Later that year, he left and created "The Colbert Report." I spoke with him again in December 2005, just a few weeks after "The Colbert Report" premiered. We began with an excerpt from the show's first episode.


COLBERT: But this show is not about me. No, this program is dedicated to you - the heroes. And who are the heroes? The people who watch this show.


COLBERT: Average hard-working Americans, you're not the elites. You're not the country club crowd. I know for a fact that my country club would never let you in. But you get it and you come from a long line of it-getters. You're the folks who say something's got to be done. Well, you're doing something right now. You're watching TV.


COLBERT: And on this show, your voice will be heard in the form of my voice because you're looking at a straight shooter, America. I tell it like it is. I calls them like I sees them. I will speak to you in plain, simple English. And that brings us to tonight's word - truthiness.


GROSS: Stephen Colbert, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I love the show. Congratulations on it.

COLBERT: Thank you very much.

GROSS: So let's talk about your character - the Stephen Colbert who hosts "The Colbert Report." How would you describe him?

COLBERT: He is passionate. He is closely attached and invested in the stories he's talking about and in the themes that he's talking about. He cares deeply about what happens in this country and he just doesn't know a lot about what happens in this country.

GROSS: (Laugher).

COLBERT: And so he gets, you know, little glimpses of things. He has little snatches of information and then he makes broad generalizations based upon that.

GROSS: That's why - because he doesn't really understand everything, that's why he's into truthiness instead of... (Laughter).

COLBERT: Right. He's not a huge fan of facts, you know? And I said before, it's really more about what you feel in your gut, you know. It just- it makes sense that the world is flat and that the sun goes around us. I look up, I see the sun move. I don't see us move.

GROSS: (Laughter).

COLBERT: You know what? Occam's razor says the sun moves. The simplest answer is usually the true one.

GROSS: You know, the truthiness editorial that we opened with, I think it's really brilliant at describing how some political hosts on cable relate to the audience. There's this sense of, like, you flatter the audience, you seduce the audience and then you insult the people you see as your opposition...

COLBERT: Exactly.

GROSS: ...In the hopes that you've won over the audience. They're on your team and now you could just, like, go after your enemies. And you not only love your country, you love yourself. (Laughter).

COLBERT: Well, absolutely. I mean, by loving myself, I am loving my country because I'm one of the country.

GROSS: Obviously, one of the people you've patterned yourself on in "The Colbert Report" is Bill O'Reilly.

COLBERT: Papa bear.

GROSS: (Laughter) What's your take on him?

COLBERT: He's a magnificent performer. I don't know if he - my take on him is I don't actually know whether he believes everything he says other than the fact that people are attacking him. I think he believes that he is a victim of some sort of conspiracy to take him down because he doesn't toe the party line on things. But I think he's an entertainer, you know, and I think he's extremely entertaining. I mean, I watch the way he talks and I just think God, I wish I could capture some of that - that self-assurance.

The ability to talk about anything is something we're trying to capture on the show. I mean, the show's still in its infancy. We've done 23 shows at this point. But he can talk about anything and it's important because he's talking about it. And that is something we're working very hard to capture on the show because it'll allow me to talk about anything I want to talk about and not have to be so tied to what the news cycle is, you know, on a day-to-day basis.

GROSS: You've even gotten some of his mannerisms too, I think, the way he uses his hands. You've done that no spin finger twirl.

COLBERT: Mhmm. Yeah. Well, it's good. Yeah, well it's very invasive, you know. It's right toward the camera. He's an imposing presence and I'm not - he's like 6-foot - I think he's 7-foot-4. He's an enormous guy and I'm not, so I try to do everything that I can to get that sort of imposing quality he has.

GROSS: What else have you noticed about the way he makes his arguments when he takes a stand?

COLBERT: I mean, I think very often he prefixes his arguments by saying you're not going to hear this from anybody else or I'm not going to make any friends by saying this or they don't want me to say this to you. They don't want you to hear this but this is what I'm going to tell you. And I'm looking out for you. You know, as if everything he's doing is completely altruistic and only for the good of the audience. And that's a wonderful attitude to have because it establishes trust between you and your subjects.

GROSS: So that's what Stephen Colbert had to say about Bill O'Reilly in December 2005, just a few weeks after the premiere of "The Colbert Report." Here's what he said about O'Reilly this week Monday night on the final installment of his regular feature Formidable Opponent, in which Stephen Colbert debates Stephen Colbert. The subject was the torture report. After using a clip of Bill O'Reilly offering his analysis, Colbert said...


COLBERT: Oh, I am going to miss that good man. Stephen, he's not going off the air. You are.

Yeah, but no one's going to pay me to watch him anymore so [bleep] that noise.

GROSS: We'll continue our tribute to "The Colbert Report" after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. "The Colbert Report's" final episode is tonight, so we're listening back to excerpts of our interviews with Stephen Colbert. In April 2006, Colbert was the featured comic at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. He did his performance in character and because "The Colbert Report" was still less than a year old, a lot of the politicians, operatives and journalists in the audience weren't familiar with the character and didn't know quite how to take what Colbert was saying. I asked him about that dinner in October 2007. We started with a clip from his performance at the dinner where President Bush was seated near the podium.


COLBERT: Wow. Wow, what an honor. The White House Correspondents' Dinner - to actually - to sit here at the same table with my hero, George W. Bush, to be this close to the man - I feel like I'm dreaming. Somebody pinch me. You know what? I'm a pretty sound sleeper. That may not be enough. Somebody shoot me in the face.


COLBERT: Is he really not here tonight? Dammit - the one guy who could've helped.

GROSS: And I have to ask you about the White House Correspondents' Dinner. That was...

COLBERT: All right.

GROSS: I mean, that was...

COLBERT: Do I have to answer?

GROSS: (Laughter) Well, that's in your hands.


GROSS: I - that was such an act of comedy and bravery. I mean, you were at a table just a couple of seats away from the president and then you had to walk a few steps over to the microphone and you really took the gloves off. I mean, you said some really...

COLBERT: I would say I put the gloves on. I put the comedy gloves on.


COLBERT: You know? Like, one thing that we always make sure is to always keep the gloves on.

GROSS: You mean not really make it personal, make it comedy.

COLBERT: Yeah, because it'd be very easy to do - I think the satirists can fall into this - is to get angry about the things that you're talking about or to get, you know, emotional about what you're talking about. And the job is not to come in the morning and have, you know, a shout fest over can you believe this thing that's being done or can you believe what's being ignored or what's being purported to be the truth or what particular moment of BS that is so, you know, redolent in the air that's not being sniffed?

You can do that at the morning meeting, but that's not your job. Your job is then to take what happens in that morning meeting and then take the next six hour to distill that into something that's comedy. And I would say those are the gloves. You put the comedy gloves on and people allow you to throw punches at them or to receive the punches at home because you've got the gloves on. If you just took the gloves off then it would be too harsh all the time.

GROSS: I want to play a brief excerpt of what you said that night at the White House Correspondents' Dinner with the president sitting just a couple of chairs away. So here's a little excerpt.


COLBERT: The greatest thing about this man is he's steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change, this man's beliefs never will.

GROSS: That's pretty funny and that - I think that cuts pretty deep. But then after nailing the president you nailed the press and I think they weren't expecting that. And I want to play a short example of what I mean.


COLBERT: But listen, let's review the rules. Here's how it works - the president makes decisions. He's the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type - just put them through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you've got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration, you know, fiction.


GROSS: Do you think that the press was expecting that you'd be criticizing them too and what reaction did you feel from the room when you said that?

COLBERT: You know what? I don't remember. I don't remember. I tried not to read much reaction about it afterwards and I know there was a lot of reaction, but it didn't help me to pay attention to it so I...

GROSS: Right, no, I understand that.

COLBERT: So I read, like, one really negative one and one, you know, pretty positive one and then I read a couple people's blogs and then I cut off. That was literally the Monday that we got back from Washington after that. And then I said OK, nobody send me a link so I don't really - I can't do this.

But in one of - in the negative one the person criticized me for, you know, letting the press off. And I thought gosh the whole, like, the last 10 minutes...

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah, no, exactly.

COLBERT: ...I think was just about the press so I don't think people paid as much attention to that because I was standing next to the president and I was doing satire about him and the policies of the administration. That's all people really remembered about the evening.

GROSS: What do you think the odds are that the president knew, or was at least briefed, about the Stephen Colbert persona? You use that character in the context of your show. It's a controlled environment. The audience has come to see the Stephen Colbert show. They get it. They know what the show is. And suddenly you're out in this ballroom of 3,000 people where probably a lot of them have never seen your show.


GROSS: And had no idea what the heck was going on.

COLBERT: I think that was very much part of it - is that people expected stand-up and I don't do stand-up. I admire stand-ups and it's a very difficult thing to do, but I don't. I do this character. I do character work and I started off in improvisation doing characters at Second City in Chicago. And so I think they expected, you know, 20 minutes of jokes as opposed to this sort of a performance piece - not their fault that they didn't, you know, they didn't care for it.

I never want to blame the audience, but I think you're right. I think people were a little bit surprised, but I didn't get a sense that there was anything particularly different about it until I sat down and then people were conspicuously not meeting my eyes.

GROSS: Oh, and leaving the table. People (laughter) a few people seemed to flee the table after you sat down.

COLBERT: Maybe. Well, the whole - the evening's over.

GROSS: The evening was over, true, true.

COLBERT: To be fair to the people around me the evening is over at that moment. But I don't know. Maybe I had sort of a vaguely radioactive quality at that moment. I don't know.

GROSS: The president patted you on the back and kept walking (laughter).

COLBERT: He said well done. He said well done.

GROSS: Later in the 2007 interview, Stephen Colbert told me he got interested in performing when he was growing up.


COLBERT: I told jokes and I was silly and I did pratfalls and kind of being a class clown as a classic thing. A class clown got me accepted by a broader array of kids. And I kind of thought I'd be a comedian when I grew up and it wasn't until I got to college and got all depressed - which a lot of college freshmen do I suppose - got a lot of personal angst that I thought, well, no, not comedy, you know, tragedy because the world has to see how I feel all the time.

And then I held the infant of my tragic career to my bosom for years until I met some people who worked at Second City and I thought no, I'd rather do this.

GROSS: Did you ever go through, like, a heavy rebellion period where you kind of broke off with your mother and...

COLBERT: I had a - because some viewers would know that when I was a child my father and two of my brothers died and it was just me and my mom alone in the house for years. And so we ended up becoming like friends as much as we're mother-son. You know, my mother was sort of deeply struck, you know, sort of shattered by the event of my father and my brothers' death so I - we joke and say that I raised my mother because I was there alone with her.

And so I didn't have the same kind of rebellion because there was this sort of shattering event at an early age that sort of changed the dynamic of the relationship - not that she wasn't the boss and not that I didn't learn from her and not that she wasn't sort of the moral figure - but the order of the world didn't make as much sense to a child anymore. And so I didn't really feel like I needed to rebel that much. I had a teenage rebellion, like, I smoked dope and didn't do my homework, but nothing too dramatic.

GROSS: Gee, I think you can't run for president or be on the Supreme Court having just said that.

COLBERT: Oh, can't I? I will make sure you eat those words someday young lady.

GROSS: (Laughter) You have three kids, don't you?

COLBERT: Well, now I could just say I said that in character, Terry. That could've been my character talking just now.

GROSS: Gets you off the hook (laughter).

COLBERT: It sure does.

GROSS: You could say anything and say it was in character (laughter).

COLBERT: I have all kinds of things on my character.

GROSS: Stephen Colbert - recorded in October 2007. Later that month, he actually announced his plan to run for president in character - a plan he later abandoned. We'll hear more Colbert interview excerpts as our tribute to him continues in the second half of the show. I am Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR. Here's Colbert from his 2008 Christmas special.


COLBERT: Hit it Jimmy. (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 them. So it's another Christmas song. Santa Claus singing on mounty(ph) snow, reindeer ringing in the mistletoe. The manger's on fire. The holly's aglow. Hear the baby Jesus crying - ho ho ho. Hey, it's another Christmas song. Yay, another off-tree turning, royalty earning Christmas song. I've got plenty more so go buy a modem. Log onto iTunes tunes and pay to download them. Pay for another Christmas song. Chestnuts glistening on a silent night, sleigh bells kissing by candlelight. The tree is frozen. The winter's bright. Who'd 'a' thunk (ph) the wise men looked so white? You - don't you want to sing along?


GROSS: Coming up we continue our tribute to Stephen Cobert. and "The Colbert Report," which ends it nine-year run tonight. We'll hear excerpts of my interviews with Colbert from 2008, 2011 and 2012. Some of the things talked about were his Super PAC, his performance in the Stephen Sondheim musical "Company" and his interviewing style on "The Colbert Report."


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're paying tribute to "The Colbert Report," which concludes tonight after nine years. We are listening back to excerpts of our interviews with Stephen Colbert. He loves to sing, and I love to hear him sing. He sung on his show with people ranging from Tony Bennett to General Ray Odierno, the chief of staff of the U.S. Army. And Colbert got to sing in the New York Philharmonic production of the Stephen Sondheim musical, "Company." When I spoke with Colbert in 2011, I asked him about "Company."


GROSS: So how did you get the part? Who said, get Stephen Colbert? Because it's not like you went and auditioned, right?

COLBERT: No. Well, you know, I do the show 161 days a year and sometimes I don't know who the guest is coming up. And I looked up from my desk one day and I saw on the grid a few days ahead of me, it said Stephen Sondheim. And I was with my booker and I said, (exclaiming) Stephen Sondheim.

And she goes do you not want Stephen Sondheim? I didn't know. A lot of people here weren't sure whether you'd want Stephen Sondheim.

I said, God, do I want Stephen Sondheim.

GROSS: (Laughter).

COLBERT: I can't - because people don't know this about me, that I really like musical theater. And I think of myself - I think of myself as an actor and a theater person, even though I've done no theater in 20 years and people don't perceive what I do as acting, but I still do. And the canon of Stephen Sondheim is devastatingly beautiful to me and I was so thrilled to have him on the show, so I did something I never do with my guests - I did research.

GROSS: (Laughter).

COLBERT: I actually put effort into Stephen Sondheim because I knew it wouldn't be an easy interview because you never see him being interviewed. And I assumed he doesn't like it, or something. And one of my writers and I worked on a little parody of "Send In The Clowns" and one of the things - I have to stay in character. Even though I like him, I have to try to stay in character. It was very hard for me because I didn't want to go in attacking Stephen Sondheim, or really even be that ignorant about Stephen Sondheim, which is another sort of tactic on the show. I can either sort of be hostile toward my guest, or I can be ignorant of what they know and care about. And it was hard for me to do that with him because I care so much about him. Or his work, that is. And so...

GROSS: You know what? Before we go any further, we have that clip right here.

COLBERT: ...Oh, you do?

GROSS: Yeah, we have it right here (laughter). So before you describe it more why don't we actually hear it and then we can talk more of about how you got the part in Stephen Sondheim's "Company?"

So here's Stephen Sondheim interviewed on "The Colbert Report." And you wrote a new ending to his most famous song in this and let's hear how that played out.



COLBERT: Maybe your biggest toe-tapper out there, the one that people know the best, is "Send In The Clowns."

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: Very slow tap.


COLBERT: Very slow tap.

SONDHEIM: It's from "A Little Night Music."

COLBERT: Yeah. It's from "A Little Night Music?" Where were the clowns?


COLBERT: Because it said where are the clowns, and we never find out where the clowns were and it really leaves the audience hanging.

SONDHEIM: Well, she's a lost lady. She doesn't know where they are, either.

COLBERT: Well, I found when they are. I've got some lyrics that I'd like to perhaps finish your song.


COLBERT: (Singing) Where are the clowns? I booked them for 8. Hold on - that's them on the phone saying they're late. Traffic was bad, the tunnel's a mess. All 12 of them came in one car. They lost my address. You just can't trust clowns. That's why they're called clowns.


COLBERT: So much more satisfying, isn't it? Isn't that satisfying, to know where the clowns are?

SONDHEIM: Well, listen, we have three weeks left of the show on Broadway before it closes in January. I don't see any reason why Bernadette Peters can't sing that.


COLBERT: I'm totally ready to pitch it.

SONDHEIM: Now, we need some laughs in the second act.

COLBERT: Is there more? Are you going to have another book?

SONDHEIM: Yeah. The second one is going to be called "Look, I Made A Hat."

COLBERT: Well, come on, talk about that.

SONDHEIM: I'd love to.

COLBERT: I rarely fawn because I like to seem more important than my guests.

SONDHEIM: Fawn, fawn.

COLBERT: I will just say I'm so happy you came here. You and me bud, we're the loonies.


COLBERT: Did you know that? I bet you didn't know that.

Stephen Sondheim, thank you so much. The book is "Finishing The Act."

GROSS: I love that because like, at the end you really genuinely tell him how much you like him. And like, you said, you know, you don't usually do that on your show because you have to look superior to your guests (laughter).

COLBERT: Exactly. Or feel superior, at least.

GROSS: That's a Sondheim lyric you're quoting at the end, right?

COLBERT: It is. It's - I'm imperfectly quoting it, but that's from "Sunday In The Park With George." That's the boatman who says to George, you and me pal, we're the loonies. Did you know that? I bet you didn't know that.

And I love "Sunday In The Park With George." I saw that when I was just, just starting theater school and I remember singing "Finishing A Hat," or at least reading the lyrics of "Finishing A Hat" and other songs from "Sunday In The Park With George" to my mom, to explain why I wanted to be an artist.

GROSS: Stephen Colbert, recorded in 2011. Let's hear him sing Stephen Sondheim's song "Sorry-Grateful" from the New York Philharmonic production of "Company." The first line is spoken by Neil Patrick Harris, who played Bobby.


NEIL PATRICK HARRIS: (As Bobby) You ever sorry you got married?


COLBERT: (As Harry, singing) You're always sorry. You're always grateful. You're always wondering what might have been. Then she walks in and still you're sorry, and still you're grateful. And still you wonder and still you doubt. And she goes out. Everything's different. Nothing's changed, only maybe slightly rearranged. You're sorry-grateful, regretful-happy. Why look for answers where none occur? You always are what you always were, which has nothing to do with - all to do with - her.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Harry darling, come to bed.

COLBERT: (As Harry) Coming, darling.

GROSS: We'll continue our tribute to Stephen Colbert and "The Colbert Report" after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're paying tribute to "The Colbert Report," which concludes tonight after nine years. Nine years of Stephen Colbert being in character as a blowhard conservative who opines on the news and the news media. The character he's created hasn't been confined to "The Colbert Report." Colbert has taken the character into the real world to do things like start a superPAC. The saga of his superPAC is what taught many of us about the overt and covert ways that superPACs raise and donate large sums of money to elect or defeat candidates. Here's Colbert, in character, holding a press conference outside of the Federal Election Commission in 2011 after the Commission granted him the right to have a superPAC.


UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE MEMBERS: (Chanting) Stephen, Stephen, Stephen, Stephen...

COLBERT: I am here to represent your voice, so please quiet down so we can all hear what you have to say with my mouth.


COLBERT: Fellow Americans, ladies and gentlemen, supporters, friends and federal employees with extremely generous lunch break policies, 60 days ago today on this very spot, a young man petitioned the FEC for permission to form a superPAC, to raise unlimited monies and use them monies to determine the winners of the 2012 elections. Can anyone tell me...


COLBERT: Can anyone tell me who that young man was?


COLBERT: It was me.


COLBERT: Now, some people have cynically asked, is this some kind of joke? Well, I for one don't think that participating in democracy is a joke. I don't think that wanting to know what the rules are is a joke. But I do have one federal election law joke if you'd like to hear it.


COLBERT: Knock, knock.


COLBERT: Unlimited union and corporate campaign contributions.

UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE MEMBERS: Unlimited union and corporate contributions, who?


COLBERT: That's the thing. I don't think I should have to tell you.


COLBERT: Of course, there will be others who say, Stephen Colbert, what will you do with that unrestricted superPAC money? To which I say, I don't know. Give it to me, and let's find out because I don't know about you, but I do not accept limits on my free speech.


COLBERT: I don't know about you, but I do not accept the status quo. But I do accept Visa, MasterCard and American Express. Thank you. God bless America, and for any atheists out there, gesundheit the United States of America. We did it. I made a superPAC, and so can you.

GROSS: And that's Stephen Colbert after signing the papers at the Federal Election Committee giving him control of a superPAC. When I spoke with Stephen Colbert on October 2012, he told me why he started his superPAC.


COLBERT: The only reason I really started a superPAC was to see what would happen if you had a superPAC. I didn't have any plan. And I've tried to say this repeatedly like in every interview, I have no plans. I just wanted to see what would happen because the whole thing came about by accident. We were just trying to do a parody ad of a Tim Pawlenty ad, and I couldn't figure out how to end it. And then I said well, how's his ad end? And his ad ended just with, like, a single card on screen that said - whatever his political action committee was. And I said OK, just put up a at the end. And one person on the staff said, do you want me to buy that URL? I said, yeah, yeah, we might want to use that later. And then the network called and said, are you really going to get a PAC? And I said why do you ask? Because if you actually get a political action committee, that could be trouble. And I said, well, then I'm definitely going to do it...


COLBERT: ...Because I like the idea of like, why's it trouble? Everybody can do it, why can't I do it? And then we got into the - then, we'd already reported on - we had done jokes about Citizens United for about a year - and then I realized, oh, this is what the whole year is about. It's really about this whole new flush of cash into our political system that is in large part untraceable or traceable only after the fact, you know, when it's too late - after the primaries or after the election is over.

And I said OK, let's just try to do it. And we kept on running into supposed barriers in federal election law. But I have a lovely lawyer - Trevor Potter - he used to be head of the FEC and used to be John McCain's lawyer. And Trevor would say, well, actually we could get around that merely by doing X, Y or Z. And then we would do that thing, you know, all the way down to going down to the FEC and being granted the ability to have a superPAC and raise money. But every stage of it I didn't know what was going to happen next. It was just an act of discovery. It was purely improvisational.

And, you know, people would say what is your plan? My plan is to see what I can and cannot do with it. And so, you know, we did it up through the primaries. We really played the game hard up through the South Carolina primary, when Jon Stewart took over my superPAC because I announced my plan to form an exploratory committee about whether I should run for president. And then to illustrate how easy it is to just give the money to somebody else and really have control over what happens. But ostensibly, it's no longer out of - it's no longer in your control - but you've given it to your best friend who actually, you know, rides to work with you in the morning and you share a building. But it's all on the up-and-up. And after we...

GROSS: Even though you aren't supposed to coordinate with a candidate if you have superPAC? Yeah.

COLBERT: Well, exactly. That's the rule of a superPAC. Yeah, I left that out. SuperPACs cannot coordinate with campaigns. That's what Justice Kennedy said in his ruling of Citizens United is that unlimited money is going to be fine, but there won't be any coordination. There won't be any corruption or even the appearance of corruptions. We find it, you know. And so we just wanted - we just wanted to illustrate how that was complete [bleep]. And after we played that game, it was really the apotheosis of the superPAC game.

And since that moment, you know, I've - you know, my producers who did - and my writers who did an amazing job keeping us educated on what the superPACs could do and all the different games we could play - you know, some of them said like, boy, I feel like we're falling behind on the superPAC story. And I've said, well, no, we're not. We could be on time in 24 hours. We just do a show on it, and we'd be right up to date. I said, but you miss being ahead of the story because we were doing things - we were injecting ourselves into the news and illustrating what was ridiculous rather than talking about what was ridiculous. And at our show's best, that's what we do.

GROSS: Stephen Colbert, recorded in October 2012. Earlier that year, I had been a guest on his show, which of course led me to ask him a question about his interviewing style.


GROSS: I just want to say something. You had me on as a guest on your show, which was just enormous fun for me. And it was so interesting to be on your set and see what happens behind the scenes. And one thing I want to say about behind the scenes on your show was that everybody - your producers and, like, everybody was so just extraordinarily nice and warm and welcoming, and you were, too.

And so you walk onto the set knowing that, you know, Stephen Colbert in character is going to put you on the spot, but that the real Stephen Colbert is really in your court and wants you to do good and just gives you this sense of, like, comfort. And I think it's great that you can do both - that you can put the person really at ease and so can your staff and then come out in character and it just makes it all comfortable.

COLBERT: Oh, I'm so glad. And I also - I'm so glad you said that about my staff. I'm incredibly lucky to work with them.

GROSS: You are. They were really wonderful.

COLBERT: They really - everybody remarks about - not publicly - but everybody remarks about what a good experience it is for people backstage, and it's all due to my staff. I'm so blessed to work with them. And I don't understand what they do because I don't have time to, but I don't for a minute forget that they're the reason I get to do the crazy thing I do.

GROSS: But just briefly, have you learned more about how to make a guest comfortable so they could perform at their best on your show in the face of your character's, you know, unusual questions?

COLBERT: I don't know because it's very individual, you know? You don't know who's going to be comfortable dealing with me as a character. And it's - you know, I'm sure it can be a difficult booking at times because as much as I tell people before the show begins that, hey, I just want you to know if you haven't seen the show before - even if you have, I just want to tell you because it's my little ritual - that I do the show in character, and he's an idiot, and he's willfully ignorant of what you know and care about. Please just honestly disabuse me of my ignorance. Don't let me put words in your mouth, and we'll have a great time out there. That's easy to say and easy to hear, but it's another thing when you actually get out there, and I'm aggressively dominating you.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yes.

COLBERT: And I'm sure that can be difficult for people at times. And I'm very grateful for anyone who would come into that odd arena and - especially somebody who doesn't know the show or isn't a fan of the show. And so I say that to every guest so they won't feel surprised. You know, I don't really want to - I'm not an assassin, you know? I mean, there - I've had guests that I thought, I'm going to go out there - you know, when the show first started, I thought I've got my knife sharpened, and I'm going to get this guy. Then I thought, why are you going to get this guy? This guy's your guest, you know? Be welcoming to this person, and then maybe you'll discover something that you couldn't possibly invent. And it has been absolutely the truth.

And so I look at every guest as a guest. They're a guest in my home, and I'm grateful that they would come here. And if - I hope people have a good time. And if they don't, that's my fault - or rather it's my responsibility because if I get into an actual aggressive discussion with a guest that perhaps we're disagreeing about and I'm expressing my disagreements satirically, if they don't enjoy that, that's OK because I have a responsibility for what I'm saying. But I actually do want people to have a good time. After the correspondents dinner six years ago, which was a long time ago now, I wrote President Bush afterwards and I said, I hope you enjoyed it. I hope there's some part of it you enjoyed because it was an honor to do the show for you, and I really did want everyone to laugh.

GROSS: Stephen Colbert, recorded in October 2012. We'll conclude our tribute after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're saying a reluctant goodbye to "The Colbert Report." I got to see a taping of "The Colbert Report" when they did the show in Philadelphia in 2008, shortly before the Pennsylvania presidential primary. And it demonstrated the extraordinary commitment Colbert has to his show and to his audience. It was an ambitious broadcast. The guest was John Edwards. The surprise guest was Hillary Clinton. Then there was another surprise - Barack Obama was scheduled to appear via satellite from a campaign stop. But the satellite connection wasn't working out, so Colbert had to kill time and keep the studio audience interested and enthusiastic while the producers and engineers tried to solve the problem. Colbert talked to us, he made us laugh, and then he stood on his head - yes - while a key part of his show was in jeopardy, while Colbert had no idea what was going to happen. Instead of having a meltdown, he actually stood on his head to keep us entertained. I asked him about that when we spoke in November 2008.


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...

COLBERT: Oh, yes.

GROSS: You did?

COLBERT: Because I was, like, jumping around, and I turned to my stage manager, and I said just catch my feet. And I did a handstand, and he held my feet. Now the audience is going crazy.


COLBERT: And it was really nice. But it was so loud that what my stage manager cannot hear me say is, let go of my feet.

GROSS: (Laughter) Oh, God.

COLBERT: Let go of my feet. And I'm screaming at the top of my lungs, let go of my feet because my arms are 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 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 what everybody might think of the show. I don't ever 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, to have fun. The excitement of putting yourself - 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 of like - Ernie Kovacs said that every good idea he ever had was because it was 3:15. 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'd sort of promise 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: Stephen Colbert recorded in 2008. Listening back to that, I can't help but wonder if Colbert is ending "The Colbert Report" because he needs a new challenge. I mean, what hasn't he already done on "The Colbert Report"? He's created a new approach to satirizing the news and the news media. He's done his show from Iraq with an audience of American troops, started his own superPAC, raised enough money so that the Colbert nation became the primary sponsor of the U.S. Olympic speed skating in the 2010 Winter Olympics. He testified on Capitol Hill in persona using satire to call attention to the problems faced by migrant farm workers.

Last week, President Obama not only was Colbert's interview guest, the president sat in Colbert's anchor chair and did an installment of the regular feature The Word. Maybe Colbert thinks, oh, that's enough for one persona to have accomplished. Well, I'm going to miss his show immensely, but I can't wait to find out what he does with "Late Night." I hope it's something we've never seen before because we'd certainly never seen anything quite like "The Colbert Report." No pressure. Since tonight is the last night that a new edition of "The Colbert Report" will follow "The Daily Show," I thought it would be fitting to end with Colbert and John Stewart singing a duet. This is from the 2008 Christmas special, "A Colbert Christmas." Merry Christmas, Stephen Colbert and happy Hanukkah, Jon Stewart. From all of us at FRESH AIR, thank you both.


STEWART: (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 nights.

COLBERT: Hanukkah, huh? I've never really thought about it.

STEWART: Well you could do worse.

COLBERT: (Singing) Is it merry?

STEWART: It's kind of merry.

COLBERT: (Singing) Is it cheery?

STEWART: It's got some cheer.

COLBERT: (Singing) Is it jolly?

STEWART: (Singing) Look I wouldn't know from jolly. But it's not my least favorite time of year.

COLBERT: (Singing) When's it start?

STEWART: (Singing) On the 25.

COLBERT: (Singing) Of December?

STEWART: Kislev.

COLBERT: (Singing) Which is when exactly?

STEWART: I will check.

COLBERT: (Singing) Are there presents?

STEWART: (Singing) Yes, indeed. Eight days of presents, which means one nice one then a week of dreck.

COLBERT: (Singing) Does Hanukkah commemorate events profound and holy? A king who came to save the world?

STEWART: (Singing) No, oil that burned quite slowly.

COLBERT: Well, it sounds fantastic.

STEWART: There's more. (Singing) We have latkes.

COLBERT: (Singing) What are they?

STEWART: (Singing) Potato pancakes. We have dreidel.

COLBERT: (Singing) What are they?

STEWART: (Singing) Wooden tops. We have candles.

COLBERT: (Singing) What are they?

STEWART: (Singing) They are candles. And when we light them, oh, the fun it never stops. What do you say, Stephen? You want to give Hanukkah a try?

COLBERT: (Singing) I'm trying to see me as a Jew. I'm trying even harder. But I believe in Jesus Christ, so it's a real nonstarter.

STEWART: (Singing) I can't interest you in Hanukkah just a little bit?

COLBERT: (Singing) No thanks. I'll pass. I'll keep Jesus. You keep your potato pancakes. But I hope that you enjoy them on behalf of all the goyim.

STEWART: (Singing) Be sure to tell the pontiff my people say good yontif.

COLBERT: (Singing) That's exactly what I'll do.

STEWART: (Singing) Happy holidays, you Jew.

COLBERT: (Singing) Happy holidays, you Jew.

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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