Stephen Colbert Talks Working With Henry Kissinger, Staying in Character
At the New York Comedy Festival, the late-night host and his "Colbert Report" writers discussed how they come up with ideas and the stories behind some of show's most memorable moments.
Stephen Colbert and the writers of his eponymous Comedy Central late-night show took the stage at the New York Comedy Festival on Thursday night, sharing The Colbert Report secrets with a packed audience of fans at Manhattan's Town Hall.
During the 90-minute panel, Colbert and Co. talked about how they come up with ideas for the show and revealed the stories behind wild onscreen moments.
The craziest thing they ever did, though, didn't entirely make it to air. As part of their 2006 "Guitarmageddon" special in which a supergroup of Colbert and Peter Frampton competed against The Decemberists, they managed to get Henry Kissinger to introduce the competition and announce the winner.
Kissinger, who recently appeared in Colbert's Daft Punk video this past summer, was willing to say "It's time to rock," and "I think the American people won" when asked who won the contest. But there was one thing he wouldn't say, leaving a hilarious-sounding comment on the cutting room floor.
Colbert explained that they had a line they wanted him to say at the end that would provide a reason for him being there: "And the line was, [imitates Kissinger] 'Where are my pancakes? I was promised pancakes.' We have the tape of him reading the copy and then he goes, [imitating Kissinger] 'That is too much.' "
But, it was that episode in which Colbert realized they could do anything on his show.
"We realized that because the character, he believes anything he thinks, says, cares about is important, that anything fits on the show, and that's why we've been able to sponsor the Olympics or go to Iraq or wherever it was," Colbert said.
But despite the stunts that they've done, the writers do have a process that they try to adhere to for coming up with stories. After cramming overnight after they wrap the previous night's show, they start their mornings trying to come up with ideas from the news that also have a connection to Colbert's character. There's an initial writers meeting to pitch ideas at 9:30 a.m. while Colbert is in transit from his home "in the New York area," he said, with air quotes, "for my stalkers out there." Once he arrives, he meets with his executive producer and the writers, then a bigger meeting in which ideas are presented again. After that, they begin to write and fine-tune the scripts, which continues through the afternoon, with Colbert putting his stamp on the material. Rehearsals begin at 5-ish, followed by final rewrites. They tape the show around 7 p.m.
He notes that they don't write every show the day it airs, which they did do for the first two years, including coming up with a "Word" a day for a year, which they often wrote late in the afternoon.
"It was no way to live your life," Colbert noted.
Once they start taping, the host said, he does try to stay in character, despite the popularity of clips of him cracking up online.
"I always kick myself a little bit when that happens, but I always want the audience to have a sense that I'm enjoying the show as a performer. But we never try to generate that moment; it just surprises me," he said.
Colbert then relayed what caused him to lose it in a particularly memorable moment in which he broke character, barely concealing his laughter as he recited the name of the proud mother of Suq Madiq, the Arab-American viewer who had recently donated to his Super Pac, Munchma Quchi.
"I read that and I loved it and we'd gone through rehearsal and I could barely breathe in rehearsal and when we got to the show, I honestly thought that I would be fine," he said. "It seemed like if I take a breath first [it would be ok] … 'and of course his mother,' and before the "M" even came out of my mouth I'm like, 'I'm done. I'm just done.' "
But he did admit that he tried to get Jon Stewart to crack up when he was on the desk with him on The Daily Show, which is one of the things he misses about being on that series.
Even the set on The Colbert Report is designed to raise the status of his character, Colbert explained, noting that he told the original set designer that his inspiration should be da Vinci's Last Supper, with Colbert as Jesus in that all the architecture should be pointed at him. His C-shaped desk and backdrop of Earth and beams of light "as if [he's] the rising sun," adds to that, he said.
"That gets [my status] high, so anything that I do that's stupid, plays as a joke underneath that because my status is so tall," he explained.
There was also a bit of discussion during the audience Q&A about how he gets the real people who appear in taped segments to keep a straight face and play along with him. Colbert and his team insisted that there were no editing tricks.
"People will often say, 'Oh, you edited that piece together and made that congressman say that.' No, those congressmen said those things," Colbert pointed out. "If they're willing to say those things, then I don't think they perceive of themselves as the joke. … I promise you, I'm asking those questions and they're answering those questions," he added. "It is always at least what I would call a fair distillation of what the question and the answer was. We live by the same kind news rules, but with totally different intentions."