Stephen Colbert 1997-2014
Last Thursday, Stephen Colbert, the comedian, gave Stephen Colbert, the character, his perfect send-off: a death scene the character was too stupid to see through, though many old guests – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Alan Alda, Christiane Amanpour, Ken Burns, Katie Couric, Peter Frampton, Henry Kissinger, George Lucas, Yo-Yo Ma, Willie Nelson, Randy Newman, Samantha Power, Gloria Steinem, Michael Stipe and others – had gathered to sing him on up to heaven. In the background, just behind Barry Manilow, I caught a glimpse of George Saunders.
What remarkable company for a writer of fiction, I thought. And yet, it was Saunders's fourth time on the show. He'd gone on in 2007 to promote The Braindead Megaphone. He'd gone on this spring to promote his latest book, a defence of kindness. ('What's in kindness for me?' Colbert had asked.) In January 2013, Colbert had had Saunders on to talk about the stories collected in Tenth Of December. That month's other guests had included Jimmy Wales, Kathryn Bigelow, Sally Field, Tom Brokaw, and Bill Gates. By and large, it seemed that the Colbert Report could book anyone at all; towards the end, Barack Obama took over as a sort of guest-host. But, given his druthers, Colbert gravitated towards full-time writers. Aside from Charlie Rose (and, in a sense, Oprah Winfrey), you'd have to look back to Dick Cavett to find another American broadcaster who paid so much attention to everyday authors.
Alex Ross, who went on the show in 2009 to promote his first book, The Rest Is Noise, told me:
I was one of many obscure writers who benefited from Colbert's intellectual curiosity, and not the only one specialising in classical music – later, he featured Matthew Guerrieri, the author of The First Four Notes, an excellent cultural history of Beethoven's Fifth. While I was waiting in the green room, Colbert poked his head in and said: 'I don't know whether you watch the show, but I play a complete idiot.' He gave me a few hints of his line of attack, knowing, I'm sure, that a TV novice like me would be a nervous wreck. 'For example, I might ask you about the place of the barbershop quartet in music history,' he said. I still didn't have a good answer for that when he said it on air.
Colbert was raised in South Carolina, training himself to speak like a newscaster to avoid the local accent. The youngest of 11 children, he lost his father and two brothers in the Eastern Air Lines flight that went down on September 11, 1974. 'I couldn't begin to catalogue what impact it has upon you to have your father and your two nearest brothers die,' he's said.
My family goes: Jimmy, Eddie, Murray, Billie, Margaret, Tommy, Jay, Lulu, Paul, Peter, Stephen. And, you know, Paul and Peter died... I've said it before, but I think it's kind of facile to say: 'I wanted to make my mom laugh, or make my mom happy.' And that's not an inconsequential part of it... but I don't think that's necessarily what made me a comedian. I don't think I did homework but a dozen times between 10 and 18. I started reading books incessantly. After the funeral of dad and the boys, I had a terrible, blazing headache, and went back to my brother Ed's house... and I went to a quiet room to get rid of my headache. I laid down and there was a science-fiction book on a shelf, and I just picked it off the shelf, and I read pretty much a book a day after that.
The last guest on the show was Phil Klay – a fiction writer who'd been a Marine. For Colbert it was a flip-off, as well as a flag-flourish. A classy move, and fast-forward now to that sing-along: Alda again, and Peter Frampton. Moments later, the camera pans over Colbert's children, singing along with his wife. Then we cut to a skit – Abe Lincoln's smoking an e-cigarette – and hear a song that brings us back to Colbert's beginnings. A few days later, I ask Saunders what it was like to go on the show. This is some of what he said:
It looks, from home, that he is going after his guests but when you are the guest, you can feel the many ways he's protecting you – cushioning the ride, leading you away from danger, and towards the hot spots. My first time, the feeling was sort of like this: you wake up and find yourself in a cage with a tiger. After a few nervous seconds, you think: 'Hey, this is not so bad, I'm hanging in with this tiger.' And then you see something in his eyes and you realise you're alive only because the tiger's letting you be.
My experience was, no prep, really, except sometimes they gave me a quick and gut-dropping look at the two pages of small-font, single-spaced, highly personalised put-downs he had on you – and you'd think: 'Good God, if I had six months I might be able to be ready.' So in a way, that was refreshing: there was no way to prepare. He is just a master improviser, and nobody can keep up with him. I tried to have three or four little go-to bits each time, and the hope was to try and get to those, no matter what. Go back to those when lost or when his question was too hard etc. The trick is to try to find the bit to match the question and to avoid trying to think up something snappy to respond to his jokes – you can never be that quick or that funny. What I found was that if I had put a little thought into my bits, and that gave him something to work with, then it was all good. Especially if I could tell a little story or make a little metaphor, he really goes off to the races on that stuff. It must be a certain quality of his mind – he can see a lot of possibilities in a simple story or metaphor. You can sort of see him light up when you've given him something like that.
Generally, I always felt a little like Dorothy, in the face of the Wizard for the first time. Or like the Cowardly Lion, stroking my own tail. So to speak. But he is also a very generous host. The writers I know really, deeply appreciate the fact that Stephen has given writers a platform and some pop-culture cred. I think he'll continue to do that with the new show. In fact, I predict the loss of the persona is going to free him up. He is so smart and well-read... Backstage I once heard him do an incredible little explanation of what the Stations of the Cross are, and it was mind-blowingly precise and interesting and original. He is utterly fearless and the least likely person in the world to tame his format to some sort of external or corporate expectations – and he's powerful enough to be able to resist as well. So I think the fun is just beginning.