PLAYBOY: The Screaming Eagles?
COLBERT: That’s right. He died in the war. These were the goggles he wore on D-Day, and I would ski in his goggles. I remember on one of these ski trips, I lost the goggles. I had to tell my mom. I was devastated. And she said to me, “These things are to be used.”
PLAYBOY: She sounds like a wise woman.
COLBERT: She is.
PLAYBOY: Was she supportive of your becoming an actor?
COLBERT: Absolutely. She had wanted to be an actress at one point in her life. She spent a lot of her college years doing theater, but then she got sick. She was bedridden for much of a year. When she recovered, my father said, “Let’s get married.” And they did, and she never did theater again. Her mother wanted to be an actress too, but that was very frowned upon in my grandmother’s day. Being an actress was akin to being a streetwalker.
PLAYBOY: So you have acting in your DNA?
COLBERT: I do. My mother always loved acting and taught us as kids how to do falls.
COLBERT: Right. She would be in the kitchen and she’d suddenly just faint in a swoon, put a hand on her forehead and fall backward like this [demonstrates a melodramatic swoon], like Cleopatra learning of the loss of Antony or something. She would teach us to do the roll-down so you wouldn’t hurt yourself as you fell. “Remember, it’s ankle, knee, hip, chest, arm, head.” We all learned how to do the falls. And we’d fall all over the house, all the time, and my mom was fine with it. I guess that love for all things theatrical just rubbed off on me. Also, I met my wife at the theater because of my mom.
PLAYBOY: How so?
COLBERT: She had an extra ticket to the Spoleto Festival in Charleston. She asked if I wanted to go, and I said sure. I walked into the theater, and there across the lobby was my wife. I thought, Oh, wow, there’s my wife.
PLAYBOY: You knew immediately?
COLBERT: There was never a doubt in my mind.
PLAYBOY: Did you talk to her first, or did she talk to you?
COLBERT: [Laughs] That’s a two-hour story, I’m afraid. It really is. People who have heard the whole story—and it’s not a bad story; it’s a good story—will later say to Evie, “Stephen told me the story of how you guys met.” And Evie will go, “I’m so sorry.” I can’t start it and leave out any details, because to me it’s somewhat miraculous that we’re married. Let’s just say I met her at a theater and leave it at that.
PLAYBOY: Didn’t she know Jon Stewart before you did?
COLBERT: She did. She was an actress living in New York, on the Lower East Side in Alphabet City. Jon was a young guy trying to do comedy in New York. A friend of Evie’s, her roommate, dated Jon’s roommate. Or something like that. So Jon ran in her social circle. It was this gang of people who hung out, some of whom came to New York to be actors, some of whom came to do architecture. They were all University of Virginia people. Some just came to New York to be part of the go-go 1980s. It was very Bright Lights, Big City.
PLAYBOY: Was there lots of cocaine and recreational sex?
COLBERT: [Laughs] I don’t know what they were doing. Jon just remembers the world not being enough for these people. Evie remembers Jon being a quiet guy. He was the one nursing a beer in the corner. And not funny. He was not the funny one. A nice enough guy, but his friend was the funny one. When Jon got the gig on The Daily Show years ago, Evie was like, “Jon Stewart? He’s not funny.” [laughs] She likes to lord that over me. “Oh, I knew him long before Stephen did.”
PLAYBOY: Is it true you met Stewart for the first time while asking him a question at a press conference?
COLBERT: Yeah, that was it. I’d been doing The Daily Show when Craig Kilborn was hosting. I heard they were doing a press conference to announce that Jon was the new host, and I said, “Isn’t that the sort of thing we should be covering?” So I went, sat down in the audience and raised my hand when they opened it up to questions. I was like, “Stephen Colbert, Daily Show.” Oh God, how did I phrase it? “Does this announcement have any effect on the prospects of me getting the hosting job?” Jon looked at Doug Herzog, who was the network president at the time and is again, and said, “You said he wasn’t funny.”
PLAYBOY: Are you and Stewart friends or just friendly?
COLBERT: We’re actually friends.
PLAYBOY: When it’s just the two of you, do you talk about politics?
COLBERT: Not politics specifically, but we’ll talk about the news. We also talk about our families. We talk about anything friends talk about. That’s grown over the years. I’m an ardent admirer of his. I would say the thing that has kept me from being as good a friend to Jon as I would like is just that I am such a fan. I am gobsmacked by his abilities. But that being said, we go out to dinner, and we sometimes pick up the phone just to say, “How are you?” Or, “Do you mind if I tell you how I am? I had a shitty week.”
PLAYBOY: It can be shitty sometimes?
COLBERT: Rarely, but yeah, it happens. That’s another reason not to be tied to the news cycle. It’s damned depressing. I have no interest in behaving or thinking cynically. But it’s an easy trap to be cynical about anything, certainly when you’re talking about politics or the media.
PLAYBOY: Doesn’t comedy require a little cynicism?
COLBERT: Not really. I believe that people, more often than not, act with the best possible intentions. And when they don’t, that’s funny to me. That’s why comedy ends up seeming cynical, because you’re talking about the gap between what people say and what they do. You seem cynical because you’re always talking about that selfish behavior that’s dressed up as altruism. It doesn’t mean there isn’t altruism. It just means that it’s harder to make jokes about altruism.
PLAYBOY: There have been quite a few books written about you.
COLBERT: I heard that that exists.
PLAYBOY: There’s America According to Colbert, The Stewart/Colbert Effect, Colbert’s America: Satire and Democracy. The list goes on and on.
COLBERT: It’s all poison to me.
PLAYBOY: Poison? How is it poison?
COLBERT: Other people’s deconstruction of your motivations doesn’t help you do what you do. You can’t swallow and think about swallowing at the same time.
PLAYBOY: You don’t think about why a joke works or doesn’t work?
COLBERT: I do sometimes. Comedians dissect jokes all the time. Comedians are beautiful structuralists. But ultimately it’s an athletic endeavor. You have to be able to just hit the backhand. You can’t think about all the pieces of it. You can’t think about your swing. You just have to do it. Reading someone else’s deconstruction of what I do, all it does is put me in my head. On nights when the show goes particularly well, I am not aware of its fluidity. A lot of nights I’m just worried that I’m not going to be as good as the script in front of me.
PLAYBOY: You have more faith in the script than your own abilities?
COLBERT: There’s a great book called The Lyre of Orpheus by Robertson Davies, a Canadian writer. In it someone has written a symphony. It’s part of her doctoral thesis, and she brings it to a professor, who says, “Okay, I’ll let you know what I think.” He’s asked, “Don’t you want to hear it?”—there’s an orchestra at this school—and the professor says, “No. All an orchestra can do is get the notes wrong. I’ll play it perfectly in my head.” I understand what that means. When I look at a script for one of our shows, I’m playing it perfectly in my head. All I can do is fuck it up.
PLAYBOY: You recently extended your contract with Comedy Central through the end of 2014. Is it exhausting to think about doing The Colbert Report for another two years?
COLBERT: I try not to think about it in terms of years. You can’t do 161 shows. It can’t be done. All I can do is today and tomorrow and have some idea of what we’re doing next week. That’s all I can worry about. I have a script for today, I have probably half a script for tomorrow, and that’s as far down the road as I ever look. I know the mechanism of my show, and I know how it works. There’s a joy in that.
PLAYBOY: You’ve called the process of making The Colbert Report “the joy machine.”
COLBERT: It still feels that way. I have no fear of doing the show. I have no exhaustion in doing the show. I have no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow. I can’t predict what we’ll be trying to make jokes about in the next six months. I don’t know what the next super PAC game will be for us or who will win the election. You can’t plan for any of that. If I thought I knew what was going to happen, it wouldn’t be worth doing. The challenge is how joyfully, with what sense of fun and adventure and playfulness, we will greet it. We don’t have to look for what the next thing will be. If experience is any judge, it’ll come flowing toward us like a river.