COLBERT: It was right after we buried my father and brothers. I was staying with my brother Ed, who’s 18 years older than I am and was married with kids. I was in their guest bedroom, where they kept stacks of science fiction books. I just randomly picked up The Long Arm of Gil Hamilton by Larry Niven. I read it and loved it. From there I just dove into the world of science fiction. When I was 13, one of my friends pressed into my hands The Lord of the Rings and said, “You’ve got to read this.” And I loved it. As you can tell, I’m a little obsessed. [points to a Lord of the Rings pinball machine in the corner of his office]
PLAYBOY: What appealed to you about the books as a teenager?
COLBERT: In some ways it was about escape. I think there’s absolute truth in escaping the reality of your present predicament. And that can just be about being young. It doesn’t have to be tragedy. There’s a tragedy to being 13. Things are changing. Friends are changing. Your body is changing. You need to escape that. My additional emotional crises don’t necessarily explain my interest in it.
PLAYBOY: Didn’t you visit the Hobbit film shoot in New Zealand?
COLBERT: I did. [Director] Peter Jackson invited me to the set last year. I flew out and watched them shoot some scenes and went to some locations. I saw a 25-minute cut, and it was amazing. Jackson knows I’m a big fan of the films.
PLAYBOY: You flew out to New Zealand just to watch? He didn’t hire you as an extra or something?
PLAYBOY: Are you telling us you’re in the Hobbit movie?
COLBERT: Could be. [smiles]
PLAYBOY: Can you elaborate?
COLBERT: [Fumbles with paper on his desk] So, uh, I was just writing Mr. Jackson a note to congratulate him on making The Hobbit into three movies. Because I think that’s just fantastic.
PLAYBOY: You’re not going to tell us anything, are you?
COLBERT: [Smiles, says nothing]
PLAYBOY: You sneaky bastard.
COLBERT: You were asking how the book affected me as a teenager.
PLAYBOY: Sure, let’s talk about that.
COLBERT: I think [Lord of the Rings character] Aragorn is the model of manhood. He’s the Apollonian ideal. He’s a warrior, a scholar, a poet, a healer. He’s all things you can aspire to be. As a kid I thought I wanted to be like that.
PLAYBOY: But it wasn’t all science fiction and fantasy for you. You also had a collection of Bill Cosby stand-up records.
COLBERT: Yeah, after the boys died, I inherited their record collection. I had Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow…Right! and Wonderfulness, and I listened to them over and over and over again, every night. [pauses, looks at his feet] I just wore them out.
PLAYBOY: Do you still have them?
COLBERT: Not the originals, no. But somebody sent me those two albums on CD, as a thank-you for something. I have them on my iPod now, and I can do every joke. I can do every joke with the exact same rhythm and timing that Mr. Cosby does them, after 30 years of not listening to them, because they were so deeply ingrained in me. The funny thing is, the albums were so scratched that I missed entire punch lines. He’d be doing a setup, and then it would skip ahead to a huge laugh. And in my mind I was like, What could that punch line have been? I was writing Bill Cosby’s punch lines in my head.
PLAYBOY: Now that you’ve heard the CD versions, were you close?
COLBERT: Not at all. [laughs] My jokes were so far off.
PLAYBOY: Were those albums the only things you inherited from your brothers?
COLBERT: No, I got clothes and all kinds of things. I still have…I still have my brother Peter’s belt. I’ve been carrying it in my closet since I was 10. I didn’t even realize I’d been holding on to it until last year, when my son Peter had to go off to school one day.
PLAYBOY: Your son is also named Peter?
COLBERT: Yeah. I think it was a school concert, and he had to wear a belt and couldn’t find his. I said, “Oh, I have something that might fit you.” I went and found it and put it on him. It was a small belt. Peter was a skinny guy. I belted it on my son and my wife, Evie, said, “Where did this belt come from?”
PLAYBOY: Was that when you realized?
COLBERT: Yeah. I said, “Oh, that’s Peter’s.” And she said, “You have your brother’s belt?” And it occurred to me at that moment that I had moved that belt from closet to closet for 37 years without telling anyone, not even my wife, whom I’ve known for 20 years. We moved many times, and in every new house I’ve been [mimes clicking the belt onto a hook].
PLAYBOY: That makes sense. What were you going to do, throw it away?
COLBERT: That’s exactly it! What do you do with these things? The other day I thought, I wonder what happened to that belt. And I realized that I don’t care. Now I don’t care.
PLAYBOY: Because you gave it to your son?
COLBERT: Because it got used. It got used. I remember when I was a teenager, I went skiing in Vermont. I had an aunt up there, my mother’s older sister, who lived in Plainfield and was a dairy farmer. You need goggles when you ski, and I wore my uncle Eddie’s goggles. These were black, heavy rubber goggles, with dark green lenses. He wore them while he was a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne.