Why is Stephen Colbert coming to Philadelphia? Because he must.
“I’m a kingmaker, and this is the battle!” says the host of the satirical, pointedly political chucklefest “The Colbert Report,” which is pronounced the French way, “coal-BEAR rah-POR.”
The show, which airs at 11:30 p.m. EDT on cable’s Comedy Central immediately following Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” takes its first-ever road trip this week, taping at the University of Pennsylvania for four days.
“This is Agincourt. This is the big showdown,” says Colbert last week, pumped up in his midtown office. A 1972 Richard Nixon campaign poster hangs behind him, a “Lord of the Rings” pinball machine stands in the corner.
“This is where it’s going to be decided, and I just decided I had to be in the middle of it. My character doesn’t like anything to not be about him.”
The battle royal to which he refers is, of course, the face-off between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the April 22 Pennsylvania Democratic primary. Colbert inserted himself into the 2008 presidential election last fall, when he announced his own (later-aborted) presidential candidacy as a Doritos-sponsored favorite son in both major-party primaries in his native South Carolina.
When Colbert talks about “my character,” the actor, comedian and father of three, who previously played a fake news correspondent on “The Daily Show,” means the mock pundit Stephen Colbert.
“That guy,” as Colbert refers to him, is the self-aggrandizing, super-patriotic author of the best-seller “I Am America (And So Can You!)” and a straight-faced parody of cable shoutfest hosts like Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly.
He’s the one who used R.E.M.‘s album “Accelerate” as a codpiece during the band’s recent spot, and suggested to former Obama adviser Samantha Power that she could save face by calling Clinton a “Cookie Monster.” Lately, he’s accused anti-penny activist Jeff Gore of wanting to “re-assassinate Abraham Lincoln,” and teamed with John Legend on Michael Jackson’s “The Girl Is Mine.” (The girl in question: Lady Liberty.)
It’s that persona the unflappable Colbert used at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner, when he mockingly applauded President Bush for not only standing “for things” but also “on things - things like aircraft carriers, and rubble, and recently flooded city squares. ...”
The nervy clip became an Internet sensation and boosted Colbert’s standing with the IM generation. In the first quarter of this year, among men aged 18 to 34, a demographic referred to as “coveted” by advertisers, “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” had their best quarters ever, each drawing more viewers than Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, David Letterman, Craig Ferguson or Jimmy Kimmel.
“Do you remember the `80s?” the 43-year-old host asked in his show lead-in last Monday. “If you do, you’re not in my demographic.”
It also led to Colbert being celebrated by old-media outlets such as Time magazine, which tagged him one of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2006.
He sits for an interview out of character. But at 11 a.m. Monday, as he prepares for a show that will find him challenging former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura to arm-wrestle, “I’m already kind of `that guy.’”
“I’m a force to be reckoned with in Democratic politics,” he says. “Need I remind you how I was polling, in-state and nationally? Thirteen percent, sir. And I was sponsored by a corn chip.” Then he does something he nearly never does on camera, and laughs.
The first “Colbert Report” aired in October 2005 and introduced a new term into the English language: “Truthiness.”
“What we wanted to get at was the heart vs. the head,” says Colbert, whose guests in Philadelphia will include Mayor Michael Nutter, Gov. Edward Rendell, the Philadelphia Eagles cheerleaders, Chris Matthews and the Roots. “In the shoutfest, loudest wins. Feeling comes first in personality-driven media because facts don’t matter. It’s what feels right. ... It felt right to take down Saddam. Right now, I would say the surge feels successful. I have no idea if it is. It may be, it may not be.”
Colbert is “not wrong” when he says the 24-hour news cycle is built on “less facts, more opinion,” says Annenberg communications professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a founder of the political watchdog site FactCheck.org.
“Truthiness,” Jamieson says, “reminds you that much of politics has lost its grip on any concept of fact, or any concept of reality. ... O’Reilly creates the `no-spin zone,’ in which he spins. Colbert steps back and creates the concept of `truthiness,’ in which he lets the audience see the fact that much of what is passing as discourse of substantive, verifiable external reality is nothing but blurred ideological expression. It’s very artful.”
Colbert critiques personality-driven media by creating a cult of personality around himself. The difference between his show and Stewart’s, he says, is that “Jon’s real, talking to fake people. I’m fake, talking to real people.”
He adds: “The show doesn’t ask for permission to interact with reality. We just run for president. We throw the pebble of the show into reality, and follow all the ripples.”
In a Philadelphia Inquirer interview last year, Stewart said that compared to “The Colbert Report,” “The Daily Show” is “more of the staid mothership. ... Part of the joy of being in character is you can get away with things others cannot. Though a lot of that is that (Colbert’s) so high on NyQuil you never know what he’s going to do.”
“They need each other,” says Jamieson. With Comedy Central’s one-two punch, “the left has found an entertainment forum. ... The older, conservative Republican audience has had one since the `90s. It’s talk radio.” But Stewart and Colbert, who carry on “the Swiftian form of literature,” are more effective at reaching a younger demographic than “terminally earnest” liberal talk radio. “Their shows are entertaining, but it isn’t just entertainment.”
Jamieson says Stewart’s show is more informational - and is accurate, too - while Colbert’s is built on irony. “You have to be able to recognize an elaborate and very clever put-on,” she says, “while at the same time hearing the content stream under it for its serious implications. It’s intellectually sophisticated.”
“People can see under the character,” says Allison Silverman, the “Report’s” executive producer, who previously worked on “The Daily Show” and “Late Night With Conan O’Brien.” “There’s a tension Stephen brings to this that makes him a really great performer. People can see that he’s a really decent guy under this thing that he’s wearing.”
Colbert and Silverman worry about “that line where on one side he’s a well-intentioned, poorly informed idiot, and on the other, he’s just a jerk,” she says. “And sometimes you realize you’re on the wrong side of that line.”
In person, Colbert is erudite and engaging, a natural ham. He puts on a Penn sweatshirt. He poses with a “Lord of the Rings” sword given him by Viggo Mortensen and with a suit of armor he wore when interviewing “Are We Rome?” author Cullen Murphy. He shows off the spangly dress that Feist wore on her “1-2-3-4” iPod commercial, which the Canadian singer sent him as a gift, and picks up an acoustic guitar to sing “Froggy Went A-Courtin’” before dropping down to do sit-ups, Stallone-style.
In the run-up to “The Colbert Report’s” trip to Philadelphia, Colbert had been raising money for Pennsylvania schools through the Web site DonorsChoose.org, which benefits public schools. By Thursday, Colbert’s Celebrate the Democralypse! challenge had raised $140,078 in honor of Obama and $26,606 in honor of Clinton.
The youngest of 11 children in Charleston, S.C., was raised in a devout Catholic family. Last year, O’Reilly - whom Colbert calls “Papa Bear” - was a guest on the “Report,” and called Colbert a “secular progressive.” Colbert, only partly in jest, replied that he’s “a deeply religious man who will do anything you say.”
Colbert’s love of role-playing grew, in part, out of tragedy. When he was 10, his father, James, and brothers Peter and Paul, who were closest to him in age, were killed in a plane crash. “Coming back from the funeral, I picked up my first science fiction book, and I was hooked,” he recalls. “I will admit, doctor, that I was trying to escape from something. And I did it.”
He became a big fan of J.R.R. Tolkien and the role-playing game “Dungeons & Dragons,” of which he says, “I’m not sure if it made me an improviser, but it helped. You’re incredibly free in there.”
Later, he had a crisis of faith. “I got pretty upset that Dad and the boys died, and didn’t have anything to do with my church for years. ... But then I did, and the moments of reconnection and epiphany are too inexpressible to capture in this kind of an interview.” He’s not teaching Sunday school now because of his election-year schedule. “But I did go to Mass yesterday,” he says. “Does that count, Padre? I find it very calming.”
Colbert, who lives in Montclair, N.J., and is married to actress Evelyn McGee-Colbert, studied performance at Northwestern University and worked with Amy Sedaris and Steve Carell at the Second City comedy troupe.
He aimed to be a serious actor. “Paul Scofield, that’s who I wanted to be,” he says of the recently deceased Shakespearean. He came to terms with making people laugh, though, and did a stint on the Craig Kilborn-hosted “Daily Show” in the `90s, before leaving for the “Strangers With Candy” TV series and movie with Sedaris. He returned to “The Daily Show” full time after Stewart took over in 1999.
Colbert, who studied voice and ballet, fronted a Rolling Stonesy cover band in high school, and has a gift for physical comedy that recalls silent-film star Harold Lloyd. He says he loves doing the “Report” because “it asks of me everything I know how to do.”
“I get to sing with John Legend. I get to hang with R.E.M. I get to meet some of the great political figures, and great intellectual minds come on to talk about their books. I also get to make the stupidest jokes in the world, and very pointed political jokes at the same time.”
And, he says, people will listen. “Like O’Reilly or (Sean) Hannity or even Geraldo (Rivera) or to a certain extent Lou Dobbs or Anderson Cooper, once it becomes a cult of personality, anything the person talks about is news. So I can talk about anything. Because everything is filtered though the prism of my ego.”
He has no fears of George W. Bush’s departure. McCain, Clinton and Obama have personalities “big enough for eight years of mining. You can’t get this far in the political process without being a large figure.”
“I have my own ideas about who should be president,” Colbert says. Who? “One of those three,” he adds, smirking. “But it’s not important to me as a comedian who holds the White House. What’s important is that my character’s ego and willful ignorance be the things that drive his concerns. And that will never end.”