Colbert Sheds Persona at IOP ‘Thunderdome’

Television personality Stephen Colbert concluded an appearance at the Kennedy School of Government on Friday evening by telling a sold-out crowd that he’d given them enough information to merit a graduate degree from Harvard.

“Well, I think we’ve all learned enough here today. Consider this your graduation ceremony,” he said, raising his arms. “Students of the Kennedy School of Government, you are free to go!”

At the time, Colbert was not speaking as himself, but as “Stephen Colbert,” the brash, right-wing pundit he portrays on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.”

However, despite a few moments which blurred fact and fiction, Colbert spent most of the evening out of character, revealing behind-the-scenes secrets of his hit show and musing on the relationship between comedy and politics.

‘SACK’

The event, simply titled “A Conversation with Stephen Colbert,” took the form of an interview, conducted at the John F. Kennedy, Jr. Forum by Chris L. Corcoran ’07, current president of the Student Advisory Committee (SAC) for the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics (IOP).

Although Colbert made a few in-character jokes at the beginning of the interview—emphasizing that the Student Advisory Committee’s acronym makes the sound “sack” while gesturing towards his groin, for example—he quickly distanced himself from his creation.

“My character is more about how he feels about the news than whether or not he’s saying anything that’s real or not,” Colbert said.

In response to that claim, Corcoran asked Colbert why he chose to make the character a vigorous political conservative, and not a liberal or a moderate.

“One thing that liberals aren’t, is unified, generally, in their thought,” Colbert replied. “It’s easier for me to be a larger-than-life, megalomaniacal figure if I’m doing it passionately from the right.”

“You can’t really be passionately moderate,” Colbert concluded. “It’s like wearing an ‘Extra Medium’—it doesn’t exist.”

‘WILLFULLY IGNORANT’

Colbert also spoke at length about one of his show’s most controversial segments, “Better Know a District” (BKAD), in which he interviews members of Congress and often lures them into embarrassing verbal bouts.

Corcoran asked Colbert what he thinks BKAD interviewees can do to avoid looking foolish in their segments on the show.

“Answer honestly,” Colbert said.

“I say to all my guests…‘You know I’m playing a character. You know I’m an idiot. I’m willfully ignorant of the stuff that I talk about. Disabuse me of my ignorance! Don’t let me get away with anything,’” Colbert said. “Be real—that’s the best thing you can do.’”

He remarked that only “about half” of the interviewees successfully meet that challenge.

He also said that his “most challenging” BKAD interview was one he conducted with Rep. Barney Frank ’61, D-Mass., in October 2005.

During the interview, Colbert made a number of jokes about Frank’s weight, to which the Congressman responded with grimaces. Frank later told The Boston Globe that he was “disappointed” with the interview and found Colbert’s style to be “very strange.”

Colbert recalled telling his producers after the filming that Frank “was having a great time” and was just “playing upset.”

“I was wrong,” Colbert said, drawing a large laugh from the crowd. “He called my work ‘sub-Three Stooges.’”

“But if I’m anywhere near the Three Stooges,” Colbert said, “then I’ve achieved my goal.”

PART OF THE SHOW

The interview was actually the culmination of a full day of events for Colbert on the Harvard campus, according to Ana I. Mendy ’09, a member of the SAC.

Mendy said that, earlier in the day, a camera crew from “The Colbert Report” filmed a set of interviews between an in-character Colbert and about 10 Harvard students from the IOP.

“I think it’s going to be part of the show,” Mendy said.

Later, Colbert attended a luncheon at the Charles Hotel, the culmination of the IOP’s weeklong summit for newly-elected members of Congress.

According to Mendy, parts of the function were filmed, and Colbert invited a number of the Congress members to appear on BKAD.

Crews from “The Colbert Report” were on hand at the Forum interview, and certain moments seemed potentially staged for the camera.

At one point, a “Report” crew member handed Colbert a large portrait of conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly, who holds a Master’s of Public Administration degree from the Kennedy School. Colbert held it aloft and demanded that the school hang it in the building.

“Certainly one of the pictures of JFK could come down,” a possibly in-character Colbert remarked.

The climactic speech, in which he told Kennedy School students that they were free to go, was also highly staged, and even involved a number of takes—Colbert had difficulty remembering the monologue he was supposed to deliver. While laughing, he repeatedly asked a crew-member to remind him what his lines were.

COMEDIC TO THE CORE?

Student reception of the event was overwhelmingly positive, even before it began.

According to Corcoran, tickets for the event, which were free and had been distributed via an online lottery, had been going for as much as $100 on the “black market” of student e-mail lists.

Colbert received standing ovations both upon entering and leaving the Forum, and individual attendees expressed their excitement about the interview afterwards.

Shouvik Banerjee, a student at the Kennedy School, called the event “incredible” and said he was “surprised and glad” that Colbert chose to speak mostly out of character.

Jarrett A. Zafran ’09 said the interview was “amazing” and that Colbert “had good answers about the nature of his job.”

Colbert had been very blunt about what that nature was.

“I don’t perceive my role as a newsman at all,” he said during the interview. “I’m a comedian from stem to stern. You can cut me open and count the rings of jokes.”

“If people learn something about the news by watching my show, that’s incidental to my goal,” he said.

As the audience laughed at that remark, he looked to the crowd and said, “And it’s hilarious to me that you think that’s a joke.”

—Staff writer Abe J. Riesman can be reached at riesman@fas.harvard.edu.