PLAYBOY: You are going to need to elaborate on that.
COLBERT: I really like boats. I was driving a boat this summer with my family and some friends. About a quarter mile away there was a channel marker, and I was heading straight for it. Now there is no way on God’s green earth that I would not have seen that channel marker in the 45 seconds it would have taken me to get to it. But at the second it appeared I wasn’t looking up. I was looking at my instrument panel. Then I looked up and my wife said, “You see the channel marker, right?” And I said, “Of course.” But I actually hadn’t seen it yet. I have no doubt that everything would have been fine, but in my mind I see myself for the next 45 seconds, I don’t know, somehow…closing my eyes and slamming into the channel marker with a boat full of friends. [pauses] I don’t know what that means.
PLAYBOY: That’s an incredibly specific fear.
COLBERT: It really is. [laughs]
PLAYBOY: You could have just said “drowning.”
COLBERT: I don’t like spiders. How about that?
PLAYBOY: That works.
COLBERT: I actually don’t like bears.
PLAYBOY: Seriously? Like your character?
COLBERT: I don’t dislike bears, but I am kind of afraid of them. There was a time when, if I had dreams about bears, something bad was going on in my life.
PLAYBOY: How did bears become a recurring motif on the show? Was it just to have something to talk about that wasn’t topical?
COLBERT: For the very first show, we were trying to find something that had a repeatable structure. We had this bit called “ThreatDown,” when he talks about the number one threat to America that week. We were considering another story, something from Florida about a Burmese python that had grown to 13 feet long and swallowed an alligator and the alligator had eaten its way out of the snake. It was a really crazy story with horrible pictures. Then a bear story came up that wasn’t as flashy, but we went with it. Partly because bears are very resonant to me, because I really do have a bit of a bear problem. And it just seemed like a richer fear to us. We always said that anything my character is concerned about qualifies as news. If he says bears are the number one threat to America, then that is the case.
PLAYBOY: He’s justifying his own anxieties?
COLBERT: Exactly. “I want to make you afraid of the things I’m afraid of.”
PLAYBOY: Do you feel tied to the news cycle? When you’re doing political comedy, a joke may be funny in the morning and irrelevant by that afternoon.
COLBERT: There’s a good and a bad in that. We are the shadow cast by real people. And that shadow changes shape as the news cycle changes shape, so you always have fresh dirt to dig in. That’s exciting. Like with this presidential race. It’s as simple a narrative as any made-for-TV movie: two men, one victorious.
PLAYBOY: So how do you deal with that?
COLBERT: We know everything that happens structurally between here and there. You just prepare yourself to collect the news on the dates that are preordained. There are surprises, but there’s a tent pole of a narrative between today and the inauguration. But we also try to release ourselves from that. We don’t need to follow what everyone says is the story. Not because we’re mavericks but because sometimes the story holds no interest for me. I’m perfectly happy to talk about a story that’s not necessarily timely or newsworthy but is just interesting to me. Like super PACs.
PLAYBOY: Super PACs aren’t newsworthy?
COLBERT: They’re newsworthy, but they weren’t in the news. Not many people at the time were talking about super PACs, at least not in the mainstream media. Most people had no idea what they were, so for the first six months we had to explain them to the audience every time I brought them up. That process of educating the audience is really educating ourselves.
PLAYBOY: But you took it one step further and started your own super PAC.
COLBERT: We did, yeah.
PLAYBOY: Isn’t that unnecessarily complicated? Why not just make jokes about super PACs in the abstract? Wouldn’t that be easier, and cheaper?
COLBERT: It would be, absolutely. But I have an opportunity as this character to do things. I have an opportunity to do things that lead to discovery.
PLAYBOY: For you or the audience?
COLBERT: For me and the audience. If you just talk about it, everyone sits on their hands and the reality of it just watches as you talk about it. But by putting yourself in it, reality has to respond to your actions. I don’t pretend that the camera doesn’t change things. But it’s a version of reality that allows us to show what normally doesn’t get seen.
PLAYBOY: How much money did you ultimately raise for your super PAC?
COLBERT: About $1.4 million. We’ve got somewhere between $850,000 and $900,000 left. We’ve spent about half a million dollars of it so far. Because running for president—or not running for president, whatever it was we did—is expensive. But I can spend it on anything I want. I could use my super PAC money to buy a private jet, and I have to justify it to no one. I wouldn’t have known that unless I had my own super PAC. That’s the great thing about throwing yourself into the story. You find out things you wouldn’t have known otherwise.
PLAYBOY: Have you always had this curiosity? As a kid, did you get the same excitement from digging into a complicated subject and trying to figure out how it ticks?
COLBERT: To some extent, sure. Any curiosity I have probably comes from my dad. He was a big thinker, a true intellectual. His idea of a good time was to read French philosophy, often French Christian philosophy.
PLAYBOY: Did he have strong political opinions?
COLBERT: I don’t really know. The only bumper sticker my parents ever had just said “Kennedy.” That’s all it said. And my father was I think president of Physicians for Kennedy. We have a picture of my father and President Kennedy at the White House. My father had just come out of a rainstorm. He’s soaking wet and wearing a raincoat. Kennedy is shaking his hand and my father is just laughing. That’s the only political involvement I know about. Otherwise, I think my parents were pretty conservative.
PLAYBOY: Were your parents funny?
COLBERT: My mom is very warm and funny and quick to laugh and quick to hug and kiss. My father died when I was pretty young, so I don’t remember any specific jokes, but he certainly encouraged us to be funny. But my brothers and sisters are the funniest people in the world to me. I have comedy influences, other comics I really like, but none of them is as influential as those 10 people above me. I’ve had people say, “Oh, you’re the baby. You have a built-in audience.” But I was their audience.
PLAYBOY: What kind of comedy did the Colbert kids enjoy? Slapstick, wordplay?
COLBERT: Everything. Every one of them is different. Some are great at telling stories. Some are into jokes. For my brother Billy it was all about jokes. “A guy walks into a bar.” And W.C. Fields. He had W.C. Fields posters all over his room. If there was a W.C. Fields festival on television, he would force me to watch it. “You have to watch this pool cue trick that he does.” Or Gahan Wilson. Billy was a huge Gahan Wilson fan. It was very dark comedy, and I was a little kid, but he’d show me all these Gahan Wilson cartoons. And he taught me how to juggle. [laughs] My brother Billy was a big comedic influence.
PLAYBOY: When did you think you might want to be more than just an audience member?
COLBERT: It was when we were driving back from my father’s funeral. He was buried in Annapolis, and we were all driving home in a funeral limo. I don’t know if that’s what they’re called. It’s a limo with the jump seats that face front and back, like the presidential limo where the aide is talking to the president. You know what I’m talking about? In those espionage movies, right before the aide shoots the president and you find out he’s really a Russian spy or whatever. It’s that Mission Impossible style of limo.
PLAYBOY: We know what you mean.
COLBERT: One of my sisters, I think it was Mary, made a joke to Margo. Or it could have been Lulu to both of them. I don’t remember. One of them made Margo laugh so hard, she snorted and fell on the floor. There was enough room between the seats to actually fall on the floor of this limo.
PLAYBOY: Do you remember the joke?
COLBERT: [Pauses] I don’t, but I remember the laughter. I remember thinking [softly] I would like that. That connection.
PLAYBOY: Your father and two brothers died when you were just 10.
COLBERT: That’s right.
PLAYBOY: They were on a commercial airliner that crashed while landing in thick fog. Your brothers were both teenagers, and your father was taking them to Connecticut to enroll them in private school. How did you make sense of their deaths?
COLBERT: Things didn’t seem that important anymore. Nothing seemed that important anymore. My mother said to me—and I think she said this to all my brothers and sisters—she urged me to look at everything in the light of eternity. In other words, it doesn’t matter what I wear. I just wear the uniform of my youth. I wear an oxford-cloth shirt and khakis. What does it matter? What does it matter what I wear?
PLAYBOY: As a 10-year-old boy who just lost his dad, that advice helped you?
COLBERT: Sure, absolutely.
PLAYBOY: It’s been almost four decades since it happened. Does the grief dissipate?
COLBERT: No. It’s not as keen. Well, it’s not as present, how about that? It’s just as keen but not as present. But it will always accept the invitation. Grief will always accept the invitation to appear. It’s got plenty of time for you.
PLAYBOY: “I’ll be here.”
COLBERT: That’s right. “I’ll be here when you need me.” The interesting thing about grief, I think, is that it is its own size. It is not the size of you. It is its own size. And grief comes to you. You know what I mean? I’ve always liked that phrase He was visited by grief, because that’s really what it is. Grief is its own thing. It’s not like it’s in me and I’m going to deal with it. It’s a thing, and you have to be okay with its presence. If you try to ignore it, it will be like a wolf at your door.
PLAYBOY: It’s a loud wolf. It huffs and it puffs.
COLBERT: [Laughs] It does, doesn’t it? It can rattle the hinges.
PLAYBOY: Not long after their deaths, you immersed yourself in science fiction.