This week David Plotz launches a new podcast series called Working. We’re planning to post a transcript of each week’s new episode for Slate Plus members. Here’s the transcript from David’s Episode 1 discussion with Stephen Colbert.
David Plotz: What’s your name, and what do you do?
Stephen Colbert: My name is Stephen Colbert, and I do comedy.
Plotz: And, when does your workday begin?
Colbert: As soon as I wake up, I grab my iPad and I start reading headlines. Did I get sent clips from my video producers? I get a digest first thing in the morning of the video clips that they’ve noticed. They’ve been up—specifically one guy, Scott Lowry—he’s been up I don’t know how long. Usually they’re long. By 7:15 in the morning I’m getting long montages—printouts of them—rather, text versions of long montages of whatever the news story is that is being ground right now in the mainstream media.
And then also little things that caught his or her—a young lady named Tori who also works in video—things that just caught their eye. Interesting patterns they see in the way the news is being expressed.
I read all that, and then I read a news breakdown that I get every day. We get one at night. It starts the night before. I get a news breakdown at night and then I get another news breakdown in the morning, anything that happened in the middle of the night, or a re-digestion of a story. How it got processed in the mainstream media. Because my show is a shadow of the news, and so I have to know what shadow it’s casting right now so that I can distort it in my own way.
The way I consume raw material to turn into our product—we like to say this is like a distillery. We plant our own corn at times, because we often report on our story, but we also will harvest any field. We harvest the corn, which is basically just reading the news, and then we grind on it a little bit, which is our take on it. How would we break this story down? Because we have to do the deconstruction first.
My show, unlike, say, what The Daily Show does, is that my show is a false construction of the news as opposed to a pure deconstruction of the news. I embody the bullshit, I don’t just point it out to you. I don’t do it nearly as deeply as they do at The Daily Show, because half of our process has to be constructing it in another direction.
That harvesting for me is, it’s basic things like, I search Google News. What are the biggest stories? I read Reddit in the morning, which is not as useful as it used to be. I used to feel like it was more stories and less memes, photographic memes. Now it’s been sort of consumed by Imgur photographic memes. You can still find it, so I’ll go to the news page or the politics page to find what I want there.
I look at Slate. I listen to various podcasts you guys do. I’m not just blowing secondhand smoke up your ass, I really do. It’s a source for me. I look at the Times. I check out Drudge to see what the order of the day is, what the crimes of the day as described one of the voices of the right. I’ll look at the Fox Nation. I’ll look at Fox News. I’ll look at CNN to see what absolute, middle-of-the-road, over-the-plate news was three days ago. I’ll look at the Huffington Post. I’ll look at Buzzfeed. And then I’ll do—I’ll look at the Sacramento Bee or whatever. I’ll look at random things.
And then I have my news breakdown that comes from several of my producers. All of that, I’m constantly consuming all the time just so that when someone pitches something to me, I don’t have to wait to know what they’re talking about. And also, a lot of what we do here is making associations between stories or patterns, you know? It’s a little schizophrenic, seeing patterns where none exist and then applying a matrix of my character’s opinion on those patterns that don’t exist so that he can convince you that there is a conspiracy, there is a pattern. So, that’s my process of consuming news, and that’s why I have to do so much of it.
Then a little break, eat, exercise whatever, and then I get into a car and I get driven to work. And then I start reading all the scripts that were generated the day before, or two days, or three days, or sometimes the week before. Because a lot of times there are long lead stories or stories that don’t get sucked out—or don’t get all the flavor sucked out of them in the news cycle in a 24-hour period. And I know I can work on a script or have my writers work on a script, and it’s still going to be salient, still have its salt in three days.
And so we might spend more time grinding on what the video is, grinding on if there’s props involved. Anything that’s more production-heavy we try to give a few more days. And so I’m often reading scripts that have existed for 36 to 48 hours on the way to work.
Plotz: How long is that ride to work?
Colbert: The ride to work is about an hour. I try to get in the car by 9 and get here at 10. I usually get in around 9:15 and get here around 10:15. And at that point I have a good idea of what the show is going to be that day, because the night before my workday was preambled by the workday of my executive producers, and my co-executive producers, and my head writer, who have done digestions of the scripts that I’m reading that morning.
Plotz: Okay, let’s go back to—so, you’ve gotten to your office. You have your three stories that you’re planning. But then you encounter your staff, and what starts to happen?
Colbert: Well, I’ve already had a conversation with Tom Purcell and Barry Julien, who are my exec and my co-exec. And Opus Moreschi, who is my head writer who has also got the greatest name in comedy, Opus Moreschi, named for “Opus” from Bloom County. And then we go into the writer’s pitch meeting, which is, the digestion is the real pitch meeting. Opus has had a pitch meeting with the writers “upstairs,” as we call it, in his office, a little cramped room. Anywhere from 10 to 12 writers at any point—we have 9 right now, but it’s usually 10 to 12 writers plus Opus—and they’ve pitched on usually stuff in the breakdown. Sometimes stuff that they’ve found on their own, or that they’ve found on their own that happens to be in the breakdown, because we’re not trying to educate the audience too much.
And he comes to me with, like, the six or seven stories that he thinks were best realized in the pitch. And a pitch requires not just, this is a story we think—is it interesting and here are the jokes. But, what is your character’s take? What is his opinion of it? Because the show is, feeling is first. Since feeling is first, who pays attention to the syntax of things will never wholly kiss you. And so my character has to, uh! Kiss the news really hard. He’s very passionate. He’s not ironically detached, he’s passionately attached to every story. It’s important if only because he’s talking about it. Which is a lot of the freedom that we get, is elevating things that are meaningless but he cares, and therefore they’re freighted with meaning.
And so, Opus conveys to us—basically he’s the bandleader and he goes, “Hey, here’s a little song you might enjoy. Take it away, Eric Drysdale!” And he points to Eric, who does a solo on what his pitch is. And he explains the story—even if we know it, just to get the grounds rules out—and then he explains what the character’s take on it is. And then hits a few jokes, and then the whole room jumps in—hopefully—on ways to add to that idea.
And then I might ask him to deconstruct a little bit more. Like, okay, what are the sources you’re getting them from? Has this been pre-digested for us by Media Matters or Talking Points Memo? Which is always a strike against it, not because I have anything particularly against other people, but because I want us to do the digestion. Almost always these guys have done primary source research instead, but that’s sort of our marching order here.
Or I might ask, what do you really think about this? Like, let us drop back pre-comedically, and say, well, what do we think? What is our editorial opinion of this? Are we being consistent in our expression of the characters opinion as being a satirical take on our own opinion? Because you don’t want to just do a joke because it works—we can make a lot of jokes work—you want to do a joke because it will hopefully build into an argument. Because the show is almost always an argument, though not slavishly, hopefully.
That lasts for about an hour, 45 minutes to an hour, that pitch meeting. And sometimes it’s my favorite part of the day, and sometimes it’s really tough.
At the end of the pitch meeting—which I’ve been—and my executive producer Tom Purcell, who is a—I cannot underestimate the driving force he is in terms of setting what the news and comedy agenda is for that day. We are of a like mind on almost everything, which is why he’s my exec. And so he helps me make up my mind, and rather—and makes it for me many times, because I go, I’m not entirely sure which one of these has more legs, this story?
I’ll have this notebook, a little thing. I keep my notes in it, and these little things change out every so often. But this is yesterday. These are these notes. Horse carriages, we were going to perhaps do something on the fact that de Blasio wants to get rid of the horse carriages. Two stories from Tom. Something about Lindsey Graham I can’t remember. The VA won’t allow you to probably marijuana for PTSD in Colorado. “Thrupples,” a story about people in Massachusetts, a lesbian trio who have decided that they’re a “thrupple.” These are all the notes. Alpha dog on Grimm, Congress Grimm, who got arrested for malfeasance on his old health food store Healthalicious. All of these are my notes.
I pick—as you can see, I start of them, I check some of them. Star means, brand new. Check means, it gets added to a previous script. And then we assigned. We normally have five teams of two, because everybody writes together—almost everybody writes together. That’s the norm. We have nine right now, and so I was able to assign four scripts yesterday and then one half script, which means it’s really just someone doing what we call “TKs,” jokes to come. The “K” stands for “come.” Jokes to come on a script that already exists, and my head writer jumps in on that. So, I have four original scripts and one TK team.
And that gets assigned. I leave the room while the assignment goes on, because I need a breath of fresh air and I also don’t really want to get a sense of what the enthusiasm is for different scripts. I want to imagine that everybody is dying to write every script. Then I come back in for the assignments. Two of my producers, Tom Purcell and Barry Julien, will take at least one of the scripts out of the room to assign, and then I’ll usually assign two of the others myself, usually with the help of somebody else. But I’ll say, “This is how I see the scene,” or, “This is how I see the script,” or, “These are the data points that interest me.”
And then off they go, and then I have other business to do in the building. It’s show business, so I’ve usually go to meet with my line producers, which is sort of the nuts and bolts of getting the show up. I have to go look at field pieces. What have I already shot or somebody else already shot outside of the studio that needs to be edited? Do I have to write letters? Do I have to respond to the network? Are there budgeting issues? Whatever it is. And then I might read something I enjoy for a moment.
Then at 1:30 we do the read-down. And I might read a script out loud, or I might ask somebody else to read the script out loud, especially if I’ve performed it once before—I might want to hear somebody else’s … it, it helps to hear it rather than to say it, sometimes.
And then we’ll take notes. I mean, sometimes I’ll know right away, like, well, that’s in the show. Or, that’s practically producible. Or, we’ll say, huh, that didn’t work. And we don’t always have the time to deconstruct why. Sometimes we just have to drop it on the floor and go, oh well, that’s how that goes. But mostly things are somewhere from half to 75 percent usable.
When they’re half, it’s really tough because you don’t know whether you’ve got a bad girlfriend, which is what I call a script that won’t kiss me back. You know, like, God, that really seems like I could make that script love me, but sometimes you go through three or four drafts and you go, this, oh, what more do I need to give you for you to put out for me! Like, the script won’t love me. And then I have to go, I have to break up with this script.
But hopefully there’s more. If it’s over 50 percent you know you can push it the rest of the way, it’s just a matter of how much do you want to grind? Because then what we’ve done is, we’ve done our grind in the morning—back to the corn metaphor—we’ve harvested, we’ve ground the corn, and then the writers went and did an initial mash of it. And we’ve got corn mash there, and they’ve brought back something that contains alcohol.
And then what we’ve got to do is, we’ve got to distill it. Then the rest of the day is distillation. How much work, and—and then this is another act of discipline—not only do you make your time deadlines, but how much can you stay focused on what that script or that joke was supposed to mean? Or, what’s the best way to express it? Have you thought about it visually? Have you thought about sound design and props? What can I do to convey the idea of that joke?
And I don’t know mean, like, “Idea,” capital “I,” let’s all change the world through mime. I mean, every joke has got some idea in it. Have we conveyed it quickly and economically to the audience? Because you’ve got a lot of them to do. I mean, there’s a lot of jokes. Even if we only do 12 or 13 minutes of written material in any night’s show, there’s, I don’t know, 10 jokes a minute? I don’t know how many jokes. There’s a lot of jokes in this show. Maybe six, I don’t know. There’s a lot. If there were six jokes a minute, I would not be surprised.
And making yourself push all the way through and not give up at a certain point and go, oh, that’s good enough, because then—as my executive producer Tom Purcell says, “One hour of our day is going to suck. Let’s not make it the last hour.” And so you have to express your vision and demand of your writers, and of yourself, and of your producers, your best work earlier in the day, because that will just make the end of the day easier.
Then hopefully that process is done by 3:15 or 3:30, like, what that rewriting is. And that gets farmed out to different people in the building. I’m usually on two of those scripts in terms of, one of them probably proceeds to “final” without me. But I’m on two of them. And then the whole time there are producers in the room—there’s Adam Wager and Matt Lappin who are segment producers and supervising producers here on the show—who are on their iPhones and on their iPads constantly messaging people in the building going, “This is what the script is going to be. These are the prop, graphic, or video challenges that we have. This is what we’re going to need. Nope, that’s changed! This is cut. That’s back in.” And all those messages are streaming throughout the building, so that everybody can have it ready for us at 5:00 when I sit down at that desk.
Plotz: Random backwards question. What did you wear to work?
Colbert: What did I wear to work today? It’s pretty casual. I’ve got an old pair of jean, some middle-aged man Merrells, and my favorite shirt. It’s an old beaten-up plaid shirt.
Plotz: As you go through your day, you are not dressed as you will be dressed for your show.
Colbert: No, no. That is like putting on armor. The suit is—I only wear the suit for the show. I don’t have a problem with suits. I mean, I don’t have a problem with khaki pants, blue blazers, and bow ties, and I’m just as bourgeois as you could imagine. But I like the relaxation. This building is a very relaxed one. It’s an old brick—we call it the, what did we call this side? That side’s the studio. A townhouse! It’s a brick town house, that I think at one point had nuns living in it. There’s a fireplace behind you over there. It’s exposed beams. It’s not like any other television studio I’ve ever worked in. It’s really relaxed and lovely. Dogs roam around this building. If we have more than six together at a time they form into a pack, so we have to keep them apart. But it’s very relaxed. I’m going to get so keyed up at the end of the day, that I have to be as relaxed as possible the rest of the day.
Plotz: How is the interview subject picked and what’s the work that’s generally gone into that? Because that needs to be planned, I assume, further in advance.
Colbert: Right now you and I are sitting in my office at a little conference table, and my board is to the right of us—or, to the right of me—meaning, I have my plan, the next two weeks—it’s not complete, because Fridays are when we’re talking and Fridays are also the day when we finalize what the week’s going to be. But all the guests are up there. I am not looking at my board right now, and I could not tell you who’s coming up. I know that Ellen Page is out there somewhere. I like Ellen Page and so I know she’s out there someplace, but that’s the only person whose name I could name right now.
I put almost no thought into what I’m going to say or do with that guest until about 4 the day of. I have a wonderful booker co-exec, Emily Lazar, who did real news for many, many years, and she understands what I like. And we used to—when the show first started we had meetings all the time about, “How do you feel about this person? How do you feel about that person? Why would you want this guest and not that guest?” She’d send me a list every few weeks, and I’d go, yes, no, yes, no, but it almost turned into yes, yes, yes, yes. Also, as I relaxed into, I can really find something interesting about almost anyone I talk to—if you’re interested, I’ll probably be interested.
And so now, really only every two months she goes, “This is what I’m thinking for the next two months. Obviously this is subject to change. If you have a problem with anyone on this list please let me know, otherwise I’m going to book.” And almost always I go, “Yay, do it.” Or maybe there’s one or two I go, like, “I’m not sure if my character would ever care about that person’s subject.”
And then the day of, a couple of writers are assigned to look over the person’s material. A bio, the book, the article, the movie, whatever. And they come in at 4:00 and they sit right at this table right here, and I have my 4 cup of coffee, and they have essentially 20 questions for me for that person. There’s a pre-interview that Emily has done with the guest, or Monica Hickey, who is Emily’s assistant producer, who’s lovely—or Amy Schwartz, who also works in guest services—and I read the pre-interview. I go, well, what did this person—how did this person represent their ideas or themselves as an idea?
And I read it out loud for everybody. I do Emily’s part and the person’s part, and then I throw that away. I usually don’t take questions from that. I just want to get a sense of how the person wants to represent themselves or what they sound like. And then I read the two sheets of questions that the writers have come up, what their ideas are. I usually pick 10 of those, 10 or 15 of those. Those for the show—to jump ahead, come show time a little hand comes into the rewrite and puts it in a slot on the wall, and I say, “Thank you, hand.” And I take them out and I go, oh, yes, these are the questions I chose. But I don’t look at them. I don’t look at them until right before I go over, and then I read them over once again in front of my producers to get a sense of, oh, this is how my character feels about this person.
And then I try to forget them and I try to never look at the cards. I just have a sense in my head of how I feel. And they’re in front of me—the cards are in front of me, these two blue cards that have the questions—but I try not to look at them at all. I’m pretty good. Maybe I look once a week at the cards. I put my hand on them, so I know I have them if something terrible happens, but as long as I know what my first question is for the guest I kind of know what every other question is, because I really want to react to what their reaction to my first question is.
And I usually end up—of the 15, I use four of them or something like that, and the rest of it is, what is the person just saying to me? Which makes that—when that goes well—the most enjoyable part of the show for me. Because I started off as an improviser. I’m not a standup. I didn’t start off as a writer, I learned to write through improvisation, and so that’s the part of the show that can most surprise me. The written part of the show, I know I can get wrong. You can’t really get the interview “wrong.”
Once the script is final—which hopefully happens by about 3:15 because we have a 5 rehearsal—all of these times are extremely plastic to the point of almost being noncorporeal. At 5 I go down and get makeup on and I sit at the desk. Hopefully all of the props have been produced and all the—last night I sacrificed a chicken on the show.
I read through the script. I’m in my suit. I’m mic’d. I have as many people who are free in the staff at that moment to be in the audience, to get a sense of it. All of the interns are asked to be there as well. And the first thing I do when I sit down is, I turn to Deanna Story—who have known since she was the script supervisor on the Dana Carvey Show in 1996—I go, “D, De-Lite, De-Licious, how long are we?” And sometimes I just point at her and she holds up fingers as to how many minutes long we are. We have different signals as to what different times mean.
And then I know basically how much I have to be cutting as I rehearse. We want to be about at least two minutes long, because at least that much of it isn’t going to work. And we can be as much as six—it’s not crazy to be six minutes long. It’s hard to rewrite, but it’s not unusual to be that long.
And then I rehearse it, and then we go back to our room and rewrite a half-hour show in 45 minutes to an hour, which is super high pressure. And then when I go do the show I am almost doing what’s written in the prompter, because I am expressing an argument and it has a logical order even if it seems crazy. But to us, it has a logical order, in the order in which he would say these things.
And so I can’t stray too much. The less argumentative it is, the more I am able to stray. Usually something at the top of the show, just for a few seconds, isn’t in the prompter. If a particular moment goes well, if there’s a roll from the audience, if I manage to catch the wave of their enjoyment I might vamp a little bit on the back end, do a little filigree on the back end of each of those laugh moments. But other than that, I’m pretty much locked into that script.
Plotz: Because you come out of improv, how do you resist the temptation to improv it?
Colbert: For me, improvisation is about working with a partner. That is much easier to do in the interview, because you have a sounding board. The stuff at the desk is so presentational, and while we do have a partnership with the audience in terms of, they go out and they play our games with this—whether it’s running for President, or going to the Olympics, or raising money for this, or the SuperPAC, or naming a bridge in Hungary, or the green screen challenges, several of those that we’ve done—that’s fun to do with them but those are larger improvisations, that we make initiations through our scripted material and then they respond in the real world.
In that moment of talking into the camera, the audience is laid back. They’re in pure receiving mode, and so I don’t really have a scene partner at that moment. Their part of the scene is to adore and accept my opinion, and my job is to pump it at them as quickly as I can. And so, straying off of that and improvising would be so much harder than improvising with a scene partner in an interview.
And I know how hard it was for us to construct the argument. Any improvisation I have is, while momentarily gratifying, will be damaging to the overall scene that I’m trying to do.
Plotz: How you armor yourself and how you occupy the character? And is that an effort to occupy the character now? So, answer that kind of in combination.
Colbert: Getting into the character for the show is a long process of fits and starts, because I’m not in character all day. I’m a writer and I’m a producer all day. We occasionally improvise him for each other, so we can try to find the voice. You’ll often walk by people writing in the rooms and you’ll see them kind of mouthing to themselves and kind of doing the character to get his rhythm. It really helps. It really helps to find his cadence, when you’re trying to make is argument or his umbrage.
But after we do the guest questions—which is the first part with I start to get into character because I’ve sort of improvised with my writers in that moment and my producers around the table, as to what my reaction might be to this person’s ideas or what they represent—they leave and I shave, is the next thing I do. I shave and then 00:29:05 Antonia Xereas—who is my stylist, my wardrobe mistress who I’ve known since, God, I don’t know, ’95, ’93, ’94, something like—we’ve known each other forever. She comes in with my suit and I go, “Oh, that’s nice.” Like, she’s picked out one for me. Everything I wear is by Brooks Brothers. We chose Brooks Brothers when we first started because they made their suits in America and they are, like, “the” American and “the” conservative suitmaker. And it’s been a wonderful relationship.
And she comes in and there’s a fresh tie, and fresh socks, and freshly polished shoes, and it’s very crisp. That’s very important to me, that he look crisp. That’s sort of the Anderson Cooper part of me, is I want to really look just shiny as a bright new dime when I go out there, and look like “the man.” I really am so close to being “the man” in my own life, that I want to embrace that as much as I can. That’s sort of the most subversive aspect of me, is how close I am to being this characters. That makes me particularly subversive.
And so I get on the suit and slap myself a couple of times, drink my coffee, and I usually am watching a little bit of the news. And I’ll go between usually the most polarizing news—I’ll flip between MSNBC and Fox News—to see how they’re talking about the individual story of the day, to get a sense of what the rhythm of the argument is, because we’re usually talking about it, too.
And then I go downstairs, get into makeup, and that helps to sort of see myself go from—go into the helmet hair. Because left to my own devices, my hair just becomes a parody of itself. It’s short right now, but it eventfully just kind of grows out—like, I get this Irish ‘fro.
And then once I get out of the chair I’m sort of half in character. And you’ve got to walk into the room, and you’re in control, “What’s going on? What’s the time?” And running the show, the urgency of starting the show is very much like doing the character, because the character has got to run the show, too. And so I’m halfway there by just having to be in the sleigh driver position—not “slave,” “sleigh,” for the record—and then just doing the script expressed with the rhythm of graphics, and video, and response from the audience, I’m 75% to 80% of the way there.
And then I have to drop it, because we have to go rewrite it. You end up stripping it all away, and that becomes really minute work. It’s like, sometimes you’re taking the scripts apart and laying them out like parts on a lawn, and going, okay, “Why is that working and that not working? What can we throw away and the engine will still start?” Or, “What haven’t we added?” And if that takes too long, if that takes the entirety of the hour I’ve got before I’ve got to walk back out again, then it’s very difficult for me to be in character. And that’s when I fuck up the most in the show, is because I haven’t been able to make that turn from writer/producer back to performer, because they are different things. They’re really different skills.
But if I have 10 minutes, 15 minutes, I can stand up around the room and—it’s tough on my producers because they’re proofreading the script to make that there’s nothing wrong in it—because there’s a lot of things that have to happen right in terms of the way we’ve expressed it and the timing with the graphics and the video, and everything. And I’ll be just bullshitting, and laughing, and joking with them, getting into that performance. And they’re like, “That’s great, but we have to do the script … ”
But if I have 10 or 15 minutes, then I’m completely there when I walk out. The last thing is that I actually talk to the audience for a few minutes. Before I go out, I walk out of my room—the rewrite room, which is—the walls are blood red, that’s just from all the blood we’ve spilled. It gets tense in there. A knock on the door from my stage manager Mark McKenna. I go to the bathroom one last time. I wash my hands. I ring a bell—we have a little bell in the bathroom, which I like ringing for complicated reasons—it’s like a hotel bell, ding! I go there and I go, “All right, have a good show.” Or, “See you guys.” My producer Barry Julien every night says, “Squeeze out some sunshine.” I close the door, last looks, touch my face—my face gets touched up by makeup. I get rolled off by wardrobe, Antonia.
And then I usually say hello to the guests. I tell them—or, I’ve done this before, at some point I say, “Hi, have you ever seen the show?” Sometimes they have, sometimes they haven’t. I always say the same thing. “I do the show in character. He’s an idiot. He’s willfully ignorant of what you know and care about. Please honestly disabuse of my ignorance, and we’ll have a great time. Thanks for coming.”
I go out. I touch everyone who works for me that’s backstage—I just touch it, or, we don’t really high-five, I just have to touch their hands, and then I touch the prompter operate—Michelle’s hand—last, because we’re going to have a little dance with each other for the next hour. I touch her hand.
Then I go behind and wait for myself to be introduced by my warm-up guy. I listen to see what the audience is like. How bright do they sound from a distance? And then I have a box of chewy pens, Bic pens that have chewy tips on them. They don’t make them anymore, so we bought all the ones we could. Like, people on vacations would buy them at stationary stores and send them to me. I chew the tip of one. I put it back in the box. I slap my face twice. I do a double take. I choose something on the wall that I decided I didn’t know was there. I look at, and I look at it again. I’ll often think it’s a friend I haven’t seen in a long time, so it makes me happy.
And then I hear my name and I run out. I grab the mic, I run around, I throw it up in the air, I watch it flip three or four times, I catch it, and I welcome everybody to the show. And then I answer questions for about 5 to 10 minutes. By that point the control is completely ready.
Plotz: Do you answer questions in character? I can’t remember.
Colbert: As myself. I’m not quite all the way there at this point. I answer questions as myself. I answer questions from the audience as myself. People will often try to stump me with Tolkien or something like that, you know? And then I’ll say, “Are y’all ready to do the show?” And they say, yes, en masse. And then I go, “All right.” I throw the mic to my producer—my stage manager—I get up on the desk, I get behind, I get on the podium and sit behind the desk, and then last looks. I have my face touched up again. I have to get rolled off again. The mic gets adjusted on my tie by sound, and then it’s just me and my makeup artist who are there. She does a last look at my face. My hair is so helmet. She does last touches on my hair, and as she touches down my hair I’ll brush down the back of her head as if we’re about to kiss or something like that. And if the audience is paying attention, they’ll laugh. If they don’t laugh at that moment, I know that I have to work a little harder at the top of the show to get them to pay attention to me. But, that’s my test. And then we do the show.
Plotz: All right, so, in the show itself are you talking to the audience? Are you interacting with the audience? Or is the audience—are you looking at the audience, even?
Colbert: Once I’m performing the show, I think that hour show has a certain intimacy with our audience. And that intimacy is through the lens and the live audience is a witness to that, whereas the audience at home is actually the object of my efforts. Because that’s my model, you know? Real “late night” or what you would think of as the classic “late night,” I think is the opposite. It’s a really with the live audience and the people at home are witnessing that, where it’s the opposite.
Because my model is punditry, and punditry is, it’s a one-to-one relationship. You’re talking to one person, in a way, drunk at the bar. I’m the drunk idiot at the bar next to you going, “I’ll tell you what Obama’s problem is!” And then the audience who’s live is witnessing that behavior. And they get to participate, too. I mean, they’re a proxy for the people at home. So, there.
Plotz: When you’re doing the show, are you—I want to get a sense of how conscious you are of performing it? Is it a thoughtful process, or is it more like in an athlete where you have muscle memory and you have the wisdom of having done it a thousand times, and you just do it? Is it an intellectual process or a physical process?
Colbert: Writing and producing the show is an intellectual process. Performing the show is far more athletic and intuitive, because you don’t get to do it twice. It helps if you’ve done whatever the old saw is, 10,000 hours of it. Because I’ve done 10,000 hours of comedy, I have this database in my mind of what works and what doesn’t work. And you try to access that to know the required rhythm for any individual moment, but not consciously. As you come up to that particular shot, you try to step through and hit the joke or the moment cleanly, or softly, or poorly on purpose, whatever. But that can’t be an intellectual, because you can’t swallow and think about your tongue. It’s much more autonomic than that. If you think about your tongue, you’ve got a giant piece of meat in your mouth and that’s a terrible feeling.
I can’t think about the show. If I don’t make the turn from producer/writer to performer, I’m thinking about the show while I do it and I misread, my rhythm is wrong. I’m not aware of what the response is in the room. I never have those moments of play. And I can’t make the show any better than it is, whereas if I’m fully a performer that person who shows up to perform can actually elevate the material beyond what we were able to do while we were writing today. Because not only am I conveying the words and the timing required for graphics and video—which are a part of the assist of the joke—I’m able to convey to the audience live and at home the fun we had creating is.
As I’ve said to my people here, I said, “We’ve already done the show for each other. It’s my privilege and responsibility to translate to the audience, to convey, to communicate to the people who are watching it now what that was like, through the keyhole of the character.” And so it has to be automatic. It has to be like dancing.
Plotz: After the show do you have rituals or things that you have to do once you’ve finished?
Colbert: When the show is over I thank the audience by answering one more question, and then I leave. I thank everybody backstage. Some of the staff will be there, and I’ll shake everybody’s hand—except one guy, it’s just tradition that I don’t—I just wave at him and he waves back at me. And then I thank the guest for coming and I go and do a post-mortem. It’s usually nuts and bolts first, like, how long did we go? Is there anything we have to fix? What’s tomorrow?
And then my executive producer or my co-executive producer will say, well, this is what we’ve got. And then we’ll say, what happened with the scripts today? Here’s the plan we have. What happened with X, Y, or Z script that we had our hopes on. Oh, that worked, or that one didn’t work out, or I haven’t read that yet. Whatever it is.
And then I take my makeup off as quickly as I can, I go upstairs, get changed, and then I’ll usually—if there’s—someone watches the entire show to make sure that—like, twice in 1,400 shows there was a jump cut or something like that, like we forgot, a graphic didn’t go up that was supposed to be there. And so as a result—and it’s been, I don’t know, five years now—someone watches the entire show. And I think two people. Like, an executive producer or a co-exec will watch the entire show, and then the control room will watch it as it feeds to make sure that there’s nothing missing. So, we wear braces with our belt on that one.
If there’s an edit to do in the guest I usually am involved in that. I like to watch the show—I like to watch the guest. All of us at this point have edited so many times that we watch the interview at double-speed. We say, zip, squeal, because it just turns into a squeal, but we remember what got said. And then sometimes we have to watch the entire six or seven-minute interview—or eight, because we’re cutting for time—at double speed. So, it takes four minutes. And then we won’t stop it at all, and we’ll go, okay, and then you’ll name the pieces that can come out because you just needed to get the map in your head. And then you cut out certain sections of it.
That sometimes is a nickel and dime thing, five seconds here, ten seconds there. Sometimes it’s like, lift that entire thing about brick production in Indonesia, who cares? And then we get the show to time.
Plotz: In the post-mortem, are you judging the show? Do you sit and say, that was a great show for—
Colbert: Sure. Like, last night we had a really special show. It was very odd. In the post-mortem we also will influence in, how did we feel about that show? Not always. We’ve done so many that the average—our average enjoyment of the show or our average pride of the show is still greater than our average frustration with the show. And so we’re like, oh, that was nice, you know? Because it’s such a marathon. You can’t, like, hang your hat on how tonight went unless it was really special, or if it really blew.
And usually it doesn’t mean that, like, it was the audience, or the material wasn’t good—though I mean, obviously we have our ups and downs days—but it usually has to do with, was there difficulty in today’s production? Was it a wrench to the head to get the show up? Because we used to have this standard of, a show was either “yay,” solid, like, “yay!” solid, or wrench to the head. And we would predict at the beginning of the year how many of each would we have? Because we do 160 shows a year. How many of each would we have?
And thankfully we always had more yays than we predicted and we always had fewer wrenches to the head than we predicted. We haven’t done that in many years, but that’s what we say after every show and someone would keep track of it. There literally was a running board.
Now it’s only if it’s a particularly special show or if there’s something we feel like, okay, that was a process problem we’ve got to fix. I don’t want that to ever happen again. But that’s pretty rare.
Plotz: How often do you watch the show?
Colbert: I watch the show if there was a problem, first of all, if we had to make massive fixes and I wasn’t the one to do the final watch. I want to see—and almost never at night. I might do it the next morning when I’m having a cup of coffee, but almost never at night because I’ve got to go to bed.
And to make sure that it worked out. You know, I’m still like a mother hen. Like, did we fool them? Or, if it was special. I didn’t watch last night because I was so damn tired, but last night would have been a show that I would have watched because it was so unusual, and I wanted to make sure I remembered it, that the feeling in the room translated across TV. But I watched it this morning and it did. I was really happy with it.
But almost 10 percent of the time do I watch the show now. I’ve just seen the material too much by the time it makes it to air. Do you know what I will do sometimes, is I will go to bed—again, the last thing I do, if you ask me when does my workday start? It starts when I go to bed the night before. Because if I’m alert enough I will read scripts that night, and I’ll read them again going to work on the next day. I’ll read tomorrow’s scripts. I’ll read that night’s news breakdown. I’ll read news headlines from around the Web, and then I’ll go to Twitter, and I’ll look—I’ll go, it’s about now that the boy enters from Waiting for Godot. I wonder how many people will get the reference?
And so last night, if it’s a special event like that, if it’s something weird, I want to see what the reaction is. I’ll go on Twitter and I’ll put in, like, a search term like “Godot.” Last night I put in “Godot” at 11:49, something like that, because I figure that’s near where it was, a few minutes before. And I just watched to see little popcorn kernels go off, and I’ll go, “Oh, I’m so glad that people, like, got that that actually was from the play.” Or if they didn’t, they’re like, sometimes some of the reaction was, what the hell was that? I also like that. That’s a nice reaction, too.
And then I’ll put on something to listen to and go to bed, because I have turn off my head. I idle so high when I get home at night that I usually listen to something to go to bed, because it beats drinking.
Transcript compiled by Maxwell Tani.