Colbert: 'Re-Becoming' The Nation We Always Were
Stephen Colbert has no idea how other news pundits find time to write books. But he felt certain that his character on his Comedy Central show, The Colbert Report, needed to have another one.
"My character is based on news punditry, the masters of opinion in cable news, and they all have books," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "We don't have time to write a book and feed and wash ourselves, so something has to go out the window. And [for me] it was family, friends and hygiene for the past year."
His new book, America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren't, includes colorful 3-D photographs and explores "a new message within right-wing punditry worth talking about," Colbert says — the notion that "our greatest days are ahead of us, and we have the greatest history in the history of history, but this instant right now is completely screwed up, and we've got to save America from disaster."
Besides writing the book and doing his show, Colbert has also been busy running his superPAC, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow — which he created almost by accident, while parodying a Tim Pawlenty political ad.
Colbert has pulled other political stunts — trying to get on the presidential primary ballot in South Carolina, for example. He says he didn't want to actually influence the election's outcome, so he had a plan to bail out in case that became a real possibility: He was going to create his own political scandal.
Though his wife wasn't thrilled with the plan, Colbert says, "I wanted to, like, actually go down to South Carolina and, like, stumble around Columbia, the capital, like pantsless with a bottle of Jack Daniels and try to get arrested."
On the presidential debate in Denver (this interview was recorded Wednesday, before the debate)
"I'm hoping Mitt Romney can get his act together in this debate because as a conservative pundit, or rather, playing a conserve pundit ... it's so difficult for me right now to get behind Mitt Romney. It's incredibly frustrating as a performer who has to model behavior that is so schizophrenic and bifurcated, because it's almost an unprecedented candidacy — as far as I can tell. No one seems to like him — even the people who are behind him. There isn't a sort of monolithic point of view to base my own satire on.
"Basically, the satire of my character in relation to Mitt Romney now is, night to night, I can change my mind. I can be hopeful or in despair from night to night, because I have no point of reference for what's happening now. Even McCain in 2008, post-Lehman Brothers, might have seemed like a bit of a winged duck, but people still liked him. People were still behind him.
"You get a feeling that everybody of the sort that I'm modeling really has one foot out of the boat right now, and I really I hope Mitt — I mean listen, I have my own political views, but as a performer I hope he does something positive tonight so that there's something for me to rally behind, because that's what my character wants to do. ... He wants to have a candidate that he can champion, and that just doesn't exist in Mitt Romney right now. He's just a walking wound."
On creating his superPAC
"The whole thing came about by accident. We were just trying to do a parody ad of a Tim Pawlenty ad, and I couldn't figure out how to end it. And then I said, 'Well how does his ad end?' And his ad ended with just a simple card on the screen that said 'LibertyPAC.com' — whatever his political action committee was. And I said, 'OK, just put a ColbertPAC.com at the end, and one person on the staff said, 'Do you want me to buy that URL?' And I said, 'Yeah, yeah — we might want to use that later.'
"And then the network called and said, 'Are you really going to get a PAC?' And I said, 'Why do you ask?' And they said, 'Because if you actually get a PAC, that could be trouble.' And I said, 'Well then, I'm definitely going to do it.' Because I like the idea of, why is it trouble? Everybody can do it, why can't I do it? ... We'd done jokes on Citizens United for about a year, and then I realized, 'Oh, well, this is what the whole year is about. It's really about this whole new flush of cash into our political system that is in large part untraceable or traceable only after the fact when it's too late, after the primaries, after the election is over. And I said, 'OK, well let's just try to do it'...
"We really played the game hard up through the South Carolina primary, when Jon Stewart took over my superPAC, because I announced my plans to form an exploratory committee about whether or not I should run for president, to illustrate how easy it is to give money to somebody else and really have control over what happens. Ostensibly it's no longer in your control, but you've given it to your best friend, who actually rides to work with you this morning, and you share a building."
On the separation of church and state
"We have this idea in our minds that there's this separation of church and state in America, which I think is a good thing. And we extend that to our politics — not just church and state, but it's also there's a separation of religion and politics. But of course there isn't. Every president says, 'God bless America' at the end of the State of Union address. And everybody, every candidate is quoting some form of the Old and the New Testament in speeches to try and make their own moral points.
"But we don't think of ... a preacher or priest or rabbi or imam, for that matter, endorsing from the pulpit. And I was fascinated by the idea that these guys were going to force the issue, because they've done this for five years — this isn't the first year they've done it. Now they're videotaping it and sending it to the IRS, to just try to poke the hornet's nest of the IRS and say, 'Please take us to court.' Because they're trying to get this forced into a court case, because they think they can win.
"And I, after some thought and talking about it with my writers, I think they're right. ... I think they should be able to endorse from the pulpit. Now whether or not they should get tax-exempt status is another thing, because that is the rest of us subsidizing their political speech. ...
"I think they should be able to do it, but I also think that it's a very dangerous thing to do — not just for our politics, but it's also dangerous for the faith of people who are exercising that right. Because they seem to think that it's a one-way membrane — that they'll get religion into our politics. But they're ignoring the fact that politics will come right back through that gate onto our religion.
"And if you actually have a political party that is this religion, or a political party that is that religion, I think that's a short road to the kind of religious civil war — whether or not it's actually an armed war — but religious civil war that we fled in Europe. America has avoided that. And I think our politics are so horrible these days. ... Why anyone would want that horrible tar on something as fragile as faith is beyond me."
On preparing his guests for interviews on The Colbert Report
"It's very individual. You don't know who is going to be comfortable dealing with me as a character. And I'm sure it can be a difficult booking at times, because as much as I tell people before the show begins that, 'Hey ... I do the show in character, and he's an idiot, and he's willfully ignorant of what you know and care about. Please just honestly disabuse me of my ignorance. Don't let me put words in your mouth, and we'll have a great time out there.' That's easy to say and easy to hear. But it's another thing when you actually get out there, and I am aggressively dumb at you. ... And I'm very grateful for anyone who would come into that odd arena — especially someone who doesn't know the show or isn't a fan of the show.
"And so I say that to every guest so they won't feel surprised — I'm not an assassin. ... When the show first started, I thought, 'I got my knife sharpened and I'm gonna get this ...' And then I thought, 'Why are you gonna get this guy? This guy's your guest. Be welcoming to this person, and then maybe you'll discover something that you couldn't possibly invent.' And it has been absolutely the truth.
"And so I look at every guest as a guest — they're a guest in my home, and I am grateful that they would come here. And I hope people have a good time, and if they don't, it's my fault, or rather, it's my responsibility. Because if I actually get into an aggressive discussion with a guest about something ... and I'm expressing my disagreement satirically, and if they don't enjoy that, that's OK, because I have a responsibility for what I'm saying.
"But I actually do want people to have a good time. Like even after the correspondents dinner six years ago, which was a long time ago now, I wrote President Bush and said, 'I hope you enjoyed it. I hope there's some part of it you enjoyed, because it was an honor to do the show for you, and I really did want everyone to laugh.' "
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is Stephen Colbert, and it's great to have him back on our show. With the help of his program, "The Colbert Report," and Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show," where Colbert used to be a correspondent, it's possible to end even the worst day laughing. Colbert has a new book, called "America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren't."
Stephen Colbert, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's so much fun to have you back. Thank you for coming.
STEPHEN COLBERT: Thank you, it's great to be here.
GROSS: So let's start with the new book. How do you have time to write a book?
COLBERT: We don't. We don't have time to write a book and feed and wash ourselves.
COLBERT: So we just - something has to go out the window, and it was family, friends and hygiene for the past year. Well, you know, we started - you know, we started writing it about a year ago, and...
GROSS: When you say we, you and the writers for the show?
COLBERT: Oh me and the writers, yeah, yeah. I mean, this is - my name is on it, and I do take all the credit, but...
GROSS: And all the photos.
COLBERT: And all the photos, but I have a staff of 12 writers, and I have an editorial staff, and we did it together along with my graphics department and my production department. It really is produced like - we think of it as a show, or actually we think of it as 25 shows, because it's the equivalent work of doing an extra 25 shows a year, if you just break down to like how many jokes, how many words, that sort of thing.
And we just worked every weekend and worked a couple nights a week, off and on for the first six months, and then solidly for six months and didn't take any weekends - didn't take any time off, basically, from Christmas until mid-summer.
GROSS: Why in the world would you do that? It's so...
COLBERT: I don't - well, it's in keeping with the character that I would have a book. You know, like the same - my character's based on the news punditry, the masters of opinion in cable news, and they all have books. I don't know how they do it. I don't know how, you know, Hannity or O'Reilly crank out books. I mean, O'Reilly is - I think the same day my book launched, he launched "Killing Kennedy," that's his book. He did "Killing Lincoln," now it's "Killing Kennedy," I assume "Killing Garfield" is next.
COLBERT: And it's very exciting, a very exciting story, by the way.
GROSS: So do you think he went without showering for six months or a year?
COLBERT: I don't know. I just - I don't know how people do these books. The only way we could do it was just to add more time to our day. We couldn't take anything away from the show, because, you know, the show is the only reason why we're doing the books or anything. So we did - we put all the effort into the show.
Plus we were running a superPAC at the same time.
GROSS: I know.
COLBERT: And so - but we also felt there was a new message within right-wing punditry worth talking about, which was - I mean, our first book was really about, like, America is great, and I am America, and this is how you can be great like I am and America is.
But with the knocks that America has taken, you know, ever since the credit crisis of 2008, there's been this sense that you mustn't criticize America because it's perfect. But then again America is in the toilet, and we have to fix it. And so that dichotomy, that sort of paradoxical statement that, you know, our greatest days are ahead of us, and our greatest - we've got the greatest history in the history of history, but right now, this instant right now is completely screwed up, and we've got to save America from disaster.
GROSS: Or from President Obama.
COLBERT: Well yeah, it's synonymous. On the SAT test, that's one of the analogies you have to complete, you know.
COLBERT: Good is to disaster as someone is - as blank is to Obama. And so we thought, well, that's a new thing worth talking about is this strange paradox, is that, you know, America is perfect, and we must fix it.
GROSS: Yeah, so you have your health care chapter and why Obamacare has to be stopped. And there's 3-D photos of you throughout the book, illustrating...
COLBERT: Right, every chapter starts with a 3-D photo of me.
GROSS: So my favorite is the health care chapter because you are - you are wearing a doctor's coat, and do you want to describe it, or should I? You want to do it?
COLBERT: Yeah, I'm sitting on - it's a doctor's office, like sort of a maybe 1960s-looking doctor's office, and I'm in the doctor's white coat, and you see the medical posters in the background, and there's a bottle of - looks like sterile solution next to me, but if you look closer, it's actually a bottle of vodka.
And I'm on the examination table, and I'm holding up my own book as an instruction manual, and with my other hand I'm sawing off my own leg.
COLBERT: And it's also the most successful 3-D photo because it's got such wonderful depth in it. And we decided to do the 3-D photos because we thought, you know, the books are an extension of my show, and, you know, a few years ago we had to up-res the show, increase the resolution of the show to high definition. And we thought oh, well, this next book should be in high definition.
And we thought, well, what does high definition in a book mean? We thought that's ridiculous. We thought OK, it'll be in color for one thing. And then our designer, Stephen Doyle, said: Well, why don't we do it in 3-D? And we just thought that was the stupidest, stupidest idea to do a book, a political diatribe, essentially a treatise with these, sort of, very colorful, candy 3-D photos.
And we said there it is. My character would do it because 3-D movies make the most money, and so I want my book to be like Marvel's "The Avengers" of political books.
GROSS: So did you have to do anything different for 3-D poses?
COLBERT: The lighting is enormous. The, sort of, the composition of the scene, the depth. You can't use red, for the most part, when you're doing 3-D. We're doing, you know, we're doing red-blue 3-D, the old '50s 3-D like, you know, "House of Wax," Vincent Price 3-D.
COLBERT: And I saw that movie, by the way, when I was a kid. I saw "House of Wax" 3-D with Vincent Price as a child, but not in a theater where it was 3-D. And so a lot of the movie is, like, people doing paddleball straight at you, you know, or water hoses shooting straight at the lens.
COLBERT: Like there's a lot of dwelling on, like, a man walking by with a pipe on his shoulder coming straight into the camera. And I couldn't understand as a kid, like, what does this mean, this must be significant. But I didn't know it was a 3-D movie.
Anyway, so you can't use red in those - in the old red-blue 3-D because it strobes. It's got these very odd flashing and ghost effects. So, you know, there's a lot of greens, a lot of browns, a lot of yellows, stuff like that. So the color palette we learned a ton about.
And Andrew Matheson, our photographer, taught himself 3-D photography just to do this.
GROSS: So we are recording this interview on Wednesday, October 3rd, the day of the first presidential debate. So the first presidential debate will be happening in the evening of this day that we are recording. What are you going to be doing to prepare for your coverage of the first presidential debate?
COLBERT: It's extensive. I'm going to try to get home in time to watch it, for one thing, so I know what they said. And I'm hoping that Romney can get his act together in this debate, because as a conservative pundit, or rather playing a conservative pundit, I'm so - it's so difficult for me right now to get behind Mitt Romney.
It's incredibly frustrating to me as a performer, who has to model behavior that is so schizophrenic and so bifurcated because it's an almost unprecedented candidacy as far as I can tell. Nobody seems to like him, even the people who are behind him. And there isn't sort of a monolithic point of view for me to base my own satire on.
Basically the satire of my character in relation to Mitt Romney, now, is how night to night I can change my mind, and I can be hopeful or in despair from night to night, because I have - I have no point of reference for what's happening now. Even McCain in 2008, post-Lehman Brothers, you know, might have seemed like a bit of a winged duck, but people still liked him. People were still behind him.
And I really - I hope Mitt - I mean, listen, I have my own political opinions, but as a performer, I hope he does something positive so that there is something for me to rally behind, because that's what my character wants to do. He wants to get behind him. He wants to rally. He wants to have a champion that he can champion, and that just doesn't exist in Mitt Romney right now. He's just a walking wound.
GROSS: So you're going to be watching the debate, basically, in character. You're going to be watching it through the lens of your character.
COLBERT: Anything - unfortunately, anything like having to do with politics I have to sort of watch with the character sitting on my shoulder, because everything's an opportunity for - everything's an opportunity for an emotional reaction or an attempt to, like, where is my argument in this, where is my dog in this fight, how am I looking out for the American public.
GROSS: My guest is Stephen Colbert. Our interview was recorded yesterday. His new book is called "America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren't." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is Stephen Colbert, and his new book is called "America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren't," which is a great title.
COLBERT: Thank you.
GROSS: Well, this Sunday is an event called Pulpit Freedom Sunday, which you gave some coverage to earlier this week on your show. You interviewed one of the leaders. This is a Christian event where Christian ministers are being asked to violate the 1954 law that says that churches and other houses of worship, which have tax-exempt status, can't endorse or oppose political candidates.
So this event is calling on Christian ministers to defy the law and not only endorse candidates, but to tape their endorsements so that these tapes can be sent to the IRS so that this can become a test case challenging this 1954 law.
COLBERT: Yeah, it's a form of civil disobedience.
GROSS: Yeah, so you interviewed Jim Garlow, who's the senior pastor of the Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego. Why did you want to talk with him?
COLBERT: I think it's - you know, we have this idea in our mind that there's a separation of church and state in America, which I think is a good thing. And we extend that to our politics. Like it's not just church and state, but it's also there's a separation of religion and politics. But of course, there - there isn't.
You know, every president says God bless America at the end of the State of the Union Address, and everybody, every candidate, you know, is quoting some form of the Old or the New Testament in speeches to try to make their own moral points.
And - but we don't think of - at least I didn't think of, as a preacher or a priest or a rabbi or imam, for that matter, endorsing from the pulpit, you know. And I was fascinated by the idea that these guys were going to force the issue - because they've done this for five years. This isn't the first year they've done it. Now they're videotaping it and sending it to the IRS to just try to poke the hornet's nest of the IRS and say please take us to court, because they're trying to get this forced into a court case because they think they can win.
And I, after some thought and talking about it with my writers, I think they're right. I think they should be able to say. I think they should be able to endorse from the pulpit. Now whether they should get tax-exempt status is another thing, because that is the rest of us subsidizing their political speech.
GROSS: OK, which leads right into the clip. I want to play an excerpt of the interview that you did with Reverend Jim Garlow Tuesday night of this week. So here we go.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "THE COLBERT REPORT")
COLBERT: Let's talk about what the churches have got going for them right now, which I really love. You've got this tax-free thing going on, OK. Can I get in on that?
COLBERT: Because I've got a superPAC, but donations to me are not, you know, tax deductions. And other people have to use after-tax money for their political speech, but you guys get to use pre-tax money for political speech. I'd love to have my political speech subsidized by the government just like that. If you have a...
COLBERT: Can I get that?
REVEREND JIM GARLOW: If you have a problem with the church's tax exemption, take that up with Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, because they believed in separation of church and state and no government control, and the Supreme Court would later rule if the government taxes the church, it thereby can control and destroy anything that it taxes.
And freedom of speech and freedom of religion is the First Amendment. That's all we're asking for.
COLBERT: So separation of church and state, I've never been a big fan of. I believe that you should be able to use your religious beliefs and preach your religious beliefs when you're advising people how to vote. Do you agree?
COLBERT: OK, so I'm glad because I...
Because I've always supported Mitt Romney, but it's been in conflict with my Catholic faith, because I know that he's a member of a cult, OK.
But now, now I am free to exercise my Catholic belief that he is an apostate heretic who should not hold the highest office in the land in God's chosen country. You agree that I should be able to preach that about him?
GARLOW: I absolutely do.
COLBERT: You do?
GARLOW: I believe as a preacher, if you're a preacher, we're talking about pastors...
COLBERT: How am I not a preacher?
GARLOW: Well, you probably are.
COLBERT: This is my congregation, sir.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
GARLOW: And you've got a great congregation.
COLBERT: Thank you very much. You should see when I pass the hat.
GARLOW: Whether a pastor is conservative, liberal, whatever he believes, he ought to have the right to say that in his pulpit, period.
COLBERT: You know, I like that because...
GARLOW: Otherwise we have to have police, pulpit police in every church watching what they're saying, monitoring their speech.
COLBERT: I do believe that preachers or priests or any religious leader, should be able to say anything they want because free speech should be absolute, and I believe that. But one of the reasons I really love it is that I don't think: A, there's enough religion in our politics. But more importantly, there's not enough politics in our religion.
Because I know now that if a preacher says vote for X candidate or Y candidate, and that candidate loses, I know I've got a loser god, OK. Or if that candidate turns out to be corrupt, I know that my god was false, and I can move on to a new one. Don't you think that's one of the nice things about getting politics all over religion, is that we can get that kind of acrimony and that hate toward each other over our religions in a fresh way?
GROSS: That is very funny, but I so - I just love - the way you handled that is so odd. I kept thinking: So what does Stephen Colbert really believe in all of this, you know? Because you're just, you're walking the line so well between, like, your character and your own beliefs, like you've just told us that for real, you think, you know, people in their churches or synagogues or, you know, mosques, should be able to speak about politics and endorse a candidate, but you're not really looking for the kind of hate that you're talking about.
COLBERT: I mean, that - you know, what you could scrape away, if you wanted to scrap away what the character is saying there - and I'm not particularly, you know, eager to scrape away what my character says because he says it in a more palatable way than I can say things, or else I would just go out and say things on my own - I think they should be able to do it.
You know, and that's what's interesting to me about it. But I also think that it's a very dangerous thing to do, not just for our politics, but it's also dangerous for the faith of the people who are exercising that right. Because they seem to think that it's a one-way membrane, that they'll get religion into our politics, but they're ignoring the fact that politics will come right back through that gate onto our religion.
And if you actually have a political party that is this religion or a political party that is that religion, I think that's a short road to the kind of religious civil war, whether or not it's actually an armed war, but religious civil war that we fled in Europe. America has avoided that. And I think our politics are so horrible these days, and that why anyone would want that horrible tar on something as fragile as faith is beyond me.
GROSS: So did you go into this interview knowing that you were going to walk it into the point your character makes about Romney being an apostate who shouldn't hold the highest office in God's chosen country?
COLBERT: I always have about - you know, no matter what the interview is, I have about three things that I'd like to be able to get to. And the more focused the conversation is, the more likely I am to get to the few things that I wanted to get to. And that was very short - that was about a four-minute interview.
And so I wanted to get to those - basically the four things that you played are the four things that I really wanted to say. And the nice thing was - I mean, I really like Reverend Garlow, and we had a nice conversation afterwards, and I was very grateful that he came, because it's hard, sometimes, to get conservatives to come on the show.
But what I really liked is that he had an answer. He had an argument for everything that I was talking about. And he stood by it, and he was passionate and said exactly what he had said in other press or said in his pre-interview, and that's all I can ask from the guest. And that makes the best, most satisfying interview for me is if the person represents their beliefs in a passionate way.
And he did, and so it allowed me to get to the points that I wanted to make.
GROSS: And the point about Romney being an apostate who shouldn't hold the highest office in God's chosen country...
COLBERT: Well, that occurred to me kind of at the last minute. That occurred to me at the last minute, and I thought, well, you know what? It's not even just that politics will get on our religion, but I thought if you - like why - this guy is an Evangelical Christian. Why would he be voting for Romney?
If you're talking about biblical truths that inform - biblical truths must inform our decisions, and if the Bible is inerrant, you know, and the word of God, every word of it, then I - you know, it doesn't matter to me. I would vote for someone who's a Mormon. But I don't understand someone who believes that the Bible is inerrant, and every word is straight from the mouth of God would then vote for somebody who believes that after Jesus rose from the dead, he took a hard left and went to America. Because that's not our tradition, that's not in the truth of our book.
And it seems a little hypocritical to have to base all your political decisions on absolute biblical truths that must not be denied, but then vote for someone who denies those biblical truths in their own religion. Which again, I think is fine. I'm not saying not to vote for somebody because of their religion, but that's another danger that I think that, certainly, conservative preachers might be overlooking by wanting to get politics and religion mixed together so tightly.
GROSS: And also I think you're illustrating a danger of seeing America as God's chosen country.
COLBERT: Yes, the new Jerusalem, yeah, that's trouble.
GROSS: So now you are Catholic, and - yes, go ahead.
COLBERT: I'll give this to Mormonism, I'll give this to Mormonism. I'll give a lot of things to Mormonism, but they - you know, they've got the only Jesus that was in America. You know, it is the most American Christianity, and there is something...
GROSS: Oh, so the God's chosen country is a reference to Mormon? I thought that was just a reference to Christians who think that America is - yeah.
COLBERT: It's a reference to both, actually.
GROSS: OK, thank you. OK.
COLBERT: No, we do believe this is God's chosen country. It's often in, sort of in the talking points of the right wing that this is God's chosen country. You know, Reagan sort of said it all the time with his shining city on the hill. But the Mormons have really - it's true. God actually chose this country. He came here in the flesh to save the inhabitants of this continent.
And there's something - you know, we forget. There's something startling patriotic about that. That is a mixture of a religion and at least Americanism that no other religion has. And I'm not saying that's good or bad, but it is unique, and we often forget that.
GROSS: Stephen Colbert will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren't." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Stephen Colbert. His satirical political show, "The Colbert Report," is on Monday through Thursday nights after "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central. His new book is called "America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren't."
So we've been talking about religion and politics - continuing with the theme of politics, you really entered the fray with your superPAC. So you actually got a superPAC. You actually raised money. You actually bought TV ads. What else have you done with the money?
COLBERT: The money right now is just sitting in the bank and paying fees.
GROSS: Like lawyers' fees and stuff?
COLBERT: Lawyers' fees and handling fees. You know, one of the things I found out about running a superPAC - and the only reason I really started a superPAC was to see what would happen if you had a superPAC. I didn't have any plan. And I've tried to say this repeatedly, like in every interview. I have no plans for what to do with this, from the very beginning. I just wanted to see what would happen because the whole thing came about by accident. We were just trying to do a parody ad of a Tim Pawlenty ad and I couldn't figure out how to end it. And then I said well, how does his ad end? And his ad ended just with like a single card on screen that said: LibertyPAC.com, whatever his political action committee was. And I said OK, just put up ColbertPAC.com at the end. And one person on the staff said do you want me to buy that URL? And I said yeah, yeah, we might want to use that later. And then the network called and said, Are you really going to get a PAC? And I said, Why do you ask? And they said, because if you actually get a political action committee, that could be trouble. And I said, Well, then I'm definitely going to do it.
COLBERT: Because I like the idea of, like, why is it trouble? Everybody can do it. Why can't I do it? And then we got into the - then - we had already reported on, we'd done jokes about Citizens United for about a year. And then I realized, oh, this is what the whole year is about. It's really about this whole new flush of cash into our political system that is in large part untraceable, or traceable only after the fact, you know, when it's too late, after the primaries or after the elections is over. And I said, OK, let's just try to do it. And we kept on running into supposed barriers in federal election law. But I have a lovely lawyer, Trevor Potter, who used to be head of the FEC and used to be John McCain's lawyer. And Trevor would say, well, actually, we could get around that merely by doing X, Y or Z, and then we would do that thing, you know, all the way down to going down to the FEC and being granted the ability to have a superPAC and raise money. But every stage of it, I didn't know what was going to happen next. It was just an act of discovery. It was purely improvisational. And you know, people would say, what is your plan? My plan is to see what I can and cannot do with it. And so, you know, we did it up through the primaries. We really played the game hard up through the South Carolina primary, when Jon Stewart took over my superPAC because I announced my plans to form an exploratory committee about whether I should run for president, and then to illustrate how easy it is to just give the money to somebody else and really have control over what happens. But ostensibly it's no longer out of - it's no longer in your control, but you've given it to your best friend, who actually, you know, rides to work with you in the morning and you share a building. But it's all on the up and up. And after we played that...
GROSS: Even though you're not supposed to coordinate with the candidate if you have a superPAC. Yeah.
COLBERT: Well, exactly. That's the rule of the superPAC. Yeah, I left that out. SuperPACs cannot coordinate with campaigns. That's what Justice Kennedy said in his ruling of Citizens United, is that unlimited money is going to be fine, but there won't be any coordination. There won't be any corruption or even the appearance of corruptions. We find it, you know. And so we just wanted, we just wanted to illustrate how that was complete bull (bleep). And after we played that game, it was really the apotheosis of the superPAC game. And since that moment, you know, I've, you know, my producers, who did - and my writers did an amazing job keeping us educated on what the superPACs could do and all the different games we could play. You know, some of them said like, boy, I feel like we're falling behind on the superPAC story. And I said, well, no, we're not. We could be on time in 24 hours. We just do a show on it and we'd be right up to date. I said, but you miss being ahead of the story. Because we were - we were doing things - we were injecting ourselves into the news and illustrating what was ridiculous rather than talking about what's ridiculous. And at our show's best, that's what we do. And I cannot get a passion up for talking about superPACs right now, like not in five months, because I feel like, you know, someone who is saying for a year, hey, people, get ready, there's a train a comin', but now the train's here. There's nothing - I don't have a new joke to say because everything that's happening with superPACs - the unlimited money, the hidden money, the bleed from campaign into superPAC and back again, the fact that they're sharing facilities, they're sharing equipment, sometimes they're even sharing accounts at a bank - those are all just jokes we made a year ago. And so as much as there is more news about it, there's no new news about it. And so I can't embody it in a new way. So I really don't know what to do next with the superPAC. But then again, I never knew what to do.
COLBERT: So we're just going to be ready and see if there's something else to talk about, you know, in the next few months.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Stephen Colbert, and he has a new book, and it's called "America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren't."
Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Stephen Colbert, and he has a new book. It's called "America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren't."
So I love it when you take your character into the world - out of the studio and into the world. And you do that with the superPAC like right at the beginning when you got your paper signed at the Federal Election Committee and you officially had control of the superPAC. You held almost like a little press conference outside of - was it the FEC where you were?
COLBERT: Yes. I did it twice, actually. I did it once when I filed and then I did it again when I was granted my right to have a superPAC.
GROSS: OK. So this is when you were granted your right to have the superPAC. And I thought we could listen to that moment when you stepped outside and met the press and your fans.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COLBERT REPORT")
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Stephen. Stephen. Stephen.
COLBERT: I am here to represent your voice, so please quiet down, so we can all hear what you have to say with my mouth.
Fellow Americans, ladies and gentlemen, supporters, friends, and federal employees with extremely generous lunch break policies, 60 days ago today on this very spot, a young man petitioned the FEC for permission to form a superPAC to raise unlimited monies and use thme monies to determine the winners of the 2012 elections.
Can anyone tell me...
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Whoo!
COLBERT: Can anyone tell me who that young man was?
It was me.
Now, some people have cynically asked, is this some kind of joke? I for one don't think that participating in democracy is a joke.
I don't think that wanting to know what the rules are is a joke. But I do have one federal election law joke if you'd like to hear it.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Who's there?
COLBERT: Unlimited union and corporate campaign contributions.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Unlimited union and corporate campaign contributions, who?
COLBERT: That's the thing. I don't think I should have to tell you.
Of course, there will be others who say, Stephen Colbert, what will you do with that unrestricted superPAC money? To which I say, I don't know. Give it to me and let's find out.
Because I don't know about you, but I do not accept limits on my free speech. I don't know about you, but I do not accept the status quo.
But I do accept Visa, MasterCard and American Express.
Thank you. God bless America, and for any atheists out there, gesundheit. The United States of America - we did it!
I have a superPAC and so can you!
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
GROSS: And that's Stephen Colbert after signing the papers at the Federal Election Committee giving him control of a superPAC.
How do you prepare for something like that when you're bringing your character in the world after doing something real like getting papers for a superPAC?
COLBERT: I have a very good advance team that make sure my mic is on. They have a milk crate for me to stand on.
GROSS: A bodyguard too?
COLBERT: Yes. I do have very capable bodyguards. And we tweet to, you know, we have about four million people on our Twitter feed and we just, we just tweeted and say, hey, I'm going to be outside the FEC tomorrow if anybody wants to stop by, and we got a crowd both times that we went. And we write a speech on the train ride down and think, well, what would I want to say? And the nice thing about that speech is that I meant every word of it. I had no idea what we were going to do...
COLBERT: But give me your money and let's find out. Turns out I was going to run for president and give all the money to Jon Stewart, who was going to blow tons of it on ads. So...
COLBERT: Because - yeah.
GROSS: You tried to run for president. You tried to get on the primary ballot in South Carolina but it was too late.
GROSS: You couldn't get on.
CROWD: So you used Herman Cain, who was still on but no longer a candidate.
COLBERT: I couldn't have been happier, by the way, to not get on the ballot. I could not have been happier to not actually be able to get on the ballot. Because I actually tried four years ago, in 2008, and I told myself I wouldn't do that again because I'd already picked that chicken. But then we were figuring out what to do with the money, trying to figure out what to do with the money, and suddenly a poll came and Public Policy Polling did a poll that - in one poll I think I was polling, I guess it was like Obama, Romney and me and I polled 13 percent nationally. And then another poll came and I was beating Jon Huntsman and a couple of other people. And then I thought, well, I - in South Carolina, I said, well, I have to do it now. And so we immediately knew what to do with the money. But then I was thrilled to not actually get on the ballot. So the game would be a little bit different and I wouldn't be actually asking people to vote for me. And the nice thing was that Herman Cain was absolutely happy to play along. You know, he, when I told him, I called him and I said this is what I want to do, and he goes, that sounds fantastic. Let's do it.
GROSS: Well, I think he loves the spotlight.
COLBERT: We had our little rally, we had a rally in South Carolina. And after it is over, I said let me guess, you had a good time.
COLBERT: He said, I had a fantastic time, Stephen.
GROSS: So I always have to ask myself when you do that, when you're either on the ballot or have a surrogate on the ballot, like is that going too far? Is that actually injecting it into the voting booth in a way that might actually change the results of an election?
COLBERT: I mean if I actually thought I would change the results of the election, I think I would - I would think I was going too far, but I never for a moment thought I would change the results of the election and I think I was right.
GROSS: Because you wouldn't get enough votes to make a difference?
COLBERT: No, I would never get enough votes.
GROSS: With elections being so close in some places?
COLBERT: Not in South Carolina.
GROSS: Not in South Carolina.
COLBERT: Just the Republicans. I don't know what to say.
GROSS: Yeah, right.
COLBERT: You know, even in - even four years ago when I was running in 2008 in South Carolina and really sincerely like tried to get on the ballot, if I was doing well, I had a plan of how to drop out, which was that I was going to have a scandal.
COLBERT: I was going to like...
GROSS: Oh, I'm sorry you didn't get a chance.
COLBERT: I know. Wasn't that exciting? I would've been wonderful. I wanted to like actually go down to South Carolina and like stumble around Columbia, the capital, like pantless with a bottle of Jack Daniels and try to get arrested.
COLBERT: Which I got to say, my wife was not thrilled about this plan. But she actually was thrilled that I had a rip cord to get out of the election. I said it'll be great. You can stand beside me and like, I'll be tearful. And she's like, wonderful. Fantastic.
GROSS: Oh, that would've been so great. Would you actually...
COLBERT: I know. I wanted - 'cause I just...
GROSS: Would you actually have to get somebody pregnant, though, or...
COLBERT: Maybe not that far.
GROSS: Not that far?
COLBERT: No, not that far. But, you know, I just wanted to - I'm just looking to embody every, you know, every possible stereotype of a political life. But you know, I also don't think that when you're talking about the corrupting influence of money, and the degradation of our trust in our political process with unlimited and untraceable cash, I think the idea of me encouraging people to vote for Herman Cain to make a joke about how dangerous this new style of funding is, I think that's a tiny little prick to be putting in this balloon of corruption. You know, I don't think that me encouraging people to vote for Herman Cain is anything compared to the thing I'm talking about.
GROSS: You know what I often think about watching your show? How patriotic you are in your own way of doing it. I mean you have been to Iraq. Things you just mentioned. You've been to Iraq to entertain the troops. You've sponsored our team in the Winter Olympics. You had a superPAC. You've fake run for office. You've held a political rally to kind of stop hatred and contrariness in politics. You've donated a lot of money to veterans groups. Do you have this sense of America, because of what you've been doing, you know, that you never quite had before doing this character?
COLBERT: I would say...
GROSS: I just feel this, like, love of country coming from you that is expressing itself in a very different form than the word patriotism usually describes.
COLBERT: I do love our country and I'm very grateful to have been born here and to have the freedoms that I have. And I try not to take that for granted and I think it is the greatest country. It is the best hope of mankind, and for all of sort of the democracies of Western Europe or any of our allies, I think it is, by far, the finest system of government in the world. And that's why it's - or the finest opportunity for freedom in the world and the greatest force for good.
COLBERT: That's why it's particularly upsetting when I think that that's being harmed or whether that's being endangered by personal political ambition or partisan contrariness. I think the United States is important and I don't think I'm important, but I like talking about the United States. And it's hard to do 161 shows a year about something you don't care about. And the show - you know, the show is always about what we care about and I do. I do care about our country and I don't know if I'm a particularly patriotic person, but my character and I both agree that this is the greatest country on earth.
I'll tell you one thing I did learn from doing the show that I didn't know, which is I didn't really know much about military personnel. I didn't know much about their lives and I didn't know - I certainly didn't know. I knew nothing about war and I still don't know anything about war, but I don't think I appreciated them to the level that they deserved. And that has changed and I work hard to keep that in mind, without fetishizing military service.
I think there are great ways to serve the country that are not military service. It's not the only thing you can do, but I certainly - I border on embarrassed at how little thought I gave military service until I got to know service members.
GROSS: Stephen Colbert, thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on your new book.
COLBERT: Thank you so much.
GROSS: And I just want to say something. You know, you had me as a guest on your show, which was just enormous fun for me, and it was so interesting to be on your set and see what happens behind the scenes. And one thing I want to say about behind the scenes on your show is that everybody, your producers and, like, everybody was so - just extraordinarily nice and warm and welcoming, and you were, too.
And so you walk onto the set knowing that, you know, Stephen Colbert in character is going to, like, put you on the spot, but that the real Stephen Colbert is, like, really in your court and wants you to do good and it just gives you this sense of, like, comfort. And I think it's great that you can do both, that you can put the person really at ease and so can your staff and then come out in character and it just makes it all comfortable.
COLBERT: Oh, I'm so glad and I also - I'm so glad you said that about my staff. I'm incredibly lucky to work with them.
GROSS: You are. They were really wonderful.
COLBERT: They - everybody - you know, it's - everybody remarks about - not publicly, but everybody remarks about what a good experience it is for people backstage and it's all due to my staff. I'm very - I'm so blessed to work with them and I don't understand what they do, because I don't have time to. But I don't for a minute forget that they're the reason I get to do the crazy thing I do.
GROSS: But, just briefly, have you learned more about how to make a guest comfortable so they can perform at their best on your show in the face of your character's, you know, unusual questions?
COLBERT: I don't know, because it's very individual. You know, you don't know who's going to be comfortable dealing with me as a character. And it's - you know, I'm sure it can be a difficult booking at times because, as much as I tell people before the show begins that - hey, I just want you to know, if you haven't seen the show before - or even if you have - I just want to tell you, because it's my little ritual, that I do the show in character and he's an idiot and he's willfully ignorant of what you know and care about. Please, just honestly disabuse me of my ignorance. Don't let me put words in your mouth and we'll have a great time out there.
That's easy to say and easy to hear, but it's another thing when you actually get out there and I am aggressively dumb at you and...
COLBERT: And so that can - I'm sure that can be difficult for people, at times, and I'm very grateful for anyone who would come into that odd arena, and especially someone who doesn't know the show or isn't a fan of the show. And so I say that to every guest so they won't feel surprised. You know, I don't really want to - I'm not an assassin. You know, I mean, there - I've had guests that I thought, I'm going to go out there and - you know, when the show first started, I thought, I got my knife sharpened and I'm going to get this - and I thought, why are you going to get this guy? This guy's your guest.
You know, be welcoming to this person and then maybe you'll discover something that you couldn't possibly invent, and it has been absolutely the truth. And so I look at every guest as a guest. They're a guest in my home and I am grateful that they would come here and I hope people have a good time. And, if they don't, that's my fault or, rather, it's my responsibility because if I get into an actual aggressive discussion with a guest about something that perhaps we're disagreeing about and I'm expressing my disagreement satirically and, if they don't enjoy that, that's OK because I have a responsibility for what I'm saying. But I actually do want people to have a good time.
You know, like even after the correspondents' dinner six years ago, which is a long time ago now, but I wrote President Bush afterwards and I said, I hope you enjoyed it. I hope there's some part of it you enjoyed, because it was an honor to do the show for you and I really did want everyone to laugh.
GROSS: There's actually a part two of my interview with Stephen Colbert. There's no time to hear it today, but we will hear it sometime soon on FRESH AIR. Stephen Colbert's new book is called "America Again: Re-Becoming the Greatness We Never Weren't," and you can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews the new short story collection by Junot Diaz, who just won a Macarthur fellowship. Wow. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.