It’s been said that The Colbert Report is doubles as “The Joy Machine” or so say the show’s staff and creator. In 2011 I had the pleasure of attending a live taping of The Colbert Report with fellow Annual writer Briana Haynie and I can only confirm this to be true. At the start of the show (prior to any taping) Colbert emerged from backstage and ran to the crowd who met him with thunderous applause. He had a grin that spread the width of his face, as if it was the first night of the show, a show which was now running into it’s sixth year, a character who was running into his sixth year. But the delightful thing about seeing Colbert live, was that prior taping the grin was genuine, he was genuine, Stephen Colbert (the character) was cast aside so Stephen Colbert (the actual human being) could open the floor by asking “Does anyone have any questions to humanize me before I say these awful things on television?”
I had gone in with a question in mind, knowing that he might do a Q&A while understanding that there was chance he would stay in character throughout the taping and either answer in character or not take questions at all. Once I had tickets booked I began brainstorming a question that was in someway particular to me and one that he hopefully did hear every night. The idea of directly asking for advice crossed my mind, but seeing as that’s a question commonly asked to people of relative fame I figured I could find the answer anywhere online, if it wasn’t out there now, it eventually would be. I had hoped to learn more about the man himself, but from a period where he was just getting started.
Four questions had gone by, when Stephen says “Okay, last question.” and he pointed to me. It was at this point that time (for me) did that thing where it moves either too fast or too slow, and you can’t decide which it is. I believe this is called adrenaline but I’m no doctor. What came out of my mouth for the first few syllables remains a mystery to me, but I’m pretty sure it aligned with the question that followed: What was your favorite memory from backstage at Second City? This was Stephen’s response…
“Well, my favorite memory is actually hearing someone fail onstage.” The audience laughed, which seemed to take catch him off guard a bit. “No, I’m serious. My friend [whose name escapes me, but WAS credited at the time] was on stage doing a Black-out Scene, which is a very short simple scene, called Whales. In the scene the actor is onstage with a guitar, like they’re in a small coffee shop, and she’s tuning the guitar saying “Thank you for coming, you’ve all been really great. I’d like to dedicate this next song to the whales.” She would finish tuning, approach the mic and then [makes whale noises, indistinguishable whines and clicks].”
To break from Stephen’s story for just a second, at this point I realized that he and I had maintained eye contact throughout this portion of the retelling. In the moment it felt like he was talking directly to me, which for one was incredibly polite (as I understand he is in all interactions) while at the same time being one of the most nerve-wracking moments of my life, just being the focus of his attention at the time. It’s possible we both realized this around the same time as it was this point that he broke eye contact and began to tell the story to the whole crowd.
“One night she went on to do the scene, she tuned the guitar and said “Thank you for coming out tonight, you guys have been great” and then she started making the whale noises. Meanwhile, I’m backstage with Dave Razowski, we’re next to go and the audience isn’t laughing, and we’re like “What’s wrong with these people?” Suddenly Dave goes [in a shouted whisper]”SHE FORGOT TO SAY WHALES!” So we started cracking up, we went hysterical, just because of how simply she had failed, which wasn’t good because we were literally two feet off the stage, right behind the curtain. We were laughing so hard we hit floor and our feet are sticking out on stag. Eventually she realizes we’re laughing and that she had missed the setup and started laughing too. And that’s when I knew I had to keep doing comedy because rather than making it a problem we were able to laugh about it.” and then he changed my question “And that was my HAPPIEST Second City memory. Now are we ready to start the show!?” [Audience cheers]
He spoke with some writers for a minute and then began to tape the three part open. This particular three part open, was stopped twice due to technical issues but at no point did they seem like a burden to Colbert. He kept things light, and was able to laugh at the issues that had came. His happiest memory from Second City was something that he carried with him and he hit that third take with wild enthusiasm that seemed to say “We’re going to get it this time, Dammit!” But, y’know… in a fun way.
Some combination between his story, and his continued enthusiasm affirmed that I was on the right track, that I was (and am) doing what I should be doing with my life. There are a lot aspect to Stephen Colbert’s Late Show that I can’t wait to see, primarily to see him step out of the Colbert Character and be himself, but I particularly can’t wait to see that same enthusiasm take a new form.
And on a side note note: any Comedy Central execs worried about that 11:30 slot, might I recommend taking a look at this list of potential replacements for Letterman. I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing Sarah Silverman every weeknight.