One of the most controversial political attack ads of the year didn’t originate with an actual candidate or political party. It came from Stephen Colbert. Or more accurately, “Stephen Colbert,” his satirical alter ego. The ad was funded by Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, a super PAC formed by Colbert as part of his “exploratory committee to lay the groundwork for [his] possible candidacy for president of the United States of South Carolina.” The super PAC ad suggested, in no uncertain terms, that presidential hopeful Mitt Romney might be a serial killer. “He’s Mitt the Ripper,” the voice-over declared. When asked about the ads by George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s This Week, Colbert (or “Colbert”) claimed ignorance. “I had nothing to do with that ad,” he said. Technically he was following to the letter the rules of super PACs, which are allowed, thanks to a Supreme Court ruling, to raise unlimited funds for attack ads without being directly connected to a campaign or candidate.
“I don’t know if Mitt Romney is a serial killer,” he told Stephanopoulos. “That’s a question he’s going to have to answer.… I do not want any untrue ads on the air that could in any way be traced back to me.”
It was brilliant political satire—earning Colbert a prestigious Peabody Award, his second—that crossed into the realm of performance art. Colbert mocked the system from within, using himself as a comedic straw man. Although Colbert’s main gig is behind a desk as host of Comedy Central’s faux pundit news show The Colbert Report, it wasn’t the first time he’d blurred the line between satirist and subject. Colbert has mocked President George W. Bush to his face at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, testified before the House Subcommittee on Immigration (where he called for Americans “to stop eating fruits and vegetables”) and co-hosted with The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart a political rally on the National Mall that attracted an estimated 215,000 participants.
Born in Washington, D.C. and raised in Charleston, South Carolina, Colbert was the youngest of 11 kids. He had a happy childhood, at least for the first decade of his life. But in 1974, when he was 10 years old, his father, Dr. James Colbert, and his two brothers closest to him in age—Peter, 15, and Paul, 18—were killed in an airliner crash. Colbert found solace in science fiction and acting. He ended up in Chicago, studying theater at Northwestern University and joining the Second City comedy theater. He was hired as a correspondent and writer by The Daily Show in 1997, where he stayed for nine years before the network offered him The Colbert Report. Within a year, Colbert was averaging 1.5 million viewers a night. In April he was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World.
The 48-year-old comedian has two best-selling books, I Am America (and So Can You!) and the children’s book I Am a Pole (and So Can You!), and a new book, America Again: Re-Becoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t. He enjoys a quiet home life in Montclair, New Jersey with his wife, Evelyn—an actress he met in 1990—and their three children, Madeline, Peter and John.
We sent writer Eric Spitznagel, who last interviewed Charlie Sheen for PLAYBOY, to talk with Colbert. He reports: “I met Colbert at his studio office in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. I’d actually met him before, back in 1992, when I was a newly minted box-office employee at Second City in Chicago and he was in his final months performing with the main-stage cast. As we talked, Colbert sat behind his desk, his most recent Peabody in front of him, and outside the open window behind him an American flag fluttered in the breeze, perfectly positioned over his right shoulder in a way even his fictional doppelgänger couldn’t hope to choreograph.”
PLAYBOY: When people meet you for the first time, which version do they want, Stephen Colbert or “Stephen Colbert”?
COLBERT: I think they always want to meet the guy who’s going to show up and tell jokes. But if I’m asked to do something that isn’t specifically a performance, then I have to be very specific that he’s never going to show up.
PLAYBOY: “He” being the other Stephen?
COLBERT: That’s right. If I’m doing a talk show or an interview like this, or pretty much anything where I can’t control the context, I’m loath to do the character.
COLBERT: Because outside the context of the show, you have to be okay with the clang of him against reality.
PLAYBOY: But isn’t that what makes him funny?
COLBERT: Yeah, but that doesn’t always work in a different context. We create our own reality on the show. I’m in a cocoon of the character’s creation. Even within that reality, he’s in a cocoon. Unless I’m doing something like the Correspondents’ Dinner, testifying before Congress, doing the rally or something where I’m purposively injecting myself into a story, there’s no benefit to pushing him up against reality. While I’m an improviser and enjoy discovery, the show follows a script. I have a pretty good idea what’s going to happen. It’s a very crafted, controlled environment.
PLAYBOY: You can’t control what happens with the guests, can you? They’re not following a script.
COLBERT: No, but they’ve all been warned. I tell everybody the same thing: “I do the show in character, and he’s an idiot.”
PLAYBOY: Is that still necessary? Do people come on The Colbert Report and not know what to expect?
COLBERT: It’s usually someone from another country or from a rigorous academic discipline who doesn’t have a lot of time for TV. Mostly I tell them because it’s a ritual for me. I have to remind myself what I’m about to do, because I rarely hit it as hard as I used to.
PLAYBOY: Why not?
COLBERT: It’s hard to remember. Often I’m just very interested in what my guests have to say. You have to be vigilant to stay ignorant.
PLAYBOY: Your guests have to be willing to play along too.
COLBERT: They do, yes. That’s what I tell them before the show. I tell them, “He’s willfully ignorant of what you know and care about. Honestly disabuse him of his ignorance and we’ll have a good time.” The important thing in that sentence is [speaks slowly] “honestly disabuse him of his ignorance.” Actually tell him why he’s wrong. Hopefully that makes it easier for the guest. All they have to do, as my guest producer Emily Lazar says, is talk to him as though he’s a harmless drunk at the next bar stool.
PLAYBOY: That can still be intimidating. You’re essentially asking them to walk into an argument.
COLBERT: Yeah, but it’s an argument with an idiot. Some people perceive me as an assassin or at least someone who can slip under your guard with a knife. But if you watch what I do, that’s almost never the case. I’m just trying to keep the balloon in the air. It rarely turns into anything combative. It’s mostly just silly, or it’s my character expressing his ignorance on a difficult or not-at-all difficult subject. It’s an opportunity to knock down common ignorances. And I would pray that guests do that.
PLAYBOY: Democratic Virginia congressman Jim Moran compared doing your show to “consensual rape.” Does that seem about right?
COLBERT: I wouldn’t put that on my business card, nor would I make it my campaign slogan if I were Jim Moran. I suppose the consensual part was him being unbelievably playful. He was up for anything, even after I called him a poor man’s Ted Kennedy.
PLAYBOY: If people think you’re an assassin or that being on the show is like rape, why do they do it? What’s the benefit for them?
COLBERT: I don’t know. Maybe they have a book to sell. I hope that perception is starting to change. I think politicians are the only ones who are wary about us. That’s why we get almost no conservatives anymore. Even conservative pundits are hard to come by, which is too bad.