COLBERT REPORT REPORT… With Stephen Colbert out running for president, Comedy Central has been running repeats of his show all this week. The result is that the episode that I was on, touting the Washington Monthly’s college guide, got rebroadcast the last couple of nights.
So what’s it like going on the Colbert Report? Well, it’s taped in New York, at a small, funky studio on West 54th Street. When I got there last Monday at about 6:30 pm, four hours before the broadcast, there was already a line of people waiting for studio audience tickets. I was led inside, through a warren of offices, to a dressing room, on the doorframe of which was taped a paper sign with my name superimposed over a star (I made a mental note to grab the sign as a souvenir). Inside the dressing room were a couple small couches and a swivel chair in front of a vanity, with a plate of cheese and crackers and fruit to nibble on. There was also a cloth bag tote bag emblazoned with the show’s name and filled with swag: perfume, lotions, fancy coffee, a bottle of high-end vodka (I made a mental note of which items to give to which family members of work colleagues).
After settling in with some friends from New York, I got to go inside the studio to watch Colbert rehearse. He was sitting behind his desk and had on his usual get-up–pinstriped suit, frameless glasses, slicked-back hair. He and his first guest, presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, ran through a fairly complicated sketch, which involved the Ohio congressman pulling various items out of his pocket (tasks which Kucinich performed flawlessly during the actual taping). The way Colbert carries himself is hard to describe: he’s at once taut and loose, intense and relaxed. You could tell from the way he directed the cameramen and producers that he is very much The Boss. But he was pretty gentle with everyone, and during pauses in the action he would crack jokes, make faces, put his pen in his ear, and generally exhibit a comedian’s irrepressible urge to entertain.
Then I was taken to the makeup room, where my face (and bald spot) was covered up with gunk, and then back to my dressing room. A few minutes before the taping, Colbert came by and introduced himself. He was quite personable as he gave me what I presume is his standard prep talk. The character I play, he said, is extremely opinionated and extremely ignorant. Don’t get thrown off by the ridiculous questions I ask you. Just focus on making the points you want to make. (His producers had given me very similar advice: don’t respond to his jokes, and for God’s sakes don’t try to joke back, just concentrate on getting your message out).
I mentioned to Colbert that he had gone to my alma mater, Northwestern. Yes indeed, he said, but remember, “My character went to Dartmouth.” We also chatted about how he first studied comedic acting at the Improv Olympics in Chicago, where he got to know one of the troupe members, my friend and frat brother Noah Gregoropoulos. Among the cognoscenti, Improv Olympics is considered the more purist and less commercial form of Chicago-style improv comedy. There are no pre-written sketches built into the show, as is the case at Second City (where Colbert also performed). Improv Olympics specializes in “long form,” meaning the sketches, inspired by audience suggestions, can go on as long as the actors can manage to keep them going. Pretty good training, I guess, for a guy whose whole show is basically an extended riff on one conceit.
Anyway, Colbert then went off to start the taping, and I was brought into the studio half an hour later, just as the Kucinich segment was finishing up. As they led me to the part of the set with the little table where the author interviews are done, I noticed Colbert at his desk, furiously editing the list of pre-written questions he was going to ask me (the improv impulse kicking in). As the taping began, I tried to ignore the lights and the audience and Colbert’s out-of-nowhere questions and just focus on the task at hand. The only other person I know who’s been on the show, journalist James Fallows, once told me that it’s a bit disconcerting to be twelve inches away from a guy who’s doing a very believable impression of a total lunatic. I had a similar experience, though in truth I think Colbert went relatively easy on me.
After the show, I got to meet Kucinich (who was smaller and more charming than I expected) and to chat more with Colbert. It was the day before Colbert was to announce for president–though I didn’t know that at the time. I would have loved nothing more than to continue the conversation. Alas, I had to catch a plane back to DC. In my haste, I forgot to grab the little paper sign with my name on it. I did remember to take the bag of swag, but the TSA guards at the airport stripped me of all the fine liquids. I also managed to bring home for my daughter’s 18th birthday a copy of Colbert’s new book I Am America (And So Can You!) signed by the author. It reads “Dear Hope, Be strong! Stephen Colbert.”