Interview with Stephen Colbert at the Y

“I love playing a high status idiot.”

Raucous laughter.

It’s hard to tell if Stephen Colbert is being funny when a packed crowd of white people in flip-flops dies laughing at everything he says. Such was the scene at the 92nd Street Y last night where I heard him speak with New York Times columnist Frank Rich.

My first question going in was whether I was going to see Stephen Colbert, the man, or Stephen Colbert, the character. It’s hard to know what you’re getting when the two share the same name. It turns out the guy who showed up last night was the man, which is what I was hoping for.

The tone of the interview was akin to that of Inside the Actor’s Studio, which is appropriate since Colbert is an actor at heart (he even belted out a few lines of Jesus Christ Superstar to prove the point). But perhaps even more than an actor, Colbert is a performance artist, and a subversive one at that.

When asked about his controversial career masterpiece, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Colbert said that he came across a German blog that described it as: “if one could place shining terror in bottles.”

He went onto say that for a long time no one wanted to seem anti-American or question the president’s moves in a time of crisis, but that this particular crisis was never going to end.

“I think the American public has been ill-served for a number of years.” He said.

Thunderous applause.

Personally, I don’t think anyone quite gets how brave his stint at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner really was. When that happened, it proved that he’s the rare breed of person who is willing to sacrifice himself for the betterment of our world. He’s a revolutionary first, and an entertainer second. He’s like the charismatic student activist from Les Mis who dies gloriously on the barricade. Or John Galt. For those of us who are disillusioned, he is something real. He just happens to be a comedian.

Colbert’s employment of humor to get his point across, or use of unsophisticated words like “truthiness,” shouldn’t obscure or detract from his goal of making our political world more honest and accessible. But unfortunately, the comedy that enables him to get away with the type of searing criticism he doled out at the Correspondents’ Dinner does unavoidably cancel out the magnitude of what he’s getting away with. He should have won the Nobel Prize for that speech, instead he got VH1’s Big in ’06 Award.

But I digress. Rich asked him a number of questions about the show itself:

The hardest part?

“It’s ‘The Word’ everyday that really cracks our spine,” Colbert says. It needs to be a cogent point with a counterpoint. It’s also verbose (this is the segment where the sub-context appears on the screen as he speaks into the camera), and current.

Yet he adds that the Colbert team sometimes refers to the show as “The Joy Machine,” because “when it’s joyful, it’s effortless. It’s a good kind of tired.”

His favorite part?

The hodgepodge of characters that end up sitting around doing or saying random things. He talks about one of his favorite episodes in which Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky moderates a “Metaphor-Off” between Colbert and Sean Penn. For a man who never deviates from character, it is almost ironic how much Colbert enjoys when his guests act human without the rigid self-consciousness that their high profile lives so often require.

When asked who his dream guest is, he jokingly says JD Salinger. When asked again, seriously, he says Salinger again, seriously. “But I’m a huge fan of Salinger,” he continues, “and it would be hard not to worship him.”

I know what you mean, Stephen Colbert.

Stephen Colbert & Michelle Haimoff
Photo:liltree, Creative Commons, Flickr
Disclosure: Even though Stephen Colbert is my hero, and tall and sickly white and clearly emotionally unavailable, all of which I love, I understand that he has a wife and kids and that it would be wrong for us to be together. I understand this even in my lame as lemon dreams about him where, fingers intertwined, we talk about how he has a wife and kids and it would be wrong for us to be together. I do not own stock in Viacom (VIA – 39.46).