Heya folks - Ken Plume here, with an interview from the vaults. I interviewed Stephen Colbert towards the middle of 2003, when it was still possible to set up an in-depth piece with Stephen that wasn’t destined for Entertainment Weekly or The New York Times.
I had followed Colbert ever since I’d seen him as a castmember of the short-lived Dana Carvey Show (bonus points if you can spot me in one of the episode openings), and I kept track of him as he moved on to Exit 57, Strangers With Candy, and then his regular spot as a correspondent on the original Craig Kilborn version of The Daily Show.
When I did this in-depth piece with Stephen, The Daily Show - under Jon Stewart - had begun to take off, and was fast becoming a strong voice in the political and journalistic landscape.
Below, you’ll find my original introduction to the piece, and then my rather large-ish chat with Stephen.
Stephen Colbert is perhaps best known as one of the senior correspondents for Comedy Central’s The Daily Show.
Comedy fans, however, also know him as co-creator/writer/star (alongside Amy Sedaris & Paul Dinello) of Comedy Central’s decidedly surreal take-off on preachy afterschool specials, Strangers with Candy (the complete first season of which recently made its DVD debut).
Perhaps less well-known, he co-created (with Robert Smigel) The Ambiguously Gay Duo, providing the voice of Ace to boot. And speaking of cartoon voices, he also does a few for Cartoon Network’s Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law.
Colbert’s first book, co-written with Sedaris and Dinello, has recently hit book shelves the world over. Wigfield is a somewhat disturbing, completely hilarious view of a small town’s triumphantly pathetic struggle to survive.
A Strangers with Candy movie is on the horizon - until then, though, here’s our in-depth interview with everyone’s favorite fake news anchor…
KEN PLUME: Am I correct in understanding that you’re from South Carolina originally?
STEPHEN COLBERT: I am.
PLUME: Am I also correct in understanding that as a high school student, you weren’t terribly motivated?
COLBERT: Oh no, I was not. I was motivated to play Dungeons & Dragons. I mean highly, highly motivated to play it.
PLUME: How often?
COLBERT: Every day, if I could find someone to play with me. If I couldn’t find someone to play with me, I would work on my player character.
PLUME: That was the heyday of D&D, wasn’t it?
COLBERT: It was, actually. I started playing Dungeons & Dragons the first week it was introduced to the market - at least the first week it was introduced down here. Before Dungeons & Dragons, there was a game called Metamorphosis Alpha, which was also created by Gary Gygax, the guy who created Dungeons & Dragons. I played that, and then we heard this other thing was going to be coming out, called Dungeons & Dragons. The first week it was out, we played it and we were hooked. That was in 1977, I think.
PLUME: What was the big difference between the two that appealed to you?
COLBERT: Well, the difference between the two was Metamorphosis Alpha was Dungeons & Dragons in space, and Dungeons & Dragons was sorcery. I was a huge fan - I read a lot of sorcery.
PLUME: So a big Lord of the Rings fan?
COLBERT: Lord of the Rings, Stephen R. Donaldson, Fritz Leiber - you know, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series. Gosh, who else? I can’t believe I can’t remember more of them. Michael Moorcock, The Chronicles of Corum, the Elric - so many.
PLUME: What would the teenager of then think of the Lord of the Rings films?
COLBERT: Well, that part of me is not dead, really. He would be just as apprehensive as I was, before the first film came out. Really, really, really hoping - excited, obviously - but really, really hoping that they don’t blow it. Because they were going to go in with a big enough budget, they were going to create some pretty startling images, and you didn’t want those images to replace the images in your mind.
PLUME: I’m assuming you had bad memories of the Bakshi film.
COLBERT: Oh gosh. That was really important to me at the time, when the Bakshi film came out, and that was pretty devastating. There’s no way - I couldn’t see an upside to that one at all.
PLUME: Yeah, I don’t think there was much of an upside to that.
COLBERT: No. But this one, I have some friends who work at New Line, and so when this film was coming out, they got me into early screenings and that kind of stuff. Like the 28 minute trailer that was shown to press ahead of time. The summer before the movie came out, I saw that 28 minute trailer. I was just shaking by the end of it, I was so excited, at the end of the Moria sequence. They have the unedited, like, 18 minute Moria sequence - uncut 18 minute sequence at the center of it. I was blown away. It wasn’t how I imagined it, and it was fine.
PLUME: Have the films continued to impress you?
COLBERT: I was a little distressed in the second film by what they did with Faramir.
PLUME: Oh, the evilization?
COLBERT: The fact that he succumbs to the power of the ring. Or not so much the power of the ring as he succumbs to …
PLUME: He’s a bit of a bastard in the film.
COLBERT: Well, in the film, he says, “You’re going to Gondor.” I thought, “No, no, no!” One of the greatest moments in the book is when he looks at the ring, he knows what it is, and he says, “Alas for my brother, Boromir. He loved Gondor too much. He was willing to take this thing and use it, but I told you if I found this thing by the side of the road I would not pick it up. And I’m a man of my word.” You know, it changes his tone completely. Then, they go to Osgiliath, where they have this encounter with the Nazgul that doesn’t happen in the book, and then Faramir just changes his mind? Like, the one person in the history of Middle Earth, who when confronted with possession of the ring just changes his mind at some point? That was really heartbreaking.
PLUME: He’s a bit flighty.
COLBERT: Yeah, and actually, I went to go see the world premiere of that, because they had it in New York, and as I’m walking out, a friend of mine who went with me - he knew I was sort of obsessed with the books - said - and I was really upset - said, “So, what did you think?” But Brad Dourif, who plays Grima Wormtongue, was standing right next to me. I couldn’t say anything. I was like, “It was good. It was good.” But then I saw it a second time and I managed to leap that particular puddle, and loved it. I mean, it’s wonderful - but there’s so much that they don’t cover.
PLUME: I think the second film is the most radical departure from the text.
COLBERT: Well I hope so, because that third film’s got a lot riding on it.
PLUME: Of course, who knows what the extra 40 minutes on the deluxe DVD are going to add back in…
COLBERT: Yeah, who knows?
PLUME: Gosh, where did we get off on this tangent?
COLBERT: Oh yeah - “So you weren’t a good student.”
PLUME: Was there anything besides that that interested you? Was there any inkling of performing or writing?
COLBERT: I used to write things for friends. There was this girl I had a crush on, and she had a teacher she didn’t like at school. I had a real crush on her, so almost every day I would write her a little short story where she would kill him in a different way. But, in sort of a James Bond-ian kind of explosives in the gas tank of his car kind of way.
PLUME: Of course, those kind of letters today would have gotten you thrown out of school.
COLBERT: They really would have. They really would have. And all I was doing was I was just trying to impress a girl. I can’t tell you how many of those I wrote. I wonder whether she kept them. I’d love to see them.
PLUME: Put them in a collection?
COLBERT: Or hide them. And I wrote things for the school’s newspaper, and - like all teenagers - I dabbled in poetry.
PLUME: Dabbled in a lot of poetry directed towards this girl as well?
COLBERT: No. I should have… that would have been much wiser. I hear girls are weak for that sort of thing.
PLUME: I guess few people realized just what a creative enterprise role-playing was at that time.
COLBERT: Yeah, nobody realized it. They thought it was warping their children’s minds. Which it might have been, but it also took a lot of creativity to play it.
PLUME: Well how many of those people now are multi-millionaires… or were, before the Internet bubble burst….
PLUME: So, would you say that your parents pushed you in any one direction, or they were just hoping that you would find a direction?
COLBERT: No, they were just hoping that I would find a direction. Just very supportive of what I eventually decided to try to do. But would have been perfectly happy if I had been lawyer or been a potter.
PLUME: Just something productive?
COLBERT: Just something that could pay the rent.
PLUME: Was it difficult getting into Hampden-Sydney?
COLBERT: Oh no, it was not. It was easy to get in, hard to stay. They accept a lot of people, but they failed a huge percentage of the freshman class.
PLUME: So was it a bait and switch?
COLBERT: No, it was a “playtime’s over” kind of place.
PLUME: They lure you in with easy admittance …
COLBERT: And then they hammered you. It was really hard work. I would have to say it was harder at Hampden-Sydney than it was Northwestern.
PLUME: At any point were you on the verge of dropping out?
COLBERT: No, no, no, no. I did very well. I applied myself.
PLUME: How much of a wakeup call was it?
COLBERT: I knew that I had never been applying myself when I was in high school, and so I knew that this was my last chance. So, I worked very hard. The hardest part was I didn’t have the disciplinary skills. I didn’t have the self-discipline, so it took a lot more time to do the work I needed to do than it took the better students.
PLUME: How long did it take to finally learn that discipline?
COLBERT: Probably my freshman year. By the time I got to my sophomore year, I realized that you actually had to be like an Ovaltine commercial. You had to finish classes, come back to your room, and immediately start working. Then, after that was over, then it was playtime.
PLUME: I’ve never really heard of Hampden-Sydney being a party school …
COLBERT: Well, it was to a certain extent, but I wasn’t Greek. I didn’t become part of the fraternity system, which is where that would happen - and I purposely didn’t join them, so I would work harder.
PLUME: What was the major that you were leaning towards there?
COLBERT: I don’t know. Philosophy is what I took most classes in.
PLUME: So, nothing that would have been applicable after college.
COLBERT: No …
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