Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell on Running From the KKK and the Value of Being "Nauseated by Food"

A Conversation With Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell - H 2014
Montclair Film Festival

"Our careers belong to that sketch. It was so dumb and opened so many doors for us"

Stephen Colbert sat down with his longtime friend and former colleague Steve Carell at a fundraiser on Friday night for the Montclair Film Festival.

The annual event, designed to raise money for the 10-day festival in May, involves Colbert interviewing some of his funny friends, with past conversations taking place with Jon Stewart and Jimmy Fallon.

This year, Carell took time away from his busy Foxcatcher promotional tour to reminisce with Colbert about their days at Second City, on The Dana Carvey Show and on The Daily Show. Colbert was technically the interviewer, but it was more of a conversation, with both funny men revealing humorous anecdotes from their past. The two also discussed Carell's dramatic turn in Foxcatcher and Colbert gave audience members a hint of what he's like interviewing people while not in character, i.e., what he'll be doing five nights a week when he takes over for David Letterman.

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Throughout the course of the hourlong chat — which included clips of Colbert and Carell performing with Second City, their star-making "Waiters Who Are Nauseated by Food" Dana Carvey Show sketch and their "Even Stephen" debates on The Daily Show, not to mention a live rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" — Colbert and Carell sang, laughed, got sentimental and had the packed audience at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark laughing too.

Colbert and Carell revealed several previously unknown or largely unknown things about themselves, including the following:

1. Colbert had to run away from the KKK after filming a Daily Show bit.

When reminiscing about their time at The Daily Show, Carell said that Colbert got in "way more trouble" than he did, saying that he heard once that Colbert had to run away from white supremacists.

"I had to run away from some Klan members," Colbert said matter-of-factly before explaining what happened. Evidently he was covering a Klan rally, and they didn't know who he was or that he was doing a segment for a comedy show. Instead, even though he'd "had some sport at their expense," Colbert explained, "they really thought I got them" and invited him to join them on a trip to a field where there were three crosses burning. With the cameras rolling, Colbert thought it would be funny to do a station promo, which Comedy Central had been wanting the Daily Show correspondents to do from various field pieces.

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"So I stand in front of these crosses, and I go, 'I'm Stephen Colbert, and this is Comedy Central.' … And the next thing I knew, I turned around, and there were a bunch of guys in hoods with liquor on their breath going, 'What did you just say? Comedy what?' And I was completely surrounded," Colbert recalled. "And I go, 'You're probably going to want to talk to my producer.'"

She came over, and Colbert told her, "These gentlemen don't know we're from Comedy Central, and I just mentioned that we were." She said, "Go talk to the president of the Klan. He's right over there; he knows all about it."

After they walked away intending to do just that, Colbert's producer shouted, "Haul ass!"

"We floored it, and they followed us," Colbert said, adding that he was so scared, he signed off on his report with another correspondent's name, that of then-Daily Show staffer A. Whitney Brown.

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2. Colbert is still haunted by one experience he had understudying for Carell.

Colbert served as Carell's understudy during their Second City days, and when he got the chance to fill in for Carell for an onscreen gig (either a movie or TV commercial), he jumped at the chance, until he found out it meant playing a baritone horn, which Carell does.

"I've never touched a brass instrument in my life," Colbert explained. "The director came to me and he said, 'Can you play a baritone horn?' And I said, 'What is a baritone horn?' And they said, 'Ah, we'll have Scott Adsit do it.' And I said, 'I'll do it!' "

Colbert had to get his own miniature tuba. Carell and someone else "wrote out by hand all the fingerings on the horn," Colbert explained. He then had to fill in for Colbert six days later, and although Carell said Colbert nailed it, the experience still haunts him.

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"I slept with that baritone horn. I have nightmares about it to this day," Colbert said. "You had to do 'Anchors Aweigh' but only the bassline to 'Anchors Aweigh.' To this day, I can't remember how 'Anchors Aweigh' goes because all I can remember is [the bassline,]" which they both sang.

Colbert then joked, "I thought I was the only person who woke up screaming that song."

3. Colbert called the reviewer who panned Carell in Over the Top to offer him a job on his show, but he turned it down.

After Colbert and Carell's short-lived run on The Dana Carvey Show came to an end, because the show was canceled after seven episodes, Carell went back to L.A. where, as he said Friday night, he did a "bunch of bad sitcoms," including one Colbert called "the worst bad sitcom of all time," a show called Over the Top, which lived up to its name, at least with respect to Carell's performance. The sitcom, in which Carell played a Greek chef at a hotel run by Annie Potts' character, also had the distinction of receiving a horrible but hilariously written review from, which has been quoted by Carell before. On Friday, he and Colbert recalled some of the pan's best lines ("[Steve Carell's appearance onscreen sent] audiences and critics alike diving over their ottomans, fumbling for the TV Guide, screaming 'Who the hell is that!?!' and "I have stood in a freezer full of dead people at the morgue. I have seen a man’s scalp pulled back over his nose … But I can now honestly say that until Steve Carell’s turn in the premiere of Over the Top, I have never known true horror."), and Colbert revealed he was so impressed by the reviewer's writing, he asked the reviewer, Peter Ko, to be a writer for The Colbert Report, but Ko wasn't remotely interested.

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"I called him and said, 'I've got this review. I'm staffing up a new show. Would you want to write for it?' and he goes, 'Nah,' I said, 'No, just send me a packet. I love your writing.' He really didn't want to," Colbert said.

Carell chimed in: "What an idiot."

4. Carell's job as a rural mail carrier did pay off.

Carell has talked about his short time as a rural mail carrier in Massachusetts, revealing that it was the hardest job he ever had and that he wasn't very good at it, but it seems the six-month gig did have one positive outcome.

"I made enough money to buy my parents a new dishwasher," Carell said. "I got so sick of my dad trying to fix our dishwasher … and I was sick of doing the dishes, like 'Just have the thing fixed professionally or buy a new one.'"

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5. The Dana Carvey Show's "Waiters Who Are Nauseated By Food" got Carell noticed by The Daily Show.

It's been reported that Colbert and Carell's "Waiters Who Are Nauseated By Food" sketch, from The Dana Carvey Show, helped both Colbert and Carell land their jobs on The Daily Show, but it's still unclear exactly how that played out. But Colbert said that he had spent six months trying to get his Daily Show bosses to hire Carell when they were looking for new correspondents, but they didn't seem interested, until he mentioned one sketch they'd done.

"I said, 'Did you ever see on The Dana Carvey Show the "Waiters Who Are Nauseated By Food"' and [the executive producer] said, 'Is he the other waiter?' I said, 'Yes.' She said, 'Hire him!'"

Colbert said they both owe their careers to the sketch, which played as part of a highlight reel before their conversation.

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"It was so dumb and opened so many doors for us," he said. "That sketch got me my gig on The Daily Show."

Carell seemed very appreciative of Colbert going to bat for him at The Daily Show, to which Colbert jokingly responded, "Oh, thank you, Steve. I'm sure you'll do something nice for me one day, too."

6. Carell's interview with John McCain changed The Daily Show.

In 1999, new Daily Show host Jon Stewart was still trying to figure out how to turn the show into "a real satirical tool," as Colbert explained on Friday night, when Carell's interview with presidential candidate John McCain helped him see what the show could do. Carell was invited on McCain's campaign bus and interviewed him, asking mostly softball questions like what kind of tree he would be. But then he slipped in a more serious query about unauthorized appropriations while McCain headed up the commerce committee. The senator blanched and everyone around him froze while Carell stared at him waiting for an answer.

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"The whole interview hinged on that moment, to just get a moment where he looked bewildered," Carell recalled.

After a few seconds, Carell told McCain, "I'm just kidding, I don't even know what that means."

And Colbert said it was after that exchange that Stewart realized, "Oh, yeah, just keep being the idiot and you can keep asking the questions that the other people aren't asking."

7. Colbert's not quite sure how doing The Late Show out of character will be different from doing The Colbert Report in character.

In response to an often-asked question about how much of him is his Colbert Report character, the incoming Late Show host said he (and fans) would soon find out.

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"You know what? I can't wait to find out," Colbert said. "I am not taking the character to CBS, and I'm curious what that really means … You'll notice when I don't do the character, how much of me will be familiar. Hopefully it'll only be the jokes and not the jerk."

One difference, Colbert said, would likely be less of a focus on politics, explaining, "I'm not that political of a person. I like the behavior of people. I'm not that interested in politics, and I get less and less interested in it every day."