Stephen Colbert loves who he is— but not in a cocky way. He genuinely loves his job, his character and everything that comes with it. From the moment he charges into the audience-filled studio to the moment he runs out, Colbert is ecstatic. Ronald McDonald has absolutely nothing on his smile.
But as joyful as he looks and performs, he is equally dialed in. “The Colbert Report” is a high calculated endeavor. If the phrase “in the zone” ever applied to anyone, it applies to Colbert. The measly, non-descript studio on West 54th and 10th ave directly contradicts the energy on the inside.
Before the show begins, Colbert sprints into the studio, with rock music blasting in the background, and makes sure he high-fives everyone in view. The energy is palpable. He then answers a handful of audience questions; the only time observers get to talk to him out of character. On this particular night, the last and most memorable question was about Colbert’s blistering 2005 White House Correspondents Dinner speech. “What did Laura Bush whisper to you after your speech?” Colbert said this isn’t the first time he’s been asked this, and turned it back to 20-something girl who asked the question. “What do you think she said?” Colbert asked, grinning politely. The girl responded, “Did she tell you to fuck off?” Without missing a beat, Colbert responded, “Are you asking if the former First Lady of the United States of America told me to fuck off after giving a speech about her husband?”
The audience erupted, Colbert never answered the question and instead yelled, “Let’s make a show everybody!” He tossed his microphone in the air (which someone else caught) and descended to his “C” shaped desk for final pampering and production notes. While makeup is applied, his signature hair is perfected and cues are finalized, Colbert is thumping along and singing every word of the pump-up rock blasting again in the studio.
Once Colbert’s makeup situation is deemed TV-ready, he sits back in his chair, taking everything in. It must feel pretty great to have an audience relentlessly cheer for your four nights a week, and descend into a Ste-phen! Ste-phen! chant without any cue.
Colbert then reaches beneath his desk and before anyone knows what’s going on, “WristSTRONG” bracelets come flying in all directions. Meanwhile, Colbert sits behind his desk like a kid knowingly giving his dog too many treats. He has even perfected the rubber-band-like fling; he can reach the last row of bleachers.
It must feel pretty great to have an audience relentlessly cheer for your four nights a week, and descend into a Ste-phen! Ste-phen! chant without any cue.
Next, Colbert’s water bottle makes its way onto the desk. Besides the teleprompter and his pen, Colbert’s white stainless drink tank is his most used item. He often hydrates between breaks, while video clips are playing, or when discussing the show with his staff. The water is oil and Colbert is the engine, constantly ready to spit out a string of words no human should be capable of saying.
As the show prepares to kick off, the cameras set, the prompter waits and the show runner readies, it’s impossible not to foreshadow the adrenaline that’s about to come. As the show runner counts down from ten, Colbert takes his last sip, the cameramen lock in focus and the audience waits on the edge of their seats. Five, four— on three, the audience erupts— two, one— lights cue, cameras swing, Colbert digs in and spreads his cheeks as wide as can be. The prompter rolls. The Colbert Report machine takes off and never looks back.
On this particular night, Colbert unveils the first of a two part series about his personal equestrian expedition as a dressage rider, aka horse ballet. (Think Ann Romney and guys in elitist top hats and tail coats.) For those unfamiliar with Colbert and these segments, he has a way of pleasantly patronizing his subject. Tonight is no exception. For this segment he interviews and receives training from the coach of the 2012 USA dressage team. Memorable moments include Colbert asking, “What are the origins of dressage? Did just one day, some horse say to his dad, ‘Dad, I don’t want to charge into battle, I just wanna DANCE!’” As well as:
Colbert: What do you measure horses in?
Coach: In size we call it hands.
Colbert: Hands, and how big is a hand?
Coach: A hand is four inches.
Colbert: You know what they say about big hands?
Coach: I have no idea what they say about big hand.
Colbert: Large horse.
Colbert: Also a huge cock.
The audience erupted again.
The segment was pre-filmed and Colbert likely had a role in editing the final piece, so he knows what the audience is about to see. But the genuine joy Colbert gets from watching himself is impossible to ignore. It seems at this moment that he is Colbert the father, watching Colbert the character—in addition to being rather impressed by his performance. He smiles relentlessly throughout the entire segment and even makes sure the audience didn’t laugh over the cock zinger.
The dressage segment goes straight to commercial. The lights come up, cameras reset and the show’s head writers appear. While the production crew sets for the second leg of the show, Colbert’s writers canvass him, scripts in hand. For some personalities, these conversations would be dictator-like, but with Colbert the conversation is almost socialist. It is a discussion, a give and take, where everyone has a say. The reasoning behind this is simple: The goal is to make the best and funniest show possible and everyone on the team will do whatever it takes to get there. But, after all, Colbert has the last word as Executive Producer, which he exercises once and a while. When Colbert feels they are in a good place, the writer’s retreat back to their den off to the right of Colbert’s desk, the rock music fades out and the show runner readies the studio. Six, five, four and the engine is churning once again.
But the genuine joy Colbert gets from watching himself is impossible to ignore. It seems at this moment that he is Colbert the father, watching Colbert the character—in addition to being rather impressed by his performance.
The second segment finishes and the writers resume their position around the desk. Moments later, the guest tonight, Joan Rivers, walks out and takes her seat on the opposite side of the studio. The audience stands and cheers, which prompts Colbert to walk into the middle of the studio and take a bow, assuming the cheers were for him. He returns to his desk and gets final notes from his trusted staff. They take their places and the third leg of the show is set to film.
Colbert readies for the cue, cleverly introduces his guest, then springs out of his chair to the opposite side of the studio, bowing along the way and enjoying every second of it. This is usually awkward as the guest patiently waits for his or her turn, while Colbert commands the studio, but Rivers handled it like a pro.
The conversation between Colbert and Rivers begins PG-13 with Joan Rivers saying she hates everybody but quickly escalates to R. Colbert: “You are a legend in the business… You opened for Grant at Appomattox.” Rivers: “In many ways,” with a mischievous grin on her face.
Rivers was promoting her book “I Hate Everyone… Starting With Me.” Colbert asked what she hates and why she hates everyone and the conversation quickly moved to NC-17, with Rivers saying, “Where do you want to start, with babies on planes… Where is Casey Anthony when we need her?” She then continued about how she hates politics, but luckily has slept with so many presidents over the years. Colbert pressed for names and Rivers responded, “Teddy Roosevelt… He was some rough rider.” Everyone in the studio laughed, Colbert included, partly entertained, and partly shocked. All in all, Rivers said some things a 20 year old, let along an 80 year old, wouldn’t ever say. All in good fun, right?
After Rivers gets one more cheer and heads back to the green room, the thumping music resumes and Colbert treks back to his desk for the closing “That’s the show everybody. Have a good night!” moment. His writers return, but the majority of the conversation involves trying to wrap their head around the absurd but somehow TV legal comments Rivers expounded. Colbert again is laughing, enjoying and reality checking everything that just passed through his ears.
Colbert readies for the final moment of the show, reading through some of the book and laughing at its contents. Tonight’s good-bye entails Colbert promiscuously reading River’s book, complete with a finger rested on his lips.
Even in the closing bit, it is evident that Colbert, both the person and the character, love their job. It is impossible to ignore the joy Colbert, and everyone involved in the production, have. It is infectious, seeping into the audience every night the show films. This is the reason not a single cheer or chant on the show is cued or pre scripted. Colbert Nation knows and loves to support their leader. It is this passion that makes “The Colbert Report” so successful.
Before we entered the studio, the audience supervisor laid down the rules and offered some electrifying encouragement. “Stephen does this show entirely alone, unlike the ‘Daily Show,’ and he needs your support.” He continued that the better the audience is, the better the show is. He pointed out; “The Colbert Report” has lost to “The Daily Show” for best comedy show at the Emmys since the “Report” began in 2005.
But this year might be different. Since 2005, Colbert and “The Report” have evolved, for the better. In the beginning, Colbert was so brash and off-putting that it was even a lot for people with incredibly dark sense of humor to handle. All he was doing was making nonsensical jokes, which was still funny. But there was little meaning and depth because of the nonsense. However, the show has and continues to transform. What started as pure comedy has morphed into showcasing the problems and nonsense in this country with incredible irony. And there is no better evidence than Colbert Super PAC, where Colbert created a full 501 (c) (3) and raised over $1 million. The effort garnered journalistic and humanistic acclaim for continuously pointing out the outrageous consequences of Citizens United, no small feat.
The audience supervisor wrapped up his speech by saying it is up to the audience to propel Stephen to be the best he can be, so the “Report” no longer loses to the “Daily Show” “every fucking year.” Colbert has been on his game recently more than ever. His time can’t be far off.