‘The New York Times’ Asks “How Many Stephen Colberts Are There?”

Stephen Colbert dressing room

©Todd Heisler | The New York Times

There used to be just two Stephen Colberts, and they were hard enough to distinguish. The main difference was that one thought the other was an idiot. The idiot Colbert was the one who made a nice paycheck by appearing four times a week on “The Colbert Report” (pronounced in the French fashion, with both t’s silent), the extremely popular fake news show on Comedy Central. The other Colbert, the non-idiot, was the 47-year-old South Carolinian, a practicing Catholic, who lives with his wife and three children in suburban Montclair, N.J., where, according to one of his neighbors, he is “extremely normal.” One of the pleasures of attending a live taping of “The Colbert Report” is watching this Colbert transform himself into a Republican superhero.

Suburban Colbert comes out dressed in the other Colbert’s guise — dark two-button suit, tasteful Brooks Brothersy tie, rimless Rumsfeldian glasses — and answers questions from the audience for a few minutes. (The questions are usually about things like Colbert’s favorite sport or favorite character from “The Lord of the Rings,” but on one memorable occasion a young black boy asked him, “Are you my father?” Colbert hesitated a moment and then said, “Kareem?”) Then he steps onstage, gets a last dab of makeup while someone sprays his hair into an unmussable Romney-like helmet, and turns himself into his alter ego. His body straightens, as if jolted by a shock. A self-satisfied smile creeps across his mouth, and a manically fatuous gleam steals into his eyes.

Lately, though, there has emerged a third Colbert. This one is a version of the TV-show Colbert, except he doesn’t exist just on screen anymore. He exists in the real world and has begun to meddle in it. In 2008, the old Colbert briefly ran for president, entering the Democratic primary in his native state of South Carolina. (He hadn’t really switched parties, but the filing fee for the Republican primary was too expensive.) In 2010, invited by Representative Zoe Lofgren, he testified before Congress about the problem of illegal-immigrant farmworkers and remarked that “the obvious answer is for all of us to stop eating fruits and vegetables.”

Photo Slide Show: “A Day with Stephen Colbert”.

Full Article: “How Many Stephen Colberts Are There?”

26 thoughts on “‘The New York Times’ Asks “How Many Stephen Colberts Are There?”

  1. Oh, this is WONDERFUL! This is actually far and away (I think) better than the biographical book that came out recently and it contains greater insight. (Of course, the author in this case did actually have access to him and his staff, which makes quite a difference.)
    The pictures are amazing and the whole profile is just great. And I admit, I agree with the author that Stephen gives a little nudge and a wink more often as his character now than he used to in the earlier days of the show when he seemed unflinching. But I don’t mind — The show keeps getting more and more brilliant. Great article! Great photos!

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    • I agree, this article is everything I wanted that biography to be, but wasn’t. So much more insight into both Stephen and “Stephen” and now that 3rd guy who we’ll have to call something else. “Stephen Colbert 3D” maybe? No… anyway, I think it’s a valid point that the lines between the real Stephen and the character are more blurred now. The character has evolved quite a bit from the early days of the show.

      My favorite part of the article was this bit from Jon: ‘”Here is this fictional character who is now suddenly interacting in the real world. It’s so far up its own rear end,” he said, or words to that effect, “that you don’t know what to do except get high and sit in a room with a black light and a poster.”‘ I think I laughed for a full five minutes.

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  2. It’s definitely worth clicking on all 13 photos – they are wonderful. Very good and in depth article, too. The NYT writer is clearly an “it-getter”.

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    • Oh yes–they’re fabulous, and many are unique (Colbert’s hands holding his notes). I do especially love the one with Paul Dinello and his sleeping dog! So sweet.

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    • Yes, I love that the writer is an it-getter! It makes me wonder… How long before the Colbert Super PAC buys a newspaper?… Hmmm. Think of the possibilities…

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  3. Thanks for this! I wouldn’t have known about it otherwise. What a great read. I love the idea that TCR is just a funnier adaptation of the principle, “Do you want to get in trouble?” And I love that Jon is such a fanboy.

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  4. The answer to the NYT’s query is: not enough. My favorite parts of the article:

    ….”but on one memorable occasion a young black boy asked him, ‘Are you my father?’ Colbert hesitated a moment and then said, ‘Kareem?'”

    “Stewart also recalled that Colbert worried at first that the ‘Report’ might not be sustainable, and says he kept pointing out, ‘I don’t know anyone more interesting than you.'”

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    • Oh YES! The “Kareem?” line was beyond hysterical. How did he come up with that so fast?!? Amazing.

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      • All part of his great improv skills – always say “Yes, and…”

        I would bet good money that he said it with a believably sad, yet hopeful look on his face, and a catch in his throat….

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  5. What a wonderful, wonderful article! I can’t even pick a part to single out and quote, it was so good. It was great to read Jon’s praise of what a “smart, interesting, decent” person Stephen is, and bless Trevor Potter for completely understanding the point of the SuperPAC. I especially how the article highlighted how “Stephen” has evolved over time and how effortlessly Stephen is able to weave himself in and out of that character.

    And those photos are really beautiful, particularly (aside from that stunning one above) Stephen’s air guitar skills and the one of him greeting the audience. Nice to see Paul Dinello in there, too!

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  6. Oh my goodness. This is a BRILLIANT article! I’m also like lockhart43; I can’t pick a favourite part or quote, I love everything. Though I will say that I loved reading about Jon’s admiration for Stephen and when how Stephen was/is lacking confidence in his ability to deliver, Jon has complete faith in him, which is just wonderful. I HAVE noticed that “Stephen” is less rigid and monotone now than when he first started, and honestly, I prefer this “Stephen”: the one who oozes charm and has the twinkle in his eye so that people know that they’re in on the joke. And I like the idea of a 3rd “Stephen” who’s out and about in real life, almost like a cartoon character come to life and transported to the real world to wreak havoc, although in this case it’s for good and not bad, like the whole Super PAC thing. And the photo slideshow was the strawberry on top of the marshmallow fluff; any photos that lets us see what goes on behind the scenes is a-okay with me! Definitely have to make sure to print out this article at some point. It is just great great great great great.

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  7. I confess, I didn’t realize in my haste to read the article that it was going to be the cover story of the NY Times Sunday Magazine this week! There was an advertisement in today’s NY Times for the upcoming magazine, and there was a very funny picture of Stephen on the cover, looking nothing like himself, but more like a roly-poly version of the millionaire from the game Monopoly. I’m very glad that more of the world will get to read this story and find out about him! (How cool is it to be a suburban dad with the greatest comedy show on television, one of the great philanthropists and humanitarians, the world’s keenest political performance artist/satirist, and also be the cover story for the NY Times Magazine? Ah, just another day for Stephen Colbert. And he deserves it!) :)

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          • Photoshop! That is a seriously worked-over picture.

            Except for my quick comment on the slideshow, I hadn’t had time to comment on the article itself. I think it is beautifully done, and it just goes to show how important it is to have good research, good access, and the general good smarts and perception to understand exactly what it is that Stephen does. Jon’s quotes are so wonderful; maybe it sounds silly, but sometimes I think he feels like a dad or an older brother (though not by much!) to Stephen. Or maybe Jon’s just thrilled that he turned out to be such a great mentor.

            The New York Times often disappoints me with its profiles–too often they sound as if they were lifted straight from a press release–but this definitely is the exception.

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          • That face is seriously freaking me out big time. I think I’m still just going to print out the article and keep it in a folder.

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        • Ah! It was driving me crazy trying to think who that picture reminds me of. It’s like one of Ricky’s goofy faces. Thanks, that was driving me nuts.

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  8. Wow, that is a hilariously disturbing picture. So appropriate and funny that he’s sprawled on a pile o’ cash, but that face is kinda creepy. Still… One of the best articles about Stephen I’ve ever read.

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  9. I love how the author also interviewed Jon, whose played such a huge part in shaping Stephen’s life. The whole article was so well done.

    It’s funny how you can just about hear the excitement and energy in Stephen’s voice when they’re discussing something he’s passionate about, even though you’re just reading the words.

    Could anyone read what it said on the yellow pillow behind the pooch? It’s driving me mad!

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  10. In the comments section for that article, a bunch of posters recommended that people check out the Andrew Young interview from January 22 2008, and also watch the rest of the segments from that show if they could. I agree that show was great and so I went back to the site to get the links to send to some friends and found out the pages for two of the segments are freaking broken:

    http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/148031/january-22-2008/malcolm-gladwell

    http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/148029/january-22-2008/it-s-all-about-stephen

    I already sent a message through the web feedback form of the Comedy Central website, asking them to fix it, but if anyone else wants to do the same thing, please do, maybe if they get a bunch of emails about it they’ll actually look into the problem. If you do want to send a message you can access the feedback form via the “Help” link in the footer of the site.

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    • Gah the pages are working now… don’t know what the deal was, those links were busted for quite a while… at any rate, please disregard my earlier appeal and enjoy the videos!

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  11. I agree, this is a great and perceptive article – and I love the photos too, especially the one above with the “three Stephens” – himself, in the mirror and in the drawing on the wall! Fits the theme to a T!

    And he looks great.

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