Backstage with Colbert

A number of you have asked what it’s like to do Colbert, does he ever talk to you as his real self offstage, etc. The answer is it was unbelievably fun (I’ve said to a few people it was the most fun I can imagine having in 5 minutes, which invariably leads people to offer other options they think would be better...). The man is a comic genius, and the “real” Stephen also seems like a very decent person.

Colbert did come back to the green room before the show to say a brief hello and offer two cents of advice. “I play a character,” he said. “That character is an idiot. You need to disabuse him of his ignorance. Just approach it like that and have fun.” Talent producer Emily Lazar offered similar counsel. Whatever he throws at you, she said, just come back and explain to “Stephen” why he’s not seeing things right, and make your case.

One of the funniest parts of the experience was off-air . A few minutes before the taping started, a staffer came by to give a sense of what the writers had brainstormed as potential lines of “questioning” Colbert might take. He might not use these at all, she said (and Colbert didn’t that night – it was all basically improvisational riffs). The idea is to have you not be totally blindsided by the wackiness that might be coming.

Here are the things I recall from what they said he might ask about The Tyranny of Dead Ideas. These totally cracked us up in the green room.

-Why should we get rid of the old ideas, when the new ones suck?

-Even if the old ideas don’t work anymore, shouldn’t we continue them out of respect for tradition?

-You say the economy is creating too many of the “undeserving rich.” But isn’t that the American Dream – to be rich and useless?

-What about undead ideas?

When they put me at the interview desk on the set just before my segment started, I glanced over at Stephen at his anchor desk to have a look. Just before the camera went on he looked over at me and snapped deadpan, “The free ride is over, Miller.” He’s just really funny.

I took some improv classes while in law school in the mid 1980s and recall what they stressed (at Chicago City Limits in New York) about the importance of listening and then making a choice and committing to it. Colbert does this with such intensity and at such a peerless comic level that it was really exciting to watch him work up close – even if that meant watching him reckon instantaneously how to create some very funny moments at my expense!


Blogger Lance said...

I too was hoping that you would write about this. I thought you handled yourself well, and yes, Colbert is a comic genius and, for his courageous set at that White
House correspondent's dinner a few years ago, one of the few people who had anything to do with the Bush administration (including, most especially, the MSM and Congress) who can hold his head up high.

January 12, 2009 at 10:09 AM  
Blogger Bill Karwin said...

I've also been exposed to improv and I think it's great training. One thing it teaches us is to listen better to people around us. I think if more people did this, our country would be a better place.

I work in Silicon Valley, and sometimes it seems people there are practically compelled to interrupt and talk across one another. It gets worse every year.

January 12, 2009 at 10:56 AM  
Blogger Randy G said...

I wouldn't doubt that the primary emotion that comes to mind about being on Colbert was that it was "unbelievably fun." While you're so used to and comfortable with your regular spots in the various media, this was an experience of a whole different kind for you, even if it was only 5 minutes on air and your time in the green room. At that point, it probably wasn't about selling your book, per se. I felt the same way throughout my recent experience being on Jeopardy!, which was certainly was a new type of experience. While it's happening, it isn't about the money or wondering about how it's going to look when the show airs. Being a part of the process was "unbelievably fun."

A couple of things to add, regarding improv, to (1) the importance of listening and (2) making a choice/committing, are (3) over time, learning what works and what doesn't, so you're not always needing to "reinvent the wheel" or finding yourself "beating dead horses", and (4) having a level of trust with those you're interacting with. Having done it all, I think taking improv or acting or stand-up comedy classes to sharpen skills for other professional ventures works in more fundamental and beneficial ways than taking, say, a public speaking class does. And if you're committed, they can be incredibly fun too.

And maybe, Matt, adding a little humor to your routine might be worth considering as well.

January 12, 2009 at 3:40 PM  
Blogger Randy G said...

BTW, here's a link to Matt's segment on Colbert: http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/215401/january-06-2009/matt-miller

January 12, 2009 at 3:56 PM  

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