Saturday, April 30, 2011

#25. STEPHEN COLBERT

Stephen Colbert

Part 1: The Part Where I Exhaust All Other Options

Months ago, a Tumblr friend (shoshkabob) reached out to me to say she had tickets to The Colbert Report. She told me if I wanted one, I could have it.

In the meantime, I’d exhausted all my Colbert avenues. I’d met and somewhat befriended a writer for the show at a party. He’d loved the blog and promised to mention 100 Interviews to Stephen if he ever got the chance to talk to him about something other than work. Friends connected to Second City had tried to reach out to his old stage buddies. Connections at comedy magazines, at the Daily Show, ex-Colbert Report employees, friends who share a vocal coach with him, who attend his church, his personal publicist, the publicist for the show, the show’s main office, Comedy Central’s public relations people. I was running out of options. I’d even semi-successfully crashed a $2,000 gala for the production of Sondheim’s Company that Colbert was in last month.

I’d also asked publicists at the media company I work for if they thought I could get in touch with him through my day job. I knew it wouldn’t technically fit 100 Interviews’ rule that the person being interviewed has to know it’s for 100 Interviews, but I figured I could slip it in somewhere. One of the publicists I spoke to laughed when I told her I was gunning for Stephen. “Comedy Central will never allow it,” she said. “Colbert’s a dick.”

I was surprised. Everyone else I’d talked to had said Stephen was delightful. His Second City friends and former employees especially sang his praises. “He’s a great guy,” they said. “If he knew about your project, he’d love it.”

Running out of options, I took Shoshana up on her offer. Thursday, April 28: I’d try and ask Colbert some questions during the pre-show Q&A. I knew Colbert had one because when I’d interned for the Daily Show, Jon Stewart had answered questions before the taping. If I could get called on for one of the five questions (out of about 150 audience members) then I could tell him about 100 Interviews and ask him at least one question.

Part 2: The Part About Getting Into The Show

All week, I barely slept. I couldn’t eat. I stressed out so hard my eyeballs were hurting. What if I don’t get called on? What if he hates my question?

Worried, I direct messaged a friend who used to work for The Colbert Report.

“Should I bring a sign or wear a 100 Interviews T-shirt or something?” I wrote.

“No,” my friend wrote back. “His people are very strict. Don’t wear anything that makes you stand out. Look as normal as possible if you want to get called on for the Q&A.”

Day of the show, I wore a white button down and a navy blazer. I showed up at 5:30 p.m. on the dot and went over to the side where the line for the audience starts. There’s a line for people with tickets and a stand-by line. If you have VIP tickets, as in someone connected to the show got them for you, then you get to go right inside. Shosh had gotten our tickets online. They take down your name at the door and check your ID. There’s a policy of putting six months between visits so I knew if I failed this time around, I wouldn’t be able to try again until October at least. My ex-Colbert employee friends had assured me they could try and get me in again earlier if I didn’t get called on this time around, but even they weren’t sure they could skirt the rules in my case. This was it.

Part 3: The Part Where We Almost Don’t Get In

Waiting in line to get our tickets, I was so stressed out. My body was thrumming. My head hurt. Nerves cut through my chest and stomach.

A blond woman came over and told us that since we were numbers 124 through 127 on line, we might not get in. If we did get in, we might have “bad seats” or be separated from each other. Eliezer asked what she meant by “bad seats” and she was vague. Shosh turned to me, “Up to you if we stay,” she said. I had a 30-second panic attack. If we left, we could come back with VIP tickets sometime in the next six months. Shosh would be gone for summer vacation. She wouldn’t be able to redeem the tickets.

On a personal level, I couldn’t picture leaving and coming back. I had already brought myself to the edge of sanity worrying about this. I wanted it done.

“What are the odds of asking a question during the Q&A if we have bad seats?” I asked.

The woman looked startled. “Uh, I honestly have no idea. That’s the first time anyone’s ever asked that.”

I grimaced. “It’s just…I’m writing this website project and I have to ask Stephen a question.”

“Oh, you know you should go through our publicity department for that,” she said.

Yeah, I thought, No duh. But I knew — and she knew — that that was never going to happen.

“I know,” I said. “Um, we’ll take the tickets.”

The woman handed over four blue tickets. Eliezer, Shosh, and Shosh’s friend Mia, and I headed inside. On the wall by where you wait to get in, people have graffiti-ed various schools and people “<3 Colbert.” I used Shosh’s purple sharpie to scrawl ‘100Interviews.com <3’s Colbert” near the back of the line.

Then, we went through security where they checked my purse more thoroughly than at any concert I’ve ever been to. We waited in a little holding room while the same blond woman explained that we were not to ask any inappropriate questions and that we could not give Colbert anything or ask him for anything.

Part 4: The Part In The Studio

When we got inside the actual studio, Shosh and I were brought over to the other side of the stage from the entrance. There were two separate seats, one in the fourth row and one in the back. Shosh graciously gave me the more central spot. I was seated on the aisle. The blond woman from before had been bluffing. The studio is incredibly small and the way everything is set up, there are no “bad seats.”

When Shosh sat down, I realized I’d need her to write down Colbert’s answer if and when he called on me.

“Shosh,” I called back, as people were still being seated. “Do you have a notebook?”

She shook her head.

“Here. I have one,” I pulled a small black and white notebook out of my purse and stood up, walking two steps and handing it to her. In seconds, an audience coordinator was on me. “You can’t switch seats,” he said. I was bewildered. “I didn’t switch —” Soon, the same blond woman from before came over, “You can’t switch seats!” I flailed helplessly. “I didn’t!” The couple next to me even had to chime in with “She didn’t switch seats. She just gave her friend something.” After a security guard also asked me if I’d switched seats and I denied it again, they backed off.

I was starting to see what my ex-Colbert employee friend had been saying. If you stand out at all, the eyes are on you. At this point, I started worrying that backstage, people were warning Colbert not to choose the crazy girl in the navy blazer during the Q&A. It seems like they really take any “risks” very seriously.

Was Colbert a secret dick like that PR woman had said? I began to chew on my fingernails in anxiety.

First, the warm-up comedian, Julian McCullough came out. He was funny and really loosened up the crowd. Or at least, made me feel slightly less on edge. I started realizing that I was really there. I had made it, that this wasn’t supposed to be stressful or a chore. This was fun. This was my life and I was about to do something out of the box for myself. This was supposed to be fun, goddamnit.

Julian did his very funny thing and then, he introduced Stephen, who ran in from a door in the back of the set, his face beaming. He really seemed to be in a stellar mood and his smile is so warm.

It’s the face of someone living their dream, I thought.

Part 5: The Part Where I ‘Interview’ Stephen

The crowd cheered wildly for Stephen, who was handed a microphone. Even before he could start the Q&A, my hand shot up. It was actually pretty embarrassing because it went up over the whole crowd and seemed really out of place.

Stephen called on me first.

I faltered. “Oh, uh, should I stand up?” I asked.

“Stand up!” He said, waving me up.

“Oh, uh, hi!,” I said. “My name’s Gaby Dunn and I write a project called 100interviews.com where I’m interviewing 100 different people in a year. You’re one of the people I have to meet and interview so this fulfills that requirement. So…Nice to meet you. I’m Gaby.”

“Nice to meet you too,” he smirked, “I’m Stephen.”

The audience laughed. I made a gesture like, ‘Obviously, yes.’ It was cute.

“One of your goals was to meet me?” He asked.

I nodded, “And ask you some questions.”

He raised his arm and made a check mark in the air. “Done!”

I laughed. “Great! My question is, as a man of faith, how much of your success do you attribute to your own hard work versus God’s plan for you?”

“I am God’s plan,” he joked, throwing his hands up dramatically. “I believe it’s God’s plan whenever I win an Emmy. When I’m losing, the devil’s winning.”

I rolled my eyes a little and laughed. Stephen shrugged, “I don’t know. Really, I can’t know God’s plan.”

“Okay,” I said. “But when did you know it was all going to work out for you?”

“I still don’t know if it’s all going to work out. This program could get canceled at any minute. I mean, every day I do something,” he says, “I’m starting a political action committee and Viacom would really rather I didn’t but I’m going to anyway. I always tell people who work here to have their resumes refreshed. I have mine.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Nice meeting you.”

“Thank you!” he said, and moved on to the next person.

And I sat down.

From across the room, Eliezer shot me a double thumbs up. I gave ‘em back. My head was swimming and my face seemed permanently broken out into a smile I couldn’t control.

Part 6: The Part Where The Show Gets Taped

The reason I chose those questions is because they’re something that I think has become a theme of 100 Interviews — and subsequently, my life. How much of the good things that happen to us, our fortunes are our own doing? How much success is ‘right place, right time’ versus a dirty, exhausting, slow climb to the top just so someone else can ask you about your “overnight” success?

There’s an interview with Harry Potter author JK Rowling where she says she hates that people talk about how she was homeless before Potter was published, as though it’s an incidental part of her fairytale story. “It was real and it was my life,” she says, tearing up. She had no way of knowing, in the midst of the struggle, that there’d be a light at the end of the tunnel.

It’s how I feel all the time. And it’s how I suspect Stephen feels. He didn’t get his show overnight. He toiled. He worked hard. He still works hard. And like all of us, he worries every day that that hard work will come crumbling down.

“I still don’t know that everything’s going to work out,” he’d said, out of character, honestly, as Stephen.

All I wanted from this interview was to know that he’s human. And like all of us, he is.

Behind me, someone asked Stephen to recreate the Southern accent he’d lost for TV. He clarified that it was more complicated a story than him just dropping it to be on television, but he didn’t elaborate. He did an authentic Charleston one, then asked the guy if he was from South Carolina. The guy said he was from upstate New York and Colbert fell all over himself laughing. Another girl asked if he could sing Happy Birthday to her friend and he said, straight-faced, “No, I can’t. But I can do this.” Then, he sang the entire first verses and chorus of Billy Joel’s ‘Vienna’ serenading the guy with “Vienna waits for youuuuu.” It was hilarious.

At one point during the Q&A, I took out a notebook to jot down two things I wanted to remember and a security guard was on me immediately to put it away.

Stephen was a ball of energy in a suit. He bounced on his heels as he talked and he seemed to genuinely enjoy talking to the audience. He’s a ham, but I should have expected that. Even during the taping for a national TV show, he’s constantly playing to the audience in the studio. He tells stories in between takes and laughs really hard when he flubs a line. He did all the stage directing to the audience, such as telling us to cheer “Pip Pip Cheerio!” on cue. (The show focused on England’s royal wedding.) They played a pre-taped segment he’d done with former US Senator Russ Feingold and Stephen watched himself on the monitor; his hands under his chin, a twinkle in his eye. He laughed at his jokes and grinned throughout the piece.

For how anxious everyone around him is, Stephen is a beacon of awesome.

So the show goes on and gets filmed. Stephen messes up a bunch of lines, but never seems uncomfortable. He’s also eating something under his desk occasionally. (Not the gross fish-and-chips from the show.) At one point, he messed up a line and then gestured to me and said, “God’s plan” which got a laugh from the audience. Every so often, writers would come over and fix the script or give him some idea of what to do on a line. He was immensely friendly with them and was a total professional and talented improviser.

Part 7: The Part Where The Show Ends

The couple next to me asked for more information about my blog and I told them about what I’ve been doing.

The girl, a shy, skinny brunette, says, “Wow, I’d never have the courage to talk to Stephen like you did. I just think you’re so brave.”

Embarrassed, I waved her off, “What do you do?” I asked.

“Oh, I’m going into the Peace Corp next month,” she said.

I was dumbfounded. How could she call me brave when she was actually putting her life at risk to help people? If there’s one thing 100 Interviews has taught me it’s that no one ever sees how amazing their own life is.

At the end of the taping, Stephen comes back up front and asks if anyone has any more questions for him. One girl tells him she wrote a song about him and asks if she could give him a flash drive with the song on it, so he could listen.

“Oh, sure,” he says. “Give it here.”

She tosses him the flash drive, looking nervous as hell. So basically, the rules the handlers tell you at the beginning are not heeded by Colbert himself.

The show ends, everyone cheers for Colbert and we all file out of the building through the entrance.

Part 8: The Part Where I’m In Trouble

The blond woman from the beginning grabs me lightly by the elbow on my way out, pulling me aside in the wings of the studio.

“Hey,” she says, smiling. “Just so you know, you can’t write about anything that happened.”

“Uh, what?” I reply. “I’m just writing about coming to the show for my blog. Other people do that.”

“Right,” she says in a really upbeat voice. “But you can’t write about anything that happened in the Q&A.”

I’m baffled and I think it shows on my face. “Uh, that doesn’t make any sense.”

“I talked to the higher-ups and you can’t write about the Q&A because it’s informal so his answers aren’t to be published,” she says.

“But I can write about visiting the show? Just not the Q&A?” I ask. She nods. “Okay,” I say. “How about you give me your card and when I’m done writing I can send it to you so you can check if it’s all right.”

Now, she looks baffled. “Oh, I can’t give you my card.”

“Okay,” I say. “What’s your name then?”

She defers, “You can call the main office or e-mail audience@colbertreport.com if you have questions.”

I have, in the past, in an attempt to interview Stephen, done both of those things. I know you either end up with a secretary or a dead-end.

The woman shoos me along with the rest of the group.

Part 9: The Part Where Twitter Helps Out

I immediately turn my phone back on and Tweet, “Success. Minor problems from Colbert higher-ups with being able to write about what happened. Legal” and then “Got Colbert, may not be able to write about it.”

Soon, my @ replies are flooded with people I know and 100 Interviews fans calling bullshit. One of my old reporter friends messages me asking if I identified myself and got consent from Stephen. I said I did — identifying yourself as press being one of the basics of journalism ethics.

Lawyer friends come forward asking if I signed a non-disclosure agreement (I did not). A friend who works at Gawker assures me that under the first amendment, I can write whatever I want on this blog.

Even my lawyer mother calls to tell me that I can post the interview. Like when she told us we might have bad seats, my mom says the blond woman was bluffing because she thought she’d scare me off posting.

Some followers start tweeting at Stephen expressing anger that his show, a show that claims to be about political freedom, would have people working there that try to deny the first amendment — freedom of the press. I quickly tweet back that Stephen had nothing to do with it, that he’d given consent to the interview knowing full-well it was for 100interviews.com, which was explained to him and that he was down to be interviewed however briefly.

A former editor of mine says that as long as I don’t pretend I did the interview anywhere besides the Q&A, I should be legally sound. Since 100 Interviews always explains exactly how interviews are obtained, that didn’t even cross my mind. I talk to an NBC page and former Colbert employee who tells me people blog about the Q&A all the time and that he doubts the Colbert Report would waste time pursuing legal action against my blog.

I tweet that I’m going to post what happened. “Enough of my followers are lawyers,” I half-joke. I am actually still a little worried.

Part 10: The Part Where I End This

The next day, I get an e-mail from another publicist friend I’d enlisted to reach out to Colbert’s people for an interview through the proper channels. She’s got connections and name recognition on her side so I figure she could help.

The email from his PR people, who had not bothered to respond to me, said that Stephen would not be available for interviews, even a 10 minute phone interview anytime in the near future. Understandably, the guy is busy. It further proves to me that had I not done this through the show’s Q&A, I would have never gotten to him for 100 Interviews at all.

Is this the way I would have preferred to interview him? Of course not. Taking this risk in front of an audience of 150 plus everyone who works for him was nerve-wracking in a way that probably damaged my health. Did I want to only get to ask him two questions? No way. I have infinity more questions for Stephen Colbert. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to ask them.

Was Stephen nice? Absolutely. Like everyone who knew him had told me, he was totally down with the project and he introduced himself to me very gentleman-like. The man is a delight to watch and be around. He is funny and quick as a whip and patient with everyone.

But, he lives in a bubble of people who are very protective of him. I’m not sure if he receives threats often or has a lot of stalkers or what, but it’s definitely a tense, tight atmosphere surrounding someone so friendly and kind.

Mostly, I’m just relieved to be, like Stephen himself said, ‘Done!’

——

To thank Stephen for answering my questions, I’m going to be donating a bit of my paycheck for the rest of the project to Donors Choose, his charity of choice. I’m asking my readers to please do the same. (Also, please like 100 Interviews on FB! It helps publishers see how popular the project is and will make it more likely to be a book.)

Notes

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