PLAYBOY: Who’s your ideal guest?
COLBERT: We want someone who represents something, who feels strongly about what they’re talking about and will allow for a little dramatic friction. The most disappointing guest is somebody who won’t be their personality.
PLAYBOY: What does that mean? How can you not be your personality?
COLBERT: Take Mr. Bill O’Reilly. He was a perfectly lovely guest, but he wouldn’t be his personality. He wouldn’t be the guy he is on his show. And I don’t know why. I went on his show, and I was my personality. That was our deal; I’d go on his show and he’d come on mine. But he came on my show and he wasn’t his personality. He wasn’t an unpleasant person. He’s a perfectly fine guest and I have no complaints other than the fact that I booked Bill O’Reilly and I got William O’Reilly.
PLAYBOY: Did he give you any advice? Any words of wisdom from one pundit to another?
COLBERT: He said, “Watch your guest list. If you book the same kind of people over and over—Al Franken, Keith Olbermann—people notice that pattern.” I told him, “Oh, Bill, I toy with those guys. I’m slapping them around.” He said, “I know, but not everybody is watching your show as closely as I am.” I was like [clasps hands and holds them to his chest], “I’ve totally made it!” That was about five, six months into the show.
PLAYBOY: One of your friends from high school said you once joked about starting a cult. Is that true?
COLBERT: Yeah, that was an L. Ron Hubbard reference. I was with a bunch of guys—we were all science fiction fans—and we were sitting around one day, drinking beer or doing something we weren’t supposed to be doing, talking about power. The question posed was, If you wanted power over people, what would you do? What career would you pursue? I remember one guy, who’s actually a colonel now, said, “If I wanted real power, I wouldn’t be a politician. I’d be in the Joint Chiefs of Staff.” It got around to me, and I said, “Well, I think I would probably major in psychology and start a cult.” [laughs] There’s something enjoyable about cults to me.
COLBERT: I’m interested in what makes someone a cult figure and what engenders cult adherence, what engenders that behavior.
PLAYBOY: Are you surprised people are drawn to cults?
COLBERT: Not surprised. I’m fascinated. I’m fascinated that people want to know what to do. And people want to know what to think. And people want to know how to feel. Not just what to feel but how to feel.
PLAYBOY: Do you think that’s unnatural?
COLBERT: No, it’s completely natural. I’m surprised there aren’t more unbalanced people in the world, because being alive is not easy. We’re just not that nice to one another. We’re all we have, and Jesus, are we shitty to one another. We really are. The only thing that keeps us going back to one another is that we’re all filled with such enormous self-doubt. We have doubts about our ability to be alone, to self-actualize. We’re on such a rocky road all the time. Every moment is new. Every inch of the mountain is fresh snow. If someone said, “I have been out ahead and I know what you’re supposed to do,” if I believed that were true, I would absolutely obey whatever father told me. I would stay on the compound.
PLAYBOY: You would just as happily be a cult member as a cult leader?
COLBERT: I’d love to be a cult member, just another loyal follower. It sounds very comforting.
PLAYBOY: The Colbert Nation could arguably be described as a cult.
COLBERT: In the loosest possible sense. It’s an ironic cult.
PLAYBOY: But your audience listens to you. It may be a joke, but it’s a joke with a lot of followers.
COLBERT: Which is not what we set out to do. When we started the show, we wanted it to have a mythos that would never be real. We’d play on the difference between reality and my character’s perception of reality.
PLAYBOY: He would think he had influence but he really didn’t?
COLBERT: Exactly. He thinks he says things and people listen and take action. He has a nation, this army he can mobilize. We were already too successful for that joke, to play on the vast difference in status between thinking you’re a prophet and being on a show that nobody watches.
PLAYBOY: Because people were actually watching, and they got the joke.
COLBERT: Not only did they get it, they were willing to play along. I’m constantly awed by their willingness to play along with almost anything. They actually cheer things they don’t believe in because my character says it. You know what I mean? I have a generally liberal audience, but they will applaud when I nail a liberal lion because they want my character to win. It’s a strange relationship that seems natural now, but every so often I have to remind myself that this is not normal. This is not common.
PLAYBOY: Will they do pretty much anything you say, or are there rules and parameters?
COLBERT: I put a lot of thought into the ways we engage with them. [laughs] I always say “we,” like “We’re pregnant.” But there are a lot of people involved. It’s not just me, by any means. With the audience, we think about things like whether we are dictating their actions or inviting them to take action. Dictation of action is not nearly as fun for an audience. We’ve done it sometimes, and it’s been a mistake. It’s much better to invite them to be part of an action rather than saying, “I command you to do this.” The other thing is, you have to follow through. If you initiate a game and they take part, you can’t stop until it reaches a mutually satisfying resolution.
PLAYBOY: The Colbert character is obsessed with fear. He even had a rally in Washington, “Keep Fear Alive.” Why is fear so intoxicating?
COLBERT: I suppose fear is like a drug. A little bit isn’t that bad, but you can get addicted to the consumption and distribution of it. What’s evil is the purposeful distribution of fear. As Paul said when he was faced with the gom jabbar, “Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.”
PLAYBOY: Did you just make a Dune reference?
COLBERT: I did! [laughs] If you’re injecting fear into other people, then you’re trying to kill their minds. You’re trying to get them to stop thinking. That’s antithetical to the founding of this country. It’s on the Jefferson Memorial. I’m stealing this from Jefferson, but I’m also stealing it from the movie Born Yesterday. Bill Holden takes Judy Holliday to the Jefferson Memorial, and they read the inscription together. “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Fear is an attempt to impose tyranny over someone’s mind. It’s an act of oppression.
PLAYBOY: We know what Stephen Colbert the character is afraid of, or trying to make us afraid of.
PLAYBOY: Bears, jazz robots, happiness.
COLBERT: [Laughs] The list is endless.
PLAYBOY: But what about you? What are you, the real Stephen Colbert, afraid of?
COLBERT: [Pauses] Accidentally driving my boat into a pillar with loved ones onboard.