TERRY GROSS, host:
For the holiday season, Stephen Colbert took a short break from satirizing politics so he could satirize TV holiday specials. His special, "A Colbert Christmas," has been shown many times on Comedy Central and is also on DVD. It features Colbert singing duets with guest stars, including Willie Nelson, Elvis Costello, John Legend and Jon Stewart. The songs are really funny. They were written for the show by Adam Schlesinger of the band Fountains of Wayne, and DJ Javerbaum, executive producer of "The Daily Show."
We're going to hear an excerpt of the interview I recorded with Colbert about the special. Early in the show, Colbert does this solo number called, "Another Christmas Song."
(Soundbite of TV special, "A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All")
Mr. STEPHEN COLBERT: (Singing)
Hit it, Jimmy!
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 onto iTunes and pay to download 'em. Pay! For another Christmas song.
Chestnuts glisten on a silent night...
GROSS: Stephen Colbert, welcome back to Fresh Air. Your holiday special's 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.
Mr. STEPHEN COLBERT (Actor-Comedian): Absolutely. We - we - you know, it occurred to us after - we recorded it over, you know, many different days because we shot with the different musical guests on it, all separate days because they're all very busy people, and then we put it together. We wrote it in such a way that we could fit it together. And then we showed the whole thing to a live audience to get a live reaction, which is what you hear when you watch the show. It's not sweetened, that's actually what the audience did. And after it was over, we're like - we're so thrilled that they like the parts that we like, 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 to be just as good as they could be and to do them just as best as we could.
GROSS: And in the opening song that we just heard, you're doing like great variety show choreography. I mean, it's...
Mr. COLBERT: I'm doing it the best as I can.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. COLBERT: People are saying, 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. Do you want to introduce it for us? Tell us about, like, who wrote it and most of the songs in the special.
Mr. COLBERT: Most of the songs in the special, with the exception of "Jingle Man Christmas Boy" and "What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding," were written by David Jaberbaum and Adam Schlesinger. And David, or DJ Jaberbaum, is executive producer of "The Daily Show" and an old friend of mine and one of my favorite people to write with when I used to work at "The Daily Show." And we always wanted to do something else together, and so this was our opportunity to do it.
And in this scene, I really wanted Jon to do the special, and I'm so happy to say he wanted to do it, too. And we thought, what we can do about Hanukkah? You know, what song could we sing because the crisis of the show is that I can't get down to New York to do my big Christmas special. I'm stuck in my mountain cabin, and then all my guests just happen to stop by at the mountain cabin and we do the special - the Christmas special inadvertently. And we were trying to think of how we could have Jon help me. And I said, 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 - Jon just wanted to make sure that we weren't really selling the idea of Hanukkah hard. So instead, we undersold it wildly.
Mr. COLBERT: That's the idea of this song. 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's my guest Stephen Colbert with Jon Stewart singing "Can I Interest You In Hanukkah?"
(Soundbite of TV special, "A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All")
Mr. JON STEWART: (Singing)
Can I interest you in Hannukah? Maybe something in a Festival of Lights It's a sensible alternative to Christmas And it lasts for seven - for you - eight nights.
Mr. STEPHEN COLBERT: Hanukkah? I've never really thought about it.
Mr. STEWART: Well, you could do worse.
Mr. STEWART & Mr. COLBERT: (Singing)
Is it merry? It's kind of merry Is it cheery? It's got some cheer Is it jolly? Look, I wouldn't know from jolly. But it's not my least unfavorite time of year. When's it start? On the 25th Of December? Kislev When is when exactly? I will check Are there presents? Yes, indeed 8 days of presents Which means one nice one, then a week of dreck. Does Hanukkah commemorate events profound and holy? A king who came to save the world? No, oil that burned quite slowly Well, it sounds fantastic! There's more! We have latkes What are they? Potato pancakes. We have dreidels What are they? Wooden tops. We have candles What are they? 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." Was it hard to convince Jon Stewart to actually sing?
Mr. COLBERT: It was remarkably not. 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 were doing the election at the same time. We didn't take a break to do this. This was all done the same time we were covering the campaign.
GROSS: How do you actually celebrate Christmas outside of doing a Christmas special?
Mr. COLBERT: You know, in a Catholic manner. I grew up as an altar boy, and so when I was kid I would always do midnight mass. That was the big gig. It was, you wanted a midnight mass gig because you get like 10 bucks for doing midnight mass, plus you got to stay up till midnight.
And my family of - well, we had 11 kids. Christmas Eve, because there's so many of us, Christmas Eve we would give to each other our presents, and Christmas morning Santa would come, and then on Christmas Eve, from the youngest to the oldest we would arrange in a line in the house, and then we would process throughout the house singing "Silent Night" just over and over again until we got to the manger.
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 - for the baby Jesus. And then my mom always had a manger that where the baby Jesus was detachable, you know, from the manger, and then the youngest person got to put the baby Jesus in the manger. And then we said Merry Christmas, kissed each other and then went to bed.
GROSS: That sounds really sweet, yeah.
COLBERT: And then the next morning - oh, it was. It was nice, and then - 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 exact same thing over again. And my mother, who is 88, gets a bit 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.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: That sounds spectacular.
COLBERT: It was. It was dangerous, is what it was.
GROSS: Stephen Colbert recorded in November. His holiday special, "A Colbert Christmas," is on DVD and has been on Comedy Central where he also does "The Colbert Report." Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller, our engineer is Audry Bentham, Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I am Terry Gross. All of us wish you Happy Holidays. Here is Stephen Colbert with Elvis Costello from "A Colbert Christmas."
(Soundbite of TV special, "A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All") ..TEXT: Mr. ELVIS COSTELLO: Say, Stephen, I like this one.
Mr. COLBERT: Oh, I know this one.
Mr. COSTELLO: (Singing) There are cynics There are skeptics There are legions of dispassionate dispeptics Who regard this time of year As a more than insincere To see crass commercial travesty Of all the realty(ph)
Mr. COLBERT: (Singing) 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.
Mr . COSTELLO: (Singing) Every demon, every savior Every peace man giving toys for (unintelligible)
Mr. COLBERT: (Singing) The faith in what might be And the hope that we might see The answer to all sorrow In a box beneath a tree
Mr. COSTELLO: (Singing) Final foolish Sentimental Boy, you're clearly not too bright...
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