Arts & Life

TERRY GROSS, host:

We're ending the year with entertaining interviews from 2008. We're featuring political satirists today. A couple of weeks after the election, I spoke with Stephen Colbert about his satirical campaign coverage on his Comedy Central program "The Colbert Report."

Let's talk a little 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")

Mr. STEPHEN COLBERT (Host): 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.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Ms. COLBERT: I didn't vote. If I wanted to stand in line for hours, I would be an audience member at my show.

(Soundbite of audience laughter and applause)

Mr. COBERT: This is The Colbert Report.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: That is such a great intro. You got so much into that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: I did.

GROSS: Now, this is the probably the first time - I think it's the first that you had an interaction with a man who became president before he came president. You had Obama on your show, and I don't know if this was the only time you had him on the show, but when you did your show from Philadelphia in the spring - and this was the week that one of the debates was in Philadelphia, one of the primary debates - and the last night of your week in Philadelphia, you had on - it was an incredible night. I think it was like 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...

Mr. COLBERT: The Ed-Words.

GROSS: The Ed-Words, oh, yeah, 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. 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...

Mr. COLBERT: A lot of Secret Service people.

GROSS: Involved with one show.

Mr. COLBERT: Well, we didn't know whether it was all going to come together. We had invited everybody to do this, but we didn't know if everybody was going to make it. We didn't, you know, know for certain until the middle of week whether Mrs. Clinton would be making it, and we didn't know until quite late that day whether Mr. Obama would be making it. We knew Mr. Edwards would be coming. We had written the thing, and he had approved of the script that we had done for him already.

But the show was going up late, and we wanted Obama's appearance to be a surprise, partly because we didn't want to set up expectations of something that we didn't know whether it was necessarily going to get pulled off. But to the point where I said, don't even put it in the script. Like, I don't want anybody to see this in case it doesn't happen. So, like, even my stage manager's 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 10 minutes before we were ready to get to his section of the act. 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's going to work, you don't if you have your fourth act and if Obama's 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 the 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 his shoulders but he's worried about keeping the audience entertained in the downtime, so he's going to stand on his head for us.

Mr. COLBERT: It's all worthless if we lose you people. We don't - you know, 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.

Mr. COLBERT: Oh, yes.

GROSS: You did?

Mr. COLBERT: Because I turned - I was like jumping around, and I turned to my stage manager and I said, just catch my feet, and I did a handstand. And he held my feet. Now, the audience is going crazy, and it was really nice, but it was so loud that what my stage manager could not hear me say is, let go of my feet.

GROSS: Oh, God.

Mr. COLBERT: Let go of my feet. And I'm screaming at the top of my lungs, let go of my feet! Because my arms are about to give out and I'm going to snap my neck. And finally, I hear over his headset people from the studio, from the control room going, let go of his feet, let go of his feet because they could hear me through my mic, and I really did - I really did hurt my back. It took a while to get over that little moment.

But you know, one of the most fun things about that week was, you know, I really wanted to, that show, to have everybody on at that final show. And you know, I don't ever want the show to be - for what everybody might think of the show - I don't ever really want it to be a hostile environment for my guests. My characters is aggressive and my character is egotistical, but I really want my guests to have a good time, you know, and to have fun.

And so, I knew that we would be honored to have, you know, those three guests on that night. And we worked very hard to find a joke and a game for John Edwards to do, and happily he came on and did it. And then we worked just as hard to say, like, what is the message that Hillary wants to get out? And the messages is of competence, handling emergencies, so we created an emergency for her to handle, which just happened to be my big rear projection screen behind me going out, and then she came in and fixed it. And we just had a lot of trouble figuring out what Obama's problem was. Like, what was the thing that he would even want to talk about on the show?

And it seemed to me - it ocurred to me around noon the day that we wanted him - and they had said they couldn't make it at this point - that his message was he was being hounded by petty political distractions like the flag pin issue, like, why don't you wear a flag pin, and that's one of the issues that had been brought up in the debate that week.

And so, we had the on-notice board, which is this board I use to put things on notice that I don't believe - you know, that I'm suspicious of. Things like, you know, the black hole at the center of the galaxy or Lutherans or grizzly bears. They're all on notice. 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 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 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, you know, 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, like I've said, such and such will happen but I don't know how to make it happen. And it reminds me of what Ernie Kovacs said, that every good idea he ever had was because it was 3:15 and he had a 3:30 production meeting. 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...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: Is that we love trying to do something that we probably shouldn't get away with, though, that we shouldn't be able to achieve.

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?

Mr. COLBERT: 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.

Mr. COLBERT: On the first time I was on your show, and I accidentally caught it. I had dropped my kids off at school and I was listening to the radio, the rebroadcast, and I was - 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 had 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: Yeah, I think so.

GROSS: The final note.

Mr. COLBERT: 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...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Of the National Anthem from one of your shows in Philadelphia. And you get to sing some really deep notes as you sing harmony with him...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I mean, you can go high and you can go real low in your singing. Is this about as low as it gets as we're going to hear in this?

Mr. COLBERT: 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.

Mr. COLBERT: Thanks for having me back.

GROSS: And thank you so much.

(Soundbite of TV show "The Colbert Report")

Mr. COLBERT & and Mr. JOHN LEGEND: (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 rockets' red glare, The bombs bursting in air, Gave proof through the night That our flag was still there. O, say, does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave O'er the land of the free And the home of the brave?

GROSS: That's Stephen Colbert and John Legend. Colbert is the host and executive producer of "The Colbert Report" on Comedy Central. Our interview was recorded last month.

Coming up, music critic Milo Miles on the 25th anniversary of "Hearts of Space," the public radio program devoted to new age, ambient and world music. This is Fresh Air.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org 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.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from