The character of Stephen Colbert contains exactly 13.4 percent of the real Stephen Colbert.
At least that’s what Stephen Colbert — the real, Emmy-winning, Second City-bred actor-comedian — told the audience at Thursday night’s New York Comedy Festival panel discussion featuring him and his writers on The Colbert Report. Fans crowded into Town Hall in New York City to hear the man behind the political satirist and one-time presidential nominee share how the writing team works to produce a topical show every night, and how he separates his character from himself.
“He’s very dumb, and it’s an aggressive dumbness,” Colbert said. “You have to drive backwards at every joke.”
Flanked on both sides by 17 members of his writing team on stage, Colbert took questions from the audience, with many asking why only one writer on stage — Meredith Scardino — was female. Scardino responded by asking how the fan knew she was a woman, but Colbert took the serious route. “I don’t know why. We don’t go out there and say, ‘Give me men!’… I don’t look at the name on the packet when I first read it, because I just want to see what it is, I’m just trying to see if it’s making me laugh,” he said, explaining how he went about hiring new writers. “I don’t get the stats on that. It’d be wonderful to have a diverse writing staff, and I’m very lucky to have this staff.”
The rest of the night saw the panel unveiling anecdotes about their pitching meetings, how they approach guests, and what happens when Colbert breaks character. Below, we’ve picked out ten gems the team revealed:
1. Generating ideas every day takes procrastination, partnership, and panic in the final moments before the show’s taping. Usually, the writers said, they consume as many headlines as possible and bounce ideas off each other during pitching meetings in the morning. They partner up, with one writer keeping track of possible jokes. Some said they tend to let their minds wander while coming up with a segment, until the last hour before rehearsal forces them to crank something out. As for fighting for ideas during the initial meeting? “It can be a harrowing two hours or it can be a blast,” said writer Barry Julien. “It can be smooth as glass or like crapping a pineapple.”
2. Colbert and his team used to write the segment, “The Word,” in a day, sometimes not getting around to writing it until 3 p.m., just before the show began. “I would say, ‘Okay, what’s on our mind?’ and we would just talk for a while, and someone would start typing,” Colbert said. “Sometimes we would write the whole ‘Word’ in the rewrite before the show. It was no way to live your life.”
3. Entire day’s work. “We have to do it again immediately the next day, which was the great curse and blessing of the show,” he said. “You got the blessing of your successes aren’t the greatest, and your failures aren’t the worst. That’s it. You can’t bulls–t too much, you gotta keep pushing on.”
4. The magic number: 13.4. After a 13-year-old boy asked Colbert how much of his character reflects the real Stephen Colbert, the comedian paused and replied, “I sometimes agree with my character, and it’s really important that you don’t know when that is. So I don’t know… 13.4 percent?” We’ll take it.
5. The Colbert Show draws the line with certain topics. “We get really dark when we write comedy day in and day out,” Julien said, noting that jokes at the expense of victims, such as rape, would never make it on air. “It becomes very mechanistic after a while — you know the rhythm and the mechanics of the joke, and you can write a joke about anything,” Colbert said. “We would never do a joke about someone else’s tragedy, but what we may do is how that tragedy is covered by the actual press.”
6. Maurice Sendak is one of the few guests who successfully took down the character of Stephen Colbert. The writers agreed that the Where the Wild Things Are author stumped the character in their multi-part interview (see video above). When Colbert called Sendak on the phone to talk about the show, Sendak took a long time figuring out the mechanics of the call. “It was this really really long process of him saying, ‘Which button?’” Colbert recalled, laughing. “It goes on and on and he goes, ‘I’m sorry.’ I said, ‘No, take your time.’ And he goes, ‘I’m 83. Death looms.’… I got off the phone with him 20 minutes later and I said, ‘That might be the greatest phone call I’ve ever had.”
7. Ideas are filed into the “hopper” and the “pantry.” On the show, the writers categorize every idea: If an idea has potential, it’s filed into the “hopper” category, where it can be taken and refined, while an idea that’s basically fully-formed and ready for use are placed in the “pantry.”
8. Colbert used to try to make Jon Stewart laugh as a way to prevent himself from breaking character. “We never try to generate that moment [of breaking character],” he said. “On The Daily Show, I’d be at the desk with Jon, and to keep myself from laughing, I would often see, ‘Can I make Jon laugh?’”
9. Colbert only dials down his character if he notices his guest is nervous. Otherwise, they’re usually the punchline. “I don’t want the person to have a bad time. The guy may be crazy, but they’re also my guest,” he said, but added that he’s not there to make a guest look stupid — guests often don’t realize they’re the joke, and the team never edits the interviews. “They’re not self aware enough to know where the joke lies… It’s always what I would call a fair distillation of what the question and answer was. We live by the same news rules but with totally different intentions.”
10. Colbert says he knows it’s tough to do the news, but he’ll continue to poke fun at the media. “I hosted Good Morning America for an hour. I walked out with a deep and abiding respect for those people,” Colbert said, explaining he knows his show makes jokes at the media’s expense. “It is hard to talk so fast you don’t even know what you’re reporting!”
Though Colbert spent most of the night teaching the audience about his creative process, the audience was also full of surprises. One superfan, after asking the final question, lifted her shirt and showed him a tattoo she got of his signature. “It’s not temporary,” she warned. After gaping at the ink, Colbert responded, “A thousand years from now, people will dig you up and go, ‘Who were these gods?!’”
But when the woman explained she’ll likely be getting cremated, writer Rob Dubbin leaned in and quipped, “Then it really is a temporary tattoo,” leaving the crowd roaring with laughter as the writers left the stage. Clearly, the remaining 86.6 percent of the character Stephen Colbert comes from the writers he brought with him.