The Colbert Retort

How to beat the host at his own game.

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Stephen Colbert

Here we are, a bit more than a year into the run of The Colbert Report (Comedy Central, Monday through Thursday, 11:30 p.m. ET). Stephen Colbert continues to discover new dimensions of absurdity in his caricature of a blowhard-populist talk-show host even as he keeps up a stable of old hobbyhorses. (For instance, the man remains steadfast in his campaign to demonize bears.) The Report’s “Better Know a District” segments, with their ambushing interviews of members of the House, have earned a cultural prominence far beyond what the show’s ratings would suggest.

But if you want to turn an eye, jaded and jaundiced, on The Colbert Report and squint at its deformities, you will want to start with the regular guest-interview segments. Night after night, writers, talking heads, and entertainers turn up at Colbert’s table and try to have a conversation with his alter egomaniac. While this yields some laughs, it mostly conjures a painful goofiness. The host stays in character and poses either ridiculous questions on serious topics or earnest questions on ludicrous ones. Before your eyes, the guest, too often hyper-self-conscious, tries to sort out whether to play along or steamroll ahead or what—usually managing to leave a little chunk of dignity behind. Thus, with the emotional health of the nation’s chat-show class in mind, I present a few simple guidelines for interfacing with Stephen Colbert. Regular Slate readers will note some overlap between these rules and the recommended strategies for surviving The O’Reilly Factor. (Employing a figure of speech sure to shake Colbert to his core, Press Box advised sidling up to O’Reilly the way you might approach “a spooked grizzly bear.”)

Act your age. Maybe they’re just being obliging, but many of Colbert’s guests tend to trip themselves up right out of the gate, before the host himself has even had a chance. They’re so tickled to be there that they titter, ducking their heads shyly and perhaps muttering something vaguely racy and clearly inane. Are they 12? Writers, in general, and New York Times op-ed columnists, in particular, seem especially susceptible to this affliction. After Colbert’s lead delivered a line about Ann Coulter’s speaking engagements, David Brooks blurted, “I do Phish concerts.” Whah? When a bellicose Colbert commanded Frank Rich to inveigh against President Bush (“What’s he done now?! Spin!!”), Rich grinningly produced the following: “Luckily, he isn’t doing much now. He just seems to be sort of lactating. … I don’t know where that came from.” Paul Krugman simply giggled, and simply giggling is inappropriate to the gravity of the occasion. No, you’ll be better off if you …

Laugh uproariously. Conservatives do well by taking this tack, and Bay Buchanan, chair of the Team America political action committee, was an ace. She was pushing her line on illegal immigration, arguing for a vast wall along the Mexican border, when Colbert upped the ante: “We need two walls. We need a moat. We need it filled with fire, maybe with some fireproof crocodiles in there.” I imagine that most of Colbert’s constituency thinks Buchanan to be kind of a creep, but there was an appealing jolliness in her laughing response to this line that made her seem agreeable, and her hard chuckles took the edge off his mockery. And when Colbert had had his fun, Buchanan charged right on ahead. Perhaps, being a veteran of the Reagan administration, she is inclined to …

Embrace the theater. Contrary to the gigglers, masters of this strategy allow themselves to slide smoothly into Colbert’s alternate reality and take his straight face at face value. Jesse Jackson instantly asserted control by joining the studio audience in cheering the host: “You the man.” Joe Scarborough—whose feisty MSNBC show, Scarborough Country, remains undersung as a Colbert Report inspiration—rushed down to a level where he and Colbert could banter like the showmen they are, reveling in the horseplay and proclaiming, “We are kindred spirits.” And Al Franken explained why he would enter this lion’s den almost as if he were actually talking to Bill O’Reilly: “I couldn’t very well not do it. If you don’t do your show, you just go on and call a guy a coward.” A seasoned culture warrior like Franken understands that it’s important to …

Go on the offensive. No one has done this better than CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, who went so far as to play the sparky schoolmarm and scold the host for referring to the country immediately south of the Caspian Sea as “Eye-ran.” “Ih-ran,” she said. “You didn’t run anywhere, did you?” Amanpour was relaxed and confident, game enough to engage with the Colbert persona, and sharp enough to cut past its marvelous blather and say something witty herself. The guest interviews are often only half successful as entertainment because the interviewees are off-balance, unsure of the steps of this crazy new dance.  But Amanpour—accustomed, as she is, to coping with the on-screen utterances of morons, megalomaniacs, and aggressive nitwits—had the nerve to take the lead. Future Colbert guests, I urge you to study her performance closely. You might not be able to beat Stephen Colbert at his own game, but you won’t go home feeling like a loser.