Copyright ©2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest is Stephen Colbert. I love it when he sings with music guests on the show, so in the spring, when I heard that he was going to be performing in the New York Philharmonic revival of Stephen Sondheim's 1970 musical "Company," I knew I had to go.

You may have seen Colbert Sunday night on the Tonys, in a number from "Company." Now you can see the whole show. The New York Philharmonic production was filmed and will be in movie theaters four days: tomorrow, Thursday, Sunday and next Tuesday.

"Company" stars Neil Patrick Harris, who just hosted the Tonys, and also features Patti LuPone, Martha Plimpton, Jon Cryer and Christina Hendricks, who plays Joan on "Mad Men." After we talk about "Company," we'll talk about "The Colbert Report."

Stephen Colbert, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I can't tell you how much I enjoyed hearing you and seeing you in "Company" at Lincoln Center, to see you singing Sondheim and to see you dancing in a little chorus line with a hat and a cane. I mean, it doesn't get better.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEPHEN COLBERT (Host, "The Colbert Report"): Well, thank you very much. It was - and it was an amazing amount of fun.

GROSS: Good. You looked like you were having fun, and that made it even more enjoyable.

Mr. COLBERT: It was all true. I didn't fake a single smile.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And I should say we are recording this Monday morning at nine, and you were at the Tonys Sunday night, and with every commercial break, when they were saying up next, Stephen Colbert, and then it was, like, later and later. And up next, Stephen Colbert.

Mr. COLBERT: We were backstage. I was backstage for a lot of it because I did little hits throughout the show, and so I didn't sort of get to watch it from the house. And I'd be sitting there with Jon Cryer, and it would say: Up next, Jon Cryer and Stephen Colbert. You know, coming later, a performance by Jon Cryer and Stephen Colbert. And I turned to Jon. I said: I have never heard a more misleading tease in my entire life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: Because not only - sure, we're in a chorus, you know, behind Neil Patrick Harris, who is just, you know, setting the room on fire all night long. And I thought: They might as well have just said, stay tuned, Stephen Colbert will occupy space in time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: Stephen Colbert breathes and processes carbon - next.

GROSS: So let's talk about "Company." Now, there's a song in "Company" that you sing called "Sorry-Grateful," and it's, it's a song about the ambivalence this character has about being married. And Neil Patrick Harris' character is the single guy in this, and all of his friends are, like, married couples, and they're actually all miserable, but they're trying to convince him he needs to get married.

So he's been visiting you and your wife in this, and you've just been bickering and fighting the whole time, even had a karate match together. And then he says to you - and we'll hear what he says to you as you sing this song about the ambivalence of marriage, "Sorry-Grateful." Do you want to say anything before we hear it?

Mr. COLBERT: That I haven't heard it. So I'm looking forward to hearing this.

GROSS: Okay, and I should mention that you can see this in a theater because "Company," the New York Philharmonic production of "Company," with Stephen Colbert, will be in theaters June 15th, 16th, 19th and 21st. So here it Stephen Colbert. The first line you're going to hear is Neil Patrick Harris.

(Soundbite of film, "Company")

(Soundbite of song, "Sorry-Grateful")

Mr. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS (Actor): (As Robert) Are you ever sorry you got married?

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. COLBERT: (As Harry) (Singing) You're always sorry. You're always grateful. You're always wondering what might have been. Then she walks in and still you're sorry, and still you're grateful, and still you wonder, and still you doubt, and she goes out.

Everything's different; nothing's changed, only maybe slightly rearranged.

You're sorry-grateful, regretful-happy. Why look for answers when none occur? You always are what you always were, which has nothing to do with, all to do with her.

Unidentified Woman: (Unintelligible), come to bed.

Mr. COLBERT: Coming, darling.

GROSS: That's Stephen Colbert, in Stephen Sondheim's "Company," a New York Philharmonic production, which will be shown in theaters, because it was filmed there, June 15th, 16th, 19th and 21st.

You sing with emotion and vulnerability in that song, things that you can never show on your own program, "The Colbert Report." It's such a different side of you.

Mr. COLBERT: It is. It is at that. It's what I imagined I would be doing when I went to theater school.

GROSS: Really, musicals in particular?

Mr. COLBERT: Well, just anything in theater and musicals as part of it, I supposed. And it was such a - it was such a Bungee into an old dream to go do something like that because I went to Northwestern University and went to the theater program there, and I worked very hard, and my intention was to spend my life doing theater.

I imagined myself - in college, I imagined myself living in New York in some sort of open, large-but-very-sparse studio apartment with a lot of blond wood and a futon on the floor and a bubbling samovar or tea in the background and a big beard, you know, and, you know, living alone but with my beard and doing theater.

And that's what I thought my life would be. And it has not been, and I love what I do, but to be asked to do this and then to accept the challenge of it, I had to start taking voice lessons again because I -that - I can la-di-da my way through a lot of music, and I've done so on my show and for other people, but to sing Sondheim is a completely different beast.

GROSS: What's different about it?

Mr. COLBERT: Not being a music theorist, I'm not sure whether I could explain technically what's different, but there is a complexity of the notes changes, like where you're going next in the song in Sondheim that isn't necessarily what you expect to do if you are mostly a la-di-da kind of guy.

GROSS: So what did you learn from the singing lessons that you didn't know before?

Mr. COLBERT: Well, it was like a rediscovery when I did the singing lessons because it was - I was doing all the stuff that I was doing when I was doing when I was an undergrad at Northwestern. And what I discovered, or rediscovered, was the therapeutic nature of singing lessons.

They - they're like doing yoga but for the inside of your body, and they're...

GROSS: Nicely put.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: Thank you very much. They are. They - you open up and use muscles that you don't think of as malleable, and we don't - you spend a lot of time thinking about your soft palate and opening up your sinuses, and it is almost impossible for someone to explain why that's important, how you can turn your head into a bell. But that's what - at least for me, that's what we kept on working on is trying to get the things like resonance and projection and relaxation and just breathing.

And then you have to forget all of it and sing, or as - my voice coach is Liz Caplan, and Liz would say - we would work and work and work. We worked for months. And then she said: Oh, just sing stupid. It was just a few days before we went. She goes: Just sing stupid. Just sing like you dont - like we've never discussed any of this and just make every mistake you can think of but just sing the song with all your heart.

And that was the first breakthrough I had, about a week before I had to do it. The way I sang it completely changed, and I'm incredibly grateful to her for encouraging me to sing stupid, which was really just to sing with feeling and don't think about everything you're doing, a little less thinking, a little more feeling, I'm just quoting Momma.

GROSS: My guest is Stephen Colbert. You can see him in the New York Philharmonic production of Stephen Sondheim's musical "Company." It was filmed and will be shown in theaters tomorrow, Thursday, Sunday and next Tuesday. We'll talk more about "Company" and "The Colbert Report" after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: So my guest is Stephen Colbert, and he's in - he was in the New York Philharmonic production of Stephen Sondheim's musical "Company" at Lincoln Center.

So how did you get the part? Who said get Stephen Colbert? Because it's not like you went and auditioned, right?

Mr. COLBERT: No, well, you know, I do the show 161 days a year. And sometimes I don't know who the guest is coming up. And I looked up from my desk one day, and I saw on the grid a few days ahead of me, it said Stephen Sondheim. And I was with my booker. And I said: Stephen Sondheim! And she said: Do you not want Stephen Sondheim? I didn't know. A lot of people here weren't sure whether you're want Stephen Sondheim. I said: God, do I want Stephen Sondheim.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: I can't - because people don't know this about me, that I really like musical theater. And I think of myself - I think of myself as an actor and a theater person, even though I've done no theater in 20 years. And people don't perceive what I do as acting, but I still do.

And I - and the canon of Stephen Sondheim is devastatingly beautiful to me, and I was so thrilled to have him on the show. So I did something I never do with my guests: I did research.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: I actually put effort into Stephen Sondheim because I knew it wouldn't be an easy interview, because you never see him being interviewed. And I assumed he doesn't like it or something.

And one of my writers and I worked on a little parody of "Send in the Clowns," and one of the things - I have to stay in character. Even though I like him, I have to try to stay in character, and it was very hard for me because I didn't want to go in attacking Stephen Sondheim or really even be that ignorant about Stephen Sondheim, which is another sort of tactic on the show. I can either sort of be hostile toward my guests, or I can be ignorant of what they know and care about, and it was hard for me to do that with him because I care so much about him and - or his work, that is. And so...

GROSS: You know what? Before you go any further, we have that clip right here.

Mr. COLBERT: Oh, you do?

GROSS: Yeah, we have it right here. So before you describe it more, why don't we actually hear it, and then we can talk more about how you got the part in Stephen Sondheim's "Company." So...

Mr. COLBERT: Great.

GROSS: So here's Stephen Sondheim, interviewed on "The Colbert Report," and you wrote a new ending to his most famous song in this, and let's hear how that played out.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Colbert Report")

Mr. COLBERT: Maybe your biggest toe-tapper out there, the one that people know the best, is "Send in the Clowns."

Mr. STEPHEN SONDHEIM (Composer): Very slow tap.

Mr. COLBERT: Very slow tap.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SONDHEIM: It's from "A Little Night Music."

Mr. COLBERT: Yeah, it's from "A Little Night Music"?

Mr. SONDHEIM: Yeah, uh-huh.

Mr. COLBERT: It what - where were the clowns? Because you say where are the clowns, and we never find out where the clowns were, and it really leaves the audience hanging.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Well, she's a lost lady. She doesn't know where they are either.

Mr. COLBERT: Well, I found where they are. I've got some lyrics, if you'd like to perhaps finish your song.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Okay.

Mr. COLBERT: (Singing) Where are the clowns? I booked them for eight. Hold on, that's them on the phone, saying they're late.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: (Singing) Traffic was bad. The tunnel's a mess. All 12 of them came in one car; they lost my address. You just can't trust clowns. That's why they're called clowns.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

Mr. COLBERT: So much more satisfying, isn't it? Isn't that satisfying to know where the clowns are?

Mr. SONDHEIM: Well, listen. We have three weeks left of the show on Broadway (unintelligible) before it closes in January. I don't see any reason why Bernadette Peters can't sing that.

Mr. COLBERT: I'm totally ready to pitch it.

Mr. SONDHEIM: No, we need some laughs in the second act.

Mr. COLBERT: Is there more? Are you going to have another book after (unintelligible)?

Mr. SONDHEIM: Yeah, the second one is going to be called "Look, I Made a Hat."

Mr. COLBERT: Well, come on and talk about that.

Mr. SONDHEIM: I'd love to.

Mr. COLBERT: I rarely fawn because I like to seem more important than my...

Mr. SONDHEIM: Fawn, fawn.

Mr. COLBERT: ...than my guests. I would just say I'm so happy you came here. You and me, bud, we're the loonies. Did you know that? I bet you didn't know that. Stephen Sondheim, thank you so much.

Mr. SONDHEIM: Thank you.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. COLBERT: The book is "Finishing the Hat."

GROSS: I love that because, like, at the end you really genuinely tell him how much you like him. And like you say, you know, you don't usually do that on your show because you have to look superior to your guests.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: Exactly, or feel superior at least.

GROSS: And that's a Sondheim lyric you're quoting at the end, right?

Mr. COLBERT: It is. It's - I'm imperfectly quoting it, but that's from "Sunday in the Park with George." That's the boatman, who says to George: You and me, pal, we're the loonies. Did you know that? Bet you didn't know that.

And I love "Sunday in the Park with George." I saw that when I was just, just starting theater school, and I remember singing "Finishing the Hat" or at least reading the lyrics to "Finishing the Hat" and other songs from "Sunday in the Park with George" to my mom to try to explain why I wanted to be an artist.

GROSS: Okay, well, look. I've interviewed Stephen Sondheim I think four times, and he never asked me to be in one of his musicals. So what did you do...

Mr. COLBERT: Well...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What did I do wrong?

Mr. COLBERT: And I did not realize that I was auditioning at that point. I was just - one of my writers, Peter Gwynn(ph), worked on that song, and I was so happy that he had a good time at the interview, and I was so happy that it ended well with that parody of the song and that he took it as the valentine it was meant to be. And I thought that was it.

Well, great, I did a good interview with Stephen Sondheim. You know, that's a little notch on the belt. And then I got - we got a call that Lincoln Center was going to do "Company," and would I want to play a part in it.

And my agent so wisely said: No, he doesn't have any time. And he told me later that he'd already turned it down. And I said: Ah, geez, James, you know what? That was the right call. That's the right call, absolutely. Wow, that's hard to say no to, but yeah, absolutely the right call. There's no way. It's insane. I can't do it.

And then a couple days later, I got a letter from - a hand-typed letter from Stephen Sondheim saying that he, against his instincts, he had a good time on my show and would I consider playing Harry in "Company," and he ended the letter with the sentence: You have a perfect voice for musical theater.

And I read it to my wife, and she said: Boy, you have to do this. No one, let alone Stephen Sondheim, is going to ask you to do Sondheim. And I said: You're right, I have to do it.

And that sentence - you have a perfect voice for musical theater - I throw around willy-nilly now. Like my wife and I will be having an argument, like who takes out the trash or who needs to pick up the kid from, you know, from soccer practice. And I'll just turn and go: I have a perfect voice for musical theater. And it generally wins the argument.

GROSS: So was Sondheim on the set at all? And did he work with the people in the show?

Mr. COLBERT: He was there. He was there once we got into Lincoln Center, which is to say the day that we opened, because we never ran it until we did it for the opening-night crowd.

GROSS: Yeah, because you were all rehearsing long-distance, right? I read you were rehearsing via Skype.

Mr. COLBERT: We were rehearsing long-distance. It was all put together -yeah, it was rehearsing via Skype, or people were just sending you an MP3 of your harmonies, and then you'd be working on it alone with, you know, a pair of cans on, trying to sing along, your Bobbys - Bobby, Bobby, baby. I think my last words on this Earth, I'll go: Bobby, baby. And people will go: What does that mean? We'll never know. Who's Bobby?

And all of us, all of us were under the impression that this was going to be a stage reading, that there'd be like music stands and, you know, the music in front of you and perhaps we'd wear tuxedos, but we would basically be standing there with the orchestra behind us. We didn't know this was going to be fully staged.

And this slowly, it slowly dawned on us as we had to show up for fight choreography and, you know, dance choreography and, you know: Well, everybody, let's be off-book tomorrow. It slowly dawned on us: No, we're doing "Company" in two weeks. We're doing "Company."

And, you know, on one level it was impossible. On another level it was the only way it could have gotten done, because you couldn't have gotten all of these people to commit to do "Company."

GROSS: So one more thing about "Company." You know, your character on "The Colbert Report" brags about everything that he's doing, every time he's mentioned, every time he gets an award, everything that's named after him. I didn't hear you mention "Company" once on "The Colbert Report."

Mr. COLBERT: No, I did not.

GROSS: How come?

Mr. COLBERT: Not that I think that the things that my character mentions on the show get poisoned by the mention, but there is a level that people could - they could ascribe an insincerity to the things that I tout on the show.

And I didn't want to ascribe any insincerity to trying to go do this thing at Lincoln Center and - because I knew that it was - I was dealing with somebody else's delicate product, and I didn't want to invest it with my character's ego because it would just flavor what I was doing in a way that I don't think would be useful to the production.

And the second thing is, is I had no idea whether I wanted anyone to know I was doing it, because I knew how hard it was going to be, and I was afraid I would suck.

GROSS: Really?

Mr. COLBERT: Oh, yeah. I mean, I don't mind failing so much, but I am a perfectionist. And - on my show. I mean, it's impossible to be perfect on a show that happens, again, 161 times a year. You can't be. But I do try. I mean, we grind that show as best we can with the little time that we have every day.

So if you're a perfectionist, and you know you're about to go something, for instance "Company" at Lincoln Center, if you know you're about to do something at which you cannot be perfect, you know this ahead of time, then that is daunting because you know what your heart is like and the way you approach your work. So it's difficult to know you're not going to be perfect. And I guess I just didn't - I was afraid to invite people.

GROSS: That's interesting. Of course, it couldn't be kept a secret.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: No, no, I know, but I didn't want to...

GROSS: (Unintelligible) yourself...

Mr. COLBERT: ...brag about it. Do you know what I mean? Of course it's not going to be kept a secret, but you know, I didn't want to say: I'm going to be great. You're not going to want to miss this. Hold on to your socks, America, I'm singing Sondheim.

GROSS: Stephen Colbert will talk about "The Colbert Report" in the second half of the show. You can see him in the New York Philharmonic production of Stephen Sondheim's musical "Company." It was filmed and will be shown in theaters tomorrow, Thursday, Sunday and next Tuesday. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR. Here's the hat-and-cane chorus number from "Company."

(Soundbite of song)

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross back with Stephen Colbert. We're going to talk about his show The Colbert Report. You can see a different side of him in the New York Philharmonic revival of Stephen Sondheim's musical Company. It was filmed in the spring and will be shown in theaters tomorrow, Thursday, Sunday and next Tuesday.

Lets talk about The Colbert Report. Every time I think the show can't get funnier it gets funnier. And I have to say about Anthony Weiner gave American politics and incredible embarrassment and it gave comics a gift. But it must've been really awkward for you, not quite as awkward as for Jon Stewart because they're old friends. I assume you kind of knew Anthony Weiner too. Did you talk...

Mr. COLBERT: I have met him on the Acela train and Ive had him on the show, but that's the length of my involvement.

GROSS: It was kind of amazing. You became part of the story.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Because...

Mr. COLBERT: Oh, that was fun. Yes.

GROSS: Yeah. Some of the sexting included The Colbert Report in the conversation. So let me just play...

Mr. COLBERT: It did. I couldn't be more thrilled to find out that we ourselves were part of the content...

GROSS: So let me just...

Mr. COLBERT: ...because it's my character's greatest dream - it's all he wants to do, is be the news.

GROSS: Exactly. So let me just play that clip. This is Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report after finding out that the show was part of the sexting between Anthony Weiner and who? Do we know who it was?

Mr. COLBERT: I dont who it was.

GROSS: Okay.

Mr. COLBERT: It was someone a young lady, lets say.

GROSS: Okay. Here we go.

(Soundbite of TV show, The Colbert Report)

Mr. COLBERT: ...once again, I am the story. Apparently, Congressman Weiner also engaged in Facebook sex with a Las Vegas blackjack dealer, who claims she told Weiner quote, I was so psyched to see you on Colbert. You were so funny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: To which he says, you watch it naked?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: And she says, ha, ha. Of course.

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)

Mr. COLBERT: Oh, oh, my god. Oh. Oh. Oh, my god. Oh.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

Mr. COLBERT: Errh. Errh. Gah, it took me a year to get the Spitzer off me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: And in the space of the last two weeks, I find out that Hugh Hefner and Anthony Weiner have both used my show as an aphrodisiac.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: I feel like an oyster.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So thats Stephen Colbert on a recent edition of The Colbert Report. So what went through your mind when you saw that sexting?

Mr. COLBERT: Content.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: Content is, went through my mind. Just so, as I said, my character, you know, my character partially talks about the news and partially is the news. You know, that's one of the reasons that we ran for president in 2007 and 2008, is because he didn't like that the story was getting bigger than him. And he has to be at the center of the story. Like, you know, one of the touchstones for the character is Bill O'Reilly, as weve discussed before, and I heard, years ago, I heard Bill O'Reilly say to President Bush, you know, guys like us. And I thought wow, he thinks of himself as just equal to the president.

So my character thinks of himself as equal with any story at least equal. And so while this Weiner thing was just consuming the world of news, just swallowing up every other story, to be part of it, to be in the reporting - to have my name in there - was a complete validation of...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: As much as he may, you know, demur and say he doesn't want to be associated with such unsavory details, in fact he was thrilled. And I was, too, to have such a pure expression of his ego right there on paper. And the same thing happened with Spitzer years ago. We found out that one of the intercepted or one of the phone conversations that had been recorded was him having just left my show.

GROSS: Oh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: Spitzer was on my show and then he got in his car outside, I think the car we provided for him, to go to the train to go down to D.C. And he was going down to D.C. to see this, the prostitute he had engaged. And he was in the car, you know, having said I just left Colbert. And again, how thrilled was I to be part of the story be the story really.

GROSS: And I should mention, during the bit that we just heard, you're like Purelling(ph) your hands.

Mr. COLBERT: Yeah.

GROSS: Youre washing your hands with Purell, spraying the air with Lysol also.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: Exactly. Exactly.

GROSS: Its all so dirty.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: Its all so dirty. But he couldn't be more thrilled to be all dirtied up by it.

GROSS: My guest is Stephen Colbert and hes one of the stars in a new production of Company that was at Lincoln Center and is now on film. It's going to be shown for four days in theaters around the country, June 15th, 16th, 19th and 21st. And we're talking about his show The Colbert Report.

Now the cable news shows show your work all the time. And one of the clips that was kind of viral on television and I'm sure on the Internet as well, was after Sarah Palin described Paul Revere's ride.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And then she went on Chris Wallaces show on Fox News and you did something about that. So I want to just play that. So this all happened after she said that Paul Revere warned the British that they weren't going to be taking away our arms by ringing those bells and making sure as he is riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were going to be secure and we were going to be free. So what we're going to hear is her response after Chris Wallace said you know you messed up about Paul Revere, don't you?

(Soundbite of TV show, The Colbert Report)

Ms. SARAH PALIN (Former Governor, Alaska): You know what? I didn't mess up about Paul Revere.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PALIN: This is what Paul Revere did, he warned the Americans that the British were coming, the British were coming and they were going to try to take our arms so we got to make sure that we were protecting ourselves and shoring up all of our ammunitions and our firearms so that they couldn't take 'em. Part of his ride was to warn the British that we were already there. That, hey...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PALIN: ...youre not going to succeed. You're not going to take American arms. You're not going to beat our own well-armed persons, individual private militia that we have.

Mr. COLBERT: I could not have said a random string of words better.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

Mr. COLBERT: And folks, yeah, give it up. Give it up.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

Mr. COLBERT: And folks, and for those who say it's implausible for Revere to have ridden a horse while ringing a bell...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: ...and firing multiple warning shots...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: ...from a front-loading musket.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: All I have to say is prepare to eat historical re-enactments. Here we go.

(Soundbite of cheering)

GROSS: You want to describe what he did after that?

Mr. COLBERT: Well, yeah, you can't, you really can't play the next thing because it's all physical comedy. I get on a rocking horse. I get on one of those horses that are in front of like a grocery store that your kid can get on. You put like a quarter and in the horse rocks back and forth and its this iron horse. And but first I put on a tricorn hat and I put on the bullet bag from an old musket ball, you know, musket ball carrying case, and I put on two different powder horns, because two different types of powder are necessary for an old muzzle-loading rifle. And I get on, start the horse and then fire a warning shot, as described by Ms. Palin, and then attempt to reload the muzzle-loading gun while I'm galloping on a horse.

And let's just say it can't be done. And that entire bit, they say you can't describe physical comedy, but that entire bit came about because my executive producer Tom Purcell said wait a second. Play that again. Did she just a warning shot?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: And he said thats completely like a 19th, 20th century idea that you can fire a warning shot. You can't, that's a repeating rifle idea. You don't fire a warning shot with a muzzle-loading gun. It takes three minutes or something to load it. Why would you waste it on a warning shot? That's what don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes is about. We don't get a second shot. And so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: I said I should try to do that. I should show them, you know, how impossible that is. And so that's how it came about.

GROSS: So how did you get the horse?

Mr. COLBERT: Oh, I don't know. It's New York. If you can't get something...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: ...you know, at midnight in New York it probably doesn't exist. We have a couple of great segment producers, Adam Wager and Matt Lappin, on the show, and whenever we need something, whether it's, you know, we need like a live goat or I need an iron rocking horse, I turn to them in the morning meeting. I go, how much? As Matt always goes $800. Whatever it is, $800. So I'm assuming that horse cost me $800.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: My guest is Stephen Colbert.

Well talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Stephen Colbert and he's one of the stars in a new production of Company that was at Lincoln Center and is now on film. It's going to be shown for four days in theaters around the country, June 15th, 16th, 19th and 21st. And we're talking about his show The Colbert Report.

So sometimes you take your character into the world which is I think a really hard thing to do. For example, you testified at House Subcommittee on Immigration.

Mr. COLBERT: Yes.

GROSS: It was last year, right?

Mr. COLBERT: Fall of 09, the fall of 10.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. COLBERT: September of 10. Yeah.

GROSS: So this is in favor of the rights of migrant farm workers. And one of the things you said is this is America. My great-grandfather did not travel across 4,000 miles of the Atlantic Ocean to see this country overrun by immigrants.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I thought this was like so amazing that you were doing it in character at a congressional subcommittee hearing where not everybody thought you belonged. John Conyers asked you to leave the committee room and submit your statement in writing instead. So it's not like old boy, it is Stephen Colbert, you know, performance. (Unintelligible).

Mr. COLBERT: Oh, absolutely not. This all started off because I had Arturo Rodriguez as the head of the United Farm workers on the show, and that - oh, that'll be interesting. You know, I'm kind of interested in Cesar Chavez and this is the only other guy who is head of the United Farm Workers and my character thinks of himself as kind of a conservative Bobby Kennedy. You know, young, dashing, you know, fighting, you know, for the little guy out there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: And, you know, Kennedy had broken bread with Cesar Chavez on his hunger strike and I thought yeah, that would be a perfect model. And then he said would you do this thing called Take Our Jobs Please? I said oh, that'll be a nice thing. It's sort of improvisationally, oh, it led to the next thing because in improvisation you accept the initiation of the person that you're playing with and sort of accepted without question and trust that a good thing will come of it if the first initiation was good.

And it was nice to have them on. He said would you do this thing called Take Our Jobs Please? So I went and did their one-day program of working on a farm and, you know, packing corn and that sort of thing and, of course, did it in our own comedic way. And that when we were going to go and that they said well, would you interview this congressman who is trying to introduce new legislation? I said okay. So I interviewed her and that was the next sort of part of the initiation. And then she said would come testify before Congress?

And one of my producers on initially said no to her. And I said no, that's part of the improvisational nature of this. What would that -tell me what that would mean? And they said well, you'd make a statement and answer questions. And I said I think I have to. I think, I don't think you can say no to a congressman asking you to testify on a subject as long as you're honest about what's going to happen. So I said, you know I'm and luckily I had this on tape. I said you know they're going to, you're going to go ape. You know, they're not going to be happy that I do this because I'm going to do it in character. I'm going to have to do it in character. There's no reason for me to go. But my character really feels like he has something to say and I'll do my best to say something through the character. And she said, oh no, it'll be fine. I said no, I really think they're going to go crazy. And she goes no, no, no. It's my committee and I get to control, everything is going to be fine.

And I was right. People went crazy. And when I got there she said yeah, there's been a little bit of back-and-forth about whether you should submit your testimony or whether you should speak. And I said I'm here on your invitation, whatever you want me to do. And she said no, it's going to be fine. And so when Conyers said I'd like - before anything started - I'd like you, you know, to submit your statement, I really was confused because I was told that everything was fine. And I said, are you asking me not to talk? And I think I said something like that. And he said, I'm asking you to leave.

GROSS: Wow.

Mr. COLBERT: And that's when I actually started getting not nervous because something was happening that I didn't expect. And I thought oh, this is fascinating. This is far more interesting than I thought. I'm watching a fight that I don't know about and I'm the subject of the fight. Which, you know, is not an ego stroke but it's certainly, it makes you interested in the fight in ways that you can't imagine.

GROSS: Wait, now, were you thinking that or was your character thinking that?

Mr. COLBERT: No, I was thinking, I was thinking that. I was thinking oh, this is fascinating. I have engendered a fight that I did not mean to. But what's actually more fascinating is not that I'm in it, what's more fascinating is that I don't know what's going to happen next. And that's just, as a improviser, that's what I like more than anything else, not knowing what's going to happen.

And so I just said well, I'm in here at the invitation of the chairman -the chairwoman and if she'd like me to leave I will. And she wanted me to stay so it happened. But what I what I love is Conyers, who was head of the full committee, sent me a letter thanking me for having testified. And was, couldn't have been nicer to me afterwards, by the way. Came in. We talked about jazz. Sat in his office. He played me some music and we just, you know, BS'd. But he sent me a letter thanking me and then sending me the transcript and saying here, look at the transcript because you're allowed to amend the transcript. So I said I have no amendations to make this transcript. I'm fine with it. Except that I took the letter of him thanking me for having testified on how valuable my testimony was and I framed it next to the page of the transcript that has him saying I want you to leave.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's great.

Mr. COLBERT: It's a highlighted thank you. It was so valuable, sincerely John Conyers. And then on the next page it's highlighted, I am asking you to leave. And that's double framed on my wall of my office and that's my favorite thing about the testimony.

GROSS: You have to have some kind of genuine faith in your ability as a performer to be in a real place like Congress and to speak when somebody really important like John Conyers has asked you to leave. I mean...

Mr. COLBERT: To leave. Yeah.

GROSS: ...that's really, you talk about committing to a performance, that is really committing to a performance.

Mr. COLBERT: It sure was. And that's, I really, that's one of the things that we have fun with on the show that I think might differentiate us at times from other people, is that we really like engaging with the world in reality. You know, Jon is real and he has fake correspondents. I'm fake and so I like to engage with real things.

GROSS: Well...

Mr. COLBERT: I like to have like my first guest, instead of having a correspondent come on to have sort of a satirical take on a subject and therefore you explain the news of the day to this conversation, I have the satirical take and I have a real guest on to be my foil and to express what's going on in the news. In the same way I like to actually go out into the world and be the character out in the world, and as we say on the show, like I throw, we threw ourselves into the pond of the news and report on our own ripples.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's good.

Mr. COLBERT: And or, you know, anything that looks like me, if I go out into the news and put myself out there, anything that looks like me is probably suspicious. You know, you should probably not trust anyone out in the news who you can't tell apart from me.

GROSS: One more thing. You talk about taking your character out into the world. You did the show from Iraq a while ago and...

Mr. COLBERT: Oh, that was a long time ago. (Unintelligible)...

GROSS: Yeah. And it I thought that was really kind of brave. I mean Iraq is a dangerous place. Doing the show...

Mr. COLBERT: No. Going to war is brave. We went to Camp Victory and...

GROSS: Still...

Mr. COLBERT: Camp Victory, Camp Victory has a Burger King.

GROSS: Doing the show from Philadelphia during the Pennsylvania primaries was, I think, hard enough.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: Yes.

GROSS: You know, when you took the show on the road, that was really hard and I think you swore you'd never do it again and then you went to Iraq.

But my impression was that when you came back from Iraq there was this sense of like deep felt patriotism in a different way than you'd felt it before.

Mr. COLBERT: Well...

GROSS: And I don't mean...

Mr. COLBERT: I'm a conventionally patriotic person.

GROSS: I don't mean pro-war or anti-war. I just mean a genuine kind of like a respect for the people in the military and...

Mr. COLBERT: Absolutely.

GROSS: ...a sense of...

Mr. COLBERT: There is a residual sense for me, having grown up in the early '70s, that I was not aware of. There was this residual thing that I did not know I had, which was a sense that the military are different than I. Because there was such a divide between military world and and they're still is, because there's no draft, but the military world and the civilian world is one of the rotten harvests of the Vietnam War, was sort of this bifurcation of America in that way. And there was sort of a negative association with the military.

Now, I didn't have that - I never - maybe growing up in the South or, you know, being in a family that had members of the military, I didn't have that negative connotation, but I did have this separate connotation, and I was ashamed to realize I had it and did not realize I had it until I was there and was so impressed by the people I met over there.

And there was just a sense of connection and gratitude to those people. My daughter called, or I called my daughter from Baghdad, and she goes what's it like, daddy? And I said, well, honey, you know, however you feel about the war, when my show started this was the worst place on earth in 2005. And these young men and women have worked hard to make it someplace that might, you know, be a functioning democracy someday. And you cannot help but feel proud for your nation in ways that I never have before.

GROSS: Well, Stephen Colbert, I always love talking with you. Thank you so much for coming on FRESH AIR today. I know you probably got very little sleep...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...as a result of doing our show. It means so much to me and I'm sure it will mean a lot to our listeners as well.

Mr. COLBERT: Well, thanks for having me on. It's always fun.

GROSS: Stephen Colbert hosts "The Colbert Report" on Comedy Central and co-stars in the New York Philharmonic production of Stephen Sondheim's musical "Company," which was filmed and will be shown in theaters tomorrow, Thursday, Sunday and next Tuesday.

And you can hear an extra from our interview about dancing in "Company" with a hat and cane, and a little trick Stephen Colbert does at home with his hairbrush, on our website freshair.npr.org, where you'll also find links to my interviews with Jon Stewart and Stephen Sondheim.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.