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Published on October 5th, 2008 | by Sharilyn Johnson

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Stephen Colbert at the New Yorker Festival

Putting Stephen Colbert in a venue that only holds 450 people is a pretty sure way to guarantee a sold-out New Yorker Festival show. Not only were the tickets snapped up within an hour of the on-sale time, but droves of people waited a few hours at the Festival’s headquarters the day before the show to score one of 40 additional tickets. And the last ditch standby line? That began 4 hours before the show.

There’s nothing I love more than discussing comedy. And when I learned that one of my favourite comedians was doing exactly that, in such intimate surroundings, I didn’t hesitate to make the trip (I suspect I’m the only attendee who required a passport in order to get there). Hell, I’ve waited patiently for an event like this. It’s not that I haven’t seen Stephen in person before, just not under these exact circumstances.

Back in April, he was a part of the “Distinguished Speakers Series” at the University of Buffalo. In a venue that held thousands, he performed largely in-character, doing bits that would find themselves in subsequent Colbert Report episodes. The q&a was short and unsatisfying, unlikely providing anyone in attendance much insight into what makes the man tick. And I found that the level of intimacy, having been to a few Report tapings with only 106 other people in the audience with me, left much to be desired.

Until now, my only other experience witnessing Stephen speak in person about his work was as part of a Daily Show panel at Just For Laughs in Montreal back in 2005. While fantastic, the focus was split 5 ways, and the Colbert Report had yet to be broadcast.

On this night, Stephen was accompanied by his wife Evie, who succeeded in making me feel fat and dumpy before she’d even fully emerged from their Towncar (she’s stunning, is what I’m tryin’ to say). A smattering of applause followed them from the car to the door, suddenly making the absence of a red carpet feel like a tragic oversight.

Their driver, and then the security guard, frantically waved down Stephen before he tried to go inside (“sir! sir!”). He had left his laminate on the seat of the car! Crisis averted! He surely never would have gotten in without it!

Ariel Levy served as moderator, a wise choice by the New Yorker. She’s been a guest on the Report before, an experience she told us was only positive. She claimed that after their exchange, Stephen leaned over and said “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I was only kidding!”. Stephen remembers it differently — something about her having a hot bod. “That might have been my character. And maybe not out loud.”

She proved to be quite educated about the show, avoiding the obvious questions and even asking one that produced a story fans have never been told publicly: How did he and Jon Stewart meet?

Stephen had already been a correspondent under the Craig Kilborn regime for a few years, when Jon was hired as the new host. Comedy Central held a press conference to announce it and to show Jon off to the media. Stephen was in the TDS offices, and thought “hey, shouldn’t we be covering this press conference?”. So he grabbed a camera guy and a mic and headed down there. He acted like a real reporter, asking Jon questions starting with “yes, Jon, Stephen Colbert from the Daily Show….” One of the questions was “Stephen Colbert, Daily Show. I was told that I was in the running for the hosting job.” Without missing a beat, Jon turned to the president of Comedy Central and stage-whispered “you told me he wasn’t funny”.

The rest is fake news history.

As is to be expected, many of his answers were word-for-word repeats of those given in his fantastic interviews with Terry Gross, Charlie Rose, and his show’s own warmup guy Pete Dominic. Classic quotes, yes, but I’ll refrain from rehashing those, because every other blog post I’ve seen re: this event has been doing exactly that (but by all means experience those interviews if you haven’t before).

Here are the “new’ moments that stuck out for me:

“It’s not my nature to be a jerk, but I enjoy it.” It’s embarrassment that typically keeps us from behaving like a jerk, and it’s his failure to be embarrassed that helps him do much of what he does.

“I don’t care what they think of me, but I care about hurting their feelings.”

“I did not intend to do this character in my own name.”; “I bet my character is on a no-fly list.”

After watching a clip of Strangers With Candy: “I haven’t seen that in maybe 10 years.”

“I really like playing status games.” The difference between Noblet and “Stephen” is that Noblet knows he’s a fraud, “knows he knows nothing”. Meanwhile, “Stephen” simply lives an unexamined life.

The show keeps an aggregate biography on the character, but it doesn’t include any backstory that hasn’t been reflected on the show. It only contains facts like him being a Dartmouth grad.

When ABC interviewed him for a job on Good Morning America, he took his daughter Madeline with him, who was about a year old at the time. She went over to the corner of the office and “de-potted plants the whole time.” He still got the gig.

Stephen isn’t teaching Sunday School this year, but hopes to again next year when his son John goes through Catechism.

When asked if he’s funny as a Sunday School teacher, he claimed the kids are funnier. “They immediately ask questions that you thought were so deep in college.” (Sorry ladies, no King of Glory dance!)

TCR will do just fine for material if Obama is elected. “I’ve maybe said Bush’s name three times in the past nine months”.

On the White House Correspondents Dinner:

Whether he was afraid of what he’d say: “I was afraid of what I might say. My character was having a great time.”

When his pre-taped segment was airing, he looked over at Helen Thomas to see if she was enjoying it. Bush was staring right at him, “doing his best Josh Brolin.”

He read one positive and one negative review of the speech, and then asked his wife to put all the other clippings away. “I might as well go listen to a focus group” for all the help reading reviews would do.

“I like jokes. It’s not helpful for me to think about what I do as crusading.”

Stephen does things like that with “joy, not malice,” and hopefully the audience would perceive it.

On (er, under) Jane Fonda:

An audience question about Jane Fonda elicited the standard background story about the Cooking With Feminists segment (where Fonda kissed him), and then the lap-sitting incident (where Fonda… uh, did more than that).

After Fonda-on-Colbert Action Part II, the crew went out and purchased flowers for Stephen to take home before the taping had even ended.

When he arrived home and offered them to Evie, the initial conversation went something like:

“What happened?”

“Well, Jane Fonda —”

“I don’t want them!!”

When Evie finally watched the show, she was amused by Stephen’s overt discomfort. And all was well.

Wait, not so fast! Stephen’s slightly self-deprecating explanation of his wife’s reaction wasn’t sitting right with Mrs. Colbert!

After a short verbal sparring match between Stephen and his wife, seated just a few seats down from me, Evie herself finally spilled the truth about what she really said about that segment:

“I said ‘don’t you EVER let ANYONE take over your show like that!’”

(Hate to break it to ya Stephen, but it looks like it just happened again. Score one for Evie.)

The video of this exchange had better make it onto the New Yorker Festival’s website soon. No amount of transcription could possibly do it justice.

On his Presidential campaign:

“The game just unfolded itself.”

He truly was disappointed when he found out he wasn’t going to be allowed on the ticket, and from his demeanor when recounting the story it seems he’s still feeling a little dejected. But “they [the DNC] backed the right horse, which is reality.”

The Report is currently taping 13 weeks straight without a break until after the election. This elicited cheers from many fans, and looks of utter shock and horror from those of us who have even a vague sense of what it takes to put that show together.

He says the best part of working on his show is his coworkers. It’s a joy machine. “Unless we have some joy in what we’re doing every day, it’s just a machine,” he says.

“But when it’s joyful, there’s no better feeling.”

We feel the same way, Stephen.

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About the Author

Called "one of the city’s most discriminating comedy critics” by NOW Magazine, Sharilyn has been covering comedy since 1998. She served as the comedy reporter for Winnipeg's Uptown Magazine for five years, and was the host of the radio show Laugh Tracks for three seasons. Her work has also appeared in the Toronto Star, the Winnipeg Free Press, The Apiary, and on CBC Radio's national comedy program LOL.


16 Responses to Stephen Colbert at the New Yorker Festival

  1. maryelle says:

    Thanks, that was really interesting! I had not heard the story of that first “press conference.” Looking forward to the pictures!

  2. Chica says:

    Why do they not film these things and sell them on iTunes or something? Or start a show like Inside the Actors’ Studio for comics? I wanna see!!!!!, is my basic point…

  3. Jessica says:

    Absolutely wonderful, every bit of it.

    13 weeks? That’s insane!

    Evie seems like a little spitfire! ;)

  4. Caroline M. says:

    That sounds like so much fun! Thanks for the lovely write-up!

    Ha, I love the Josh Brolin comment!

    The look on Stephen’s face in the third picture is hilarious :) Do you know what was going on there?

    I do have to admit, though, that I find it a bit weird that you call Stephen’s wife by her nickname, and not her full name. It just seems a little too ‘personal’ if that makes any sense.

  5. Charity says:

    Why SHOULDN’T Stephen be on the Actors’ Studio? It’s acting! And writing! And improv! I would argue it’s HARDER than just showing up for a movie and saying your lines!

  6. @ Caroline – I believe in the third picture he’s listening to an audience member asking a question.

    In regards to your problem with the name “Evie”, not once during the evening did either Stephen or the moderator say “Evelyn”. She was consistently referred to as “Evie”, and since she was sitting right there, I’m quite positive she was okay with it. I’m simply reporting on the evening, not trying to create a deep personal connection to his wife. I’m sorry if you find that “weird”.

  7. meowhouse says:

    Caroline: just FYI, nobody calls Evie “Evelyn.” Or did you mean why didn’t the author refer to her as Mrs. Colbert? Well I guess because nobody else at the event did.

    I believe she has been quoted as saying that when people call her “Evelyn” she thinks they’re talking to someone else (I think that’s her own mother’s name too?) and when people call her “Mrs. Colbert” she feels like Stephen’s mother.

    She goes by Evie, is all. :-)

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  9. Caroline M. says:

    @backoftheroom that’s so cute…! I couldn’t quite tell if he was doing a slightly ‘wtf’ face or being really attentive!

    @botr & meowhouse I just find it a bit unusual in general when someone uses the nickname of the SO of someone with a public profile such as Stephen’s. I was unaware of that quote she’d made about the ‘Evelyn’ thing. If she does truly go by ‘Evie’ everywhere and literally everyone calls her that, then of course that’s a different story! I’d have no problem with that! Since I’ve only seen/heard Stephen/Amy/Paul etc refer to her as ‘Evie’ (and fans, but…you know how fans are and giving/using nicknames), I hadn’t been able to judge that or not, and just called her Evelyn out of respect…:)

    As for her sitting right there, I’m not sure if that would have made much of a difference–if someone other than family/friends called me ‘Linny,’ and I was at an event such as that, with my husband up on stage–while it would bother me immensely, I wouldn’t pipe up and ask the moderator to stop calling me that. I wouldn’t want to make a big thing about that and detract from my husband, nor embarrass the moderator. That’s just me, though! She probably would have been able to make a great joke out of it or something, if it bothered her…;)

    This definitely isn’t an attack on you or anything :) I suppose I should have made my original statement more general like I’d really intended (as this isn’t the first time I’ve seen fans refer to her as ‘Evie’), and not directly aimed at you.

    I didn’t mean for this to be such a big deal! Apologies.

  10. Jane Goody says:

    I follow your posts for a long time and should tell that your posts always prove to be of a high value and quality for readers.

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  12. Donna says:

    This reveals more of the REAL Stephen. He’s not the jerk many think he is…he’s just using his God given talent as an actor, and having a ball with the character who bears his name.

  13. Very well-said, Donna!

  14. Donna LeVinne says:

    Thank you, Sharilyn. As a freelance writer, Stephen is one person I would love to interview myself!

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