TERRY GROSS, Host:
This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Stephen Colbert, just finished covering the presidential campaign on "The Colbert Report" where he presented commentaries like this.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "THE COLBERT REPORT")
M: Nation, after last night's convention, two things are clear. First, the Republicans have found their message.
GROSS: The real ticket for change this year is the McCain-Palin ticket.
U: You might call that change you can really believe in.
M: Yes, Republicans are the true party of change. Remember, they were the ones who changed the rationale for war and they changed the meaning of words - words like freedom, enhanced, and justice department.
GROSS: The songs are really funny. They were written for the show by Adam Schlesinger of the band Fountains of Wayne, and D.J. Javerbaum, executive producer of "The Daily Show." Early in the program, Colbert does this solo number called "Another Christmas Song."
M: Hit it, Jimmy.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "ANOTHER CHRISTMAS SONG")
M: (Singing) Ho! It's another Christmas song. Whoa! Get ready brother for another Christmas song They play for a month, ad infinitum. One day it struck me someone must write 'em, So! It's another Christmas song. Santa Claus singing on naughty snow, Reindeer ringing in the mistletoe, The manger's on fire, the holly's a-glow. Hear the baby Jesus cryin' ho ho ho. Hey! It's another Christmas song. Yay! Another oft' returning, royalty earning Christmas song. I've got plenty more, so go buy a modem. Log on to iTunes and pay to download 'em. Pay! For another Christmas song. Chestnuts glisten on a silent night, Sleigh-bells kissing by candlelight...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: Steven Colbert, welcome back to Fresh Air. Your holiday special is so much fun and it seems to be inspired by the old, like Andy Williams, Bing Crosby, Perry Como Christmas specials with a little Pee-wee's Playhouse thrown in. Did - did...
M: And after it was over, we like, oh, so - we were so thrilled that they liked the parts of it that we liked, you know, because we didn't know until then. And it occurred to us that we had made something that was sincerely strange but also strangely sincere. We really wanted to create something that wasn't really cynical or dark or distant or alienating. We really wanted to do something that was in keeping with the spirit of the show that we do every day, but also really was somehow sincerely celebrating the season. And so that's what our attempt was. And those shows were all the inspiration, you know, let's find out what was actually enjoyable about those. Why did we actually watch the Andy Williams specials when we were a kid? We wanted the songs should be just as good as they could be and to do them just as best as we could.
GROSS: So did you gather up your memories of the Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, Perry Como Christmas specials so that you could draw on them for inspiration? And if so, what are one or two of the things from those old shows that really stand out in your mind?
M: Well, luckily YouTube has gathered them for me.
M: You can go on and get the clips. Well, the outfits, the turtlenecks and the sweaters and the fuzzy apres-ski boots.
GROSS: Oh, I have to say, you know, public television has recently - I think it was like last year or two years ago, rerun one of the Andy Williams Christmas specials. (Laughing) And he and all of his brothers were wearing matching v-neck red sweaters with matching, I think, green socks and - I may be embellishing this a little bit in my mind, but like plaid, matching plaid pants. It was - it was...
M: I don't think you're embellishing at all.
GROSS: A spectacle. So describe what you were wearing?
MR: In the special I'm wearing a red turtleneck and a thirsty sort of Aran Isle cardigan. And...
GROSS: White, it's white.
M: It's white.
GROSS: It's cabled and white.
M: It's cream, yeah, cream cabled cardigan, jeans that are too tight upon occasion and the giant fur-topped mukluk boots, like knee-high fur, you know, fur-topped, a good foot of fur on the top of the boots, and just the biggest grin.
GROSS: Yes, and in the opening song that we just heard you're doing, you're doing like great variety show choreography. I mean, it's...
M: I'm doing it the best I can.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
M: I - like, people say, oh, that's hilarious dancing. No, that's the best dancing I know how to do.
GROSS: One of my favorite parts of your special is you singing a duet with Jon Stewart in which you compare Hanukkah and Christmas. You want to introduce it for us? Tell us about like who wrote it - most of the songs for the special.
M: And we're trying to think of how could we have Jon help me. And so, well, maybe he could sell me on the idea of Hanukkah because I've got - you know, if I miss the first day of the holiday, I've got seven more nights to possibly make it. And he - and Jon just wanted to make sure that we weren't really selling the idea of Hanukkah hard. So instead, we undersold it wildly.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
M: That's the idea of the song is that - he's selling Hanukkah, but it's the softest possible sell of Hanukkah you can imagine. And he personally is really uncomfortable with the holiday cheer that I bring to every aspect of the show.
GROSS: So here is my guest, Stephen Colbert with Jon Stewart singing "Can I Interest You in Hanukkah?"
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "CAN I INTEREST YOU IN HANUKKAH")
M: (Singing) Can I interest you in Hanukkah? Maybe something in a festival of lights. It's a sensible alternative to Christmas and it lasts for seven, for you? Eight nights.
M: Hanukkah, huh? I've never really thought about it.
M: Well, you could do worse.
M: (Singing) Is it merry?
M: It's kind of merry.
M: (Singing) Is it cheery?
M: It's got some cheer.
M: (Singing) Is it jolly?
M: (Singing) Look, I wouldn't know from jolly but it's not my least unfavorite time of year.
M: When does it start?
M: On the 25th.
M: Of December?
M: (Singing) Which is when exactly?
M: I will check.
M: (Singing) Are there presents?
M: (Singing) Yes, indeed, eight days of presents, which means one nice one, then a week of dreck.
M: (Singing) Does Hanukkah commemorate events profound and holy? A king who came to save the world?
M: (Singing) No, oil that burned quite slowly.
M: (Singing) Well, it sounds fantastic.
M: There's more. (Singing) We have latkes.
M: (Singing) What are they?
M: (Singing) Potato pancakes. We have dreidels.
M: (Singing) What are they?
M: (Singing) Wooden tops. We have candles.
M: (Singing) What are they?
M: (Singing) They are candles! And when we light them, oh the fun, it never stops.
GROSS: That's my guest Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart singing "Can I Interest You in Hanukkah" from the new Stephen Colbert Christmas special "A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All," which premieres on Comedy Central this Sunday. Was it hard to convince Jon Stewart to actually sing?
M: It was remarkably not. It was - because he's not known as a crooner and he's made it clear that he doesn't think he can sing, but he sounds pretty good there. I think he's been hiding his light under a bushel. The hardest part was finding time when Jon Stewart could come shoot with me, just like the hardest part of the special was finding time to actually do it because we're doing the election at the same time. We never - we didn't take a break to do this. This was all done the same time we're covering the campaign.
GROSS: How do you actually celebrate Christmas, outside of doing a Christmas special?
M: And then if you were good, and somehow we always were, if you were good, you got to put straw in the manger for the Baby Jesus. And then my mom always had a manger where the Baby Jesus was detachable, you know, from the manger and then the youngest person, you got to put the Baby Jesus in the manger, and then we said Merry Christmas, kissed each other and went to bed.
GROSS: That sounds really sweet.
M: Yeah, it was. It was nice. And we still do it, actually, even as adults now. We arrange as brothers and sisters from youngest to oldest when we're together for Christmas, and we do the same exact thing over again. And my mother, who's 88, gets at the back because the rules are the rules. And then Christmas morning, we weren't allowed to go down to the room until Mom and Dad were up and gave us the go-ahead. And so we would line up from the middle of the stairs to the top of the stairs. Again, youngest to oldest on the stairs, with my brother Tommy in the middle, being the middle child, and then Mom and Dad would say, like, 'OK, you can go.' And Tommy, being athletic, would leap over all of us and land at the bottom of the stairs like a cat, and go running in to find his presents first.
GROSS: Wow. Sounds spectacular.
M: It was. It was dangerous, is what it was.
GROSS: My guest is Stephen Colbert. His holiday special, "A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All," premieres on Comedy Central, Sunday. The DVD will be released next Tuesday. We'll talk about "The Colbert Report" after a break. This is Fresh Air.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is Stephen Colbert. His holiday special, "A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All," premieres Sunday on Comedy Central, the same channel that brings us "The Colbert Report." Let's talk about what it's been like for you covering the campaign and now covering the election of a new president. Let's start with how you opened your show the day after Election Day? The first day that Barack Obama was president-elect.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "THE COLBERT REPORT")
M: Tonight, Barack Obama has been elected president. My rage will be historic. Then, has Obama's election already changed America? Yes! But don't worry, not the real America. And I sit down with civil rights pioneer Andrew Young. I'm not sure what we'll talk about now that racism is over. I didn't vote. If I wanted to stand in line for hours, I would be an audience member at my show. This is "The Colbert Report."
GROSS: It is such a great intro. You got so much into that.
M: I did. I did.
GROSS: You know everyone is asking the late night comics if it's going to be more difficult to find jokes about Barack Obama than it's been to find jokes about George W. Bush, and if it's going to be more difficult to satirize Obama. I think it's going to be a lot easier for you because your character is going to remain in opposition to Obama. So you're going to have a lot to talk about.
M: I have no doubt that I'm going to have a lot to talk about. But my ultimate answer to those worries are I don't care.
M: I will always come up with something that is funny to me. Like there are more things in the world necessarily than who is in the White House. And I'm very interested in talking about the things that would make my character angry or passionate, you know, because my show is about emotion - that aren't necessarily who the president is, though I'm sure he'll have ample opportunity to be frustrated with the, you know, the Hopernaut over at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But I'm eager, after two years of covering politics intensely, of finding once again, like, what are the societal things that are worrying my character?
GROSS: You mean like how homosexuals are ruining the country?
M: And one of the things I was excited about doing the Christmas special is that it's completely apolitical but completely keeping with my show. And, you know, it's a great palate cleanser. I don't necessarily want to jump straight back on a political horse when this is over.
GROSS: Nevertheless, what does your character not like?
M: Nevertheless, I will return to my question, sir. Senator, answer the question.
GROSS: What doesn't your character like about Barack Obama?
M: He's not a fan of change, he's a conservative. And so change, in and of itself, is dangerous. The idea of hope, you know, St. Paul says that, you know, there are three things remain - faith, hope, and love, or sometimes referred to as charity. And, you know, Barack Obama has talked about his faith, and we as a nation are always talking about our faith. We're talking a lot about hope right now. I think it's very dangerous how close we're coming to talk about love because we left that behind in the '60s. We tossed that baby out with the bathwater of the drug culture and the sexual revolution and sort of the excesses of that time.
GROSS: You managed to find a way to have your character endorse Barack Obama. Can you talk about writing that, like, how you and the writers came up with a convoluted way of endorsing him?
M: Well, I really wanted to - very often, the concepts of the show are generated by the writers or by Allison Silverman, who's my executive producer. That was a case of, I said I really want to endorse him, because I see guys like Scott McClellan or Colin Powell or Chris Buckley endorsing Barack Obama and getting attention for it. And I thought, there's no way my character would sit on the sidelines while these conservatives are getting attention like newsmaking, like groundbreaking, newsmaking, paradigm-shifting news for crossing the line and endorsing Barack Obama and being part of an historical moment. He wanted to be a part of that. And so we just thought like maybe there's a way for me to endorse him, but not support him. He wanted to make sure that no one voted for him, but he wanted credit for having endorsed him.
GROSS: Let me play a short clip of your endorsement of Barack Obama, and this comes from the middle of the segment after you've played clips of a lot of other Republicans endorsing him, and you've played a clip of William Weld endorsing Obama, and you come out of that clip saying this.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "THE COLBERT REPORT")
M: Nation, I have no choice but to respond to my fellow prominent conservatives who have the gall to endorse Barack Obama, which brings me to tonight's Word. I endorse Barack Obama.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING AND CHEERING)
M: I know this is shocking and I can tell that you're angry. But it's the only solution to what I see as a crisis, namely the crisis that these guys are getting attention and I'm not. It is time for the media to stop covering these has beens and start covering this 'is be.' I mean, all over the news yesterday, I'm hearing the words William Weld. I believe the last time that name made news was when Eliot Spitzer used it to check into a hotel. They should be talking about me, because my endorsement of Obama just now took real courage, the courage to cross party lines from a party that is a staggering mass of flaming agony to the party that looks like it's got a pretty good shot at winning this thing.
GROSS: That's Stephen Colbert from "The Colbert Report."
M: I like backing a winner.
GROSS: Yeah. And of course, you explained at the end you're not actually going to vote for him. You're just endorsing him.
M: Well, now, of course, I'm cashing in my chip, I want a position.
M: I want a cabinet position. It's time to pay back.
GROSS: Stephen Colbert will be back in the second half of the show. His holiday special, "A Colbert Christmas," premieres Sunday on Comedy Central, where he also does "The Colbert Report." "A Colbert Christmas" will be released on DVD next Tuesday. Here's Colbert with Elvis Costello from "A Colbert Christmas." I'm Terry Gross and this is Fresh Air.
(SOUNDBITE OF DVD "A COLBERT CHRISTMAS: THE GREATEST GIFT OF ALL")
M: Thanks, Stephen. I like this one.
M: Oh, I know this one.
M: (Singing) There are cynics, there are skeptics, There are legions of dispassionate dyspeptics, Who regard this time of year As a mordant, insincere, cheesy, crass, commercial travesty of all that we hold dear. When they think that, well, I can hear it, But I pity them, their lack of Christmas spirit. For in a world like ours, take it from Stephen, There are much worse things to believe in. A redeemer and a savior, An obese man giving toys for good behavior. Have faith in what might be, And the hope that we might see. The answer to all sorrow in a box beneath the tree. I find them foolish, sentimental, Well, you're clearly not too bright so we'll be gentle. Don't even try to start vaguely conceiving Of all the much worse things to believe in. Believe in the judgment, believe in Jihad, Believe in a thousand variations on a dark and spiteful God.
GROSS: Now, this is probably the first time, I think it's the first time, that you've had an interaction with a man who became president before he became president. You had Obama on your show, and I don't know if this is the only time you had him on the show, but when you did your show from Philadelphia in the spring, this was the week that one of the debates was in Philadelphia, the primary debates, and the last night of your week in Philadelphia, you had on - it was an incredible night. I think it was one of your best shows ever, and it was a particularly great show for me because I was in the audience watching it. You had on Hillary Clinton and then we knew that Hillary was going to be on. But the surprise, surprise guests were John Edwards was there doing The Word and then...
M: The Ed-words.
GROSS: The Ed-words, yes, right. And then the huge surprise was the show ended with Barack Obama live from a remote location where he was doing a rally interacting with you. And the show started really, really late. I think there were a lot of technical problems getting all of that together. Tell us a little bit about what happened behind the scenes to make a show like that work where you had on Clinton, Edwards, and Obama and a lot of Secret Service people.
M: A lot of Secret Service people.
GROSS: Involved in one show. Yeah.
M: So, like, even my stage manager is like, what's happening in the fourth act? I'm like, we'll see, we'll see what's happening. And the Obama people were ready to go ten minutes before we were ready to get to his section of the act, and I didn't want to do him before John Edwards went out because the show would kind of be over once we had Barack Obama on because it was meant to be the closing moment. And of course, in television, you can rearrange things later, but I wanted the evening to be a real organic four-act experience for the audience, especially because there's a thousand people in that theater. But then, we were going lose our satellite because it was a satellite feed from, I think, North Carolina to Philadelphia, and I don't exactly know what happened because we missed our satellite. But I think somebody from CBS lent us their satellite time or something like that in order to get Obama on. But the whole night was a tightrope walk.
GROSS: You know, I have to say, here you are, going through this, like, behind-the-scenes nightmare, because you don't know if the show is going to work, you don't know if you have your fourth act, and if Obama is going to make it or not. You don't have the satellite feed, but at the same time, you wanted to keep the audience entertained. So, you came out during one of these like long technical delays. We're just waiting there. You came out and you literally stood on your head to entertain us. And I thought, if that is not the highest level of show business, someone who's under this pressure, everything's on your shoulders, but he's worried about keeping the audience entertained in the downtime, so he's going to stand on his head for us.
M: Well, it's all worthless, it's all worthless if we lose you people. We're not doing it for our health, we're doing it for laughs.
GROSS: And then, after standing on your head, you said, ouch! That really hurt! I think I threw my back out. Did you really because I was worrying about you? You did?
M: And so, I said let's see if Barack Obama would be willing to come on the show to put petty political distractions officially on notice. And so we quickly wrote a script in which he did that, appearing on this 25-foot high rear projection screen right behind my head which is what we had for the set in the Philly. And at the very end of the show, I said, well, it was a great week, thanks for having us. I only wish that Barack Obama had a chance to stop by. And then, he just appeared on the screen behind my head. And he said, so do I, Stephen. And then, we did the scene, but the excitement of putting yourself in - I love being in situations where I feel like I'm in trouble.
L: 15, and he had a 3:30 production meeting. That sense of, oh, we're in trouble, we've got to make this thing work, because I sort of promised myself and others that I would get all the candidates on, that I would get Barack Obama on, but I didn't know how. I didn't know how to make it inviting for him, that - in any way worthwhile, and I'd say that's one of the things that is like the most fun for me on the show and maybe the thing that's eventually going to kill us on the show is that we love trying to do something that we probably shouldn't get away with, or that we shouldn't be able to achieve, and it was because it was so hard that I loved it. I'm a junkie for exhaustion, and I'm a junkie for setting up my expectations too high and then trying to meet them.
GROSS: I think masochism might figure into this.
M: It might be. Maybe I don't like me. Maybe I don't like me at all. Maybe it's not an ego after all.
GROSS: So, we're almost out of time. But I want to save a moment to ask you an important question. A lot of people have paid tribute to you. There's a spider named after you. There's various animals, a plane named after you. There's an edition of Spiderman in which you're a character. So, if I want to pay tribute to you on Fresh Air, what can I do?
M: You already did it. On your 20th anniversary show, you ended the show with the ending that you and I did...
GROSS: That's right.
M: On the first time I was on your show, and I accidentally caught it. I dropped my kids off at school, and I was listening to the radio, the rebroadcast, and I sat in the driveway. I had one of those driveway moments, and I listened to the last half of your best of 20th anniversary show, and you got all the way to the end, and I was like oh, I wish, I'd made her best of show. And then I was the last thing on it. It was our goodbye, it was the last thing on your 20th anniversary show. And so, you've already done it. Thank you very much.
GROSS: Oh, thank you very much. Yes, it was the place of honor.
M: Yeah. I think so.
GROSS: The final note.
M: Wherever I would have been, I would have considered the place of honor, but it happened to be the actual place of honor.
GROSS: Yeah. And I want to end with you and John Legend singing a duet of the National Anthem from one of your shows in Philadelphia. And you got to sing some really deep notes as you sing harmony with him. I mean, you can go high and you could go real low in your singing. Is this about as low as it gets, as we're going to hear in this?
M: Yeah. I imagine so. I imagine so. That day, I became a man.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: Stephen Colbert, thanks for coming on our show. It's always so great to talk with you.
M: Thanks for having me back.
GROSS: And thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "STAR SPANGLED BANNER")
M: (Singing) Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light. What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming? Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight, o'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming? And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there. Oh, say does that star spangled banner yet wave, o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
GROSS: Stephen Colbert's program, "The Colbert Report," is on Comedy Central, where you can also see his new holiday special "A Colbert Christmas." It premieres Sunday, and the DVD will be released Tuesday.