Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z is the definitive guide to the Peabody-winning satire that rewrote the rules of comedy. We asked co-author and superfan Sharilyn Johnson for the truthiness, the whole truthiness, and nothing but the truthiness.
P&C: You’ve been covering comedy for 16 years, in print, radio, and with your blog, third-beat.com. When did you first become aware of Stephen Colbert, and were you a fan from the start?
SJ: I was a loyal Daily Show viewer when Colbert was still there, but I wasn’t a fan of the correspondents. At the time, the field pieces still had a bit of the “weird news” angle, and I often didn’t feel good about their choice of targets. It felt like they were making fun of well-meaning people. I didn’t pay close attention to Colbert until I saw him on a Daily Show panel in 2005 at the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal. The energy and warmth he had in that context totally sold me. By the time the Report premiered that fall, I already had a sense of what was underneath the character, which made me appreciate the show more. Attending my first taping the following summer put me in overdrive.
P&C: Your book, Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z covers almost a decade. How has the show evolved over the years?
SJ: It’s been fascinating watching some of the old, lesser-known clips again. In the show’s initial eight weeks, in late 2005, the character was very heavy-handed. His voice was different. And he was a bit more of a jerk at the beginning, when the show was intended to directly mirror The O’Reilly Factor. It did find its stride quickly, though. Within the first year, the show started creating its own world, with its own rules, and the execution of the character loosened up. These days they really can do anything they want. They can think big, and Colbert is free to openly show the audience how much fun he’s having, both of which result in the show’s greatest moments.
P&C: TCR has a killer team of writers, including Stephen. How do you think his improv background has helped with his character and the show itself?
SJ: The majority of his writers have improv backgrounds. They typically work in teams of two to generate material, so collaboration is part of the process from the start. I think they use their improv brains to approach their writing the same way any improviser would. In any news story, they’d be looking for that “first unusual thing.” In the book, we talk a bit about the construction of The Word, and you could look at the verbal portion of that segment as an “If this, then what?” thought process.
As for Colbert himself, his interviews are perhaps the most obvious illustration of his improv skills at work. He has some prepared questions, but for the most part he’s reacting to the guest’s responses as his character. He’s also an incredible listener. Viewers might not realize that, because his character listens to nobody. That’s something we’ll see more overtly when he takes over the Late Show.
He’s sometimes talked about how at Second City, he learned to wear his character “as lightly as a cap.” I think his ability to show his humanity underneath the character has been an essential, if not the most essential, ingredient to the show’s longevity. Viewers would’ve gotten tired of “Stephen” if there wasn’t something else there to connect with.
P&C: When Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Tom Lehrer said that political satire was obsolete. Why do you think TCR (and TDS) are so popular?
SJ: Aside from being hilarious? It used to be just the politicians who told you what to believe and what to think. Now it’s “journalists” doing it. People have this overwhelming sense of wanting to call bullshit on everything that’s being fed to them, but don’t know where to start. I think Colbert, Jon Stewart, and John Oliver are doing that for us. (But mostly, it’s that they’re hilarious.)
P&C: The Colbert Report is so brilliant night after night, it’s hard to think of highlights. That said, what are some of your favourite segments or episodes?
SJ: There are some obvious ones. Walk up to any Colbert fan and utter the word “Munchma,” and watch them dissolve in giggles. The Super PAC stuff was brilliantly executed. The Daft Punk episode was incredible, even more so when you learn what happened leading up to it. The Wheat Thins “sponsortunity” was proof positive that sometimes the simplest idea is the best idea. An early 2006 episode that had both the Charlene video and Stephen’s Laws of Love was a great one-two punch.
As far as lesser-cited ones? There’s a segment from 2011 called “Close Sesame” where he incompetently does the “marshmallow test” on himself. It’s pure clown and just wonderfully, innocently dumb. He was clearly having a blast performing it, too.
The band Gorillaz, which is made up of animated characters, was on the show but “Stephen” refused to interview the real guys behind the characters. He stormed off the set and returned in his own street clothes to interview them as the mild-mannered “Steve Colbert,” which was a wonderful reality-bending meta moment.
For the medical segment Cheating Death, he introduced a fake medical product called Vaxa-Mime, and did a great little mime routine to go with it. I’ve heard he did killer object work as an improviser, which I would’ve loved to have seen.
And obviously, I’m partial to the 13 episodes that I saw live in the studio.
P&C: Was there anything you learned about Colbert while writing this book that you didn’t expect?
SJ: Is it egotistical of me to say “no”? There might’ve been if this was a celebrity biography, because I’m not really interested in his personal life and I just don’t retain that information. But I’m deeply interested in his work, as is my co-author [Remy Maisel], and that was our focus. I like to say that I’ve been researching this book for nine years. The hardest part about writing it was compiling the citations. Almost every little-known detail in it was something one or both of us had been carrying around in our noggins all this time, but we had to go back and find legitimate sources for them. It was almost like writing the book backwards.
P&C: A lot of TCR fans (ourselves included) are gutted at the loss of his character. While we understand the demands of the show, he did so much that transcends mere satire (the Super PAC, the White House Correspondents Dinner, his championing of Hachette authors, to name a few). What do you think the show’s legacy will be?
SJ: That’s hard to say. Many fans view this as the loss of a great political satirist. How political he’ll actually be at CBS remains to be seen, but even though the character will be gone, the point of view that informed the character will live on. Stephen will continue to view the world partially through that lens. He’ll just express that point of view in different ways. Plus, so many of his greatest bits on the Report are entirely apolitical. He could deliver a segment like Cheating Death in his own voice as a traditional talk show desk bit, and it would still work.
Something like the Super PAC, or his run for president, or even going back to the Green Screen Challenge — these are all games he’s played with his audience. He has a very unique relationship with viewers, and I think we’ll look back at that as something that couldn’t be recreated. The sense that we’re all in conspiracy with each other to create this world and propel these games forward.
I think the legacy of The Colbert Report will be determined largely by what the Late Show turns out to be. None of us have a clue what that is yet. But I sure am looking forward to finding out.
Bears & Balls is available now in paperback and Kindle editions. Click here to order.
Sharilyn Johnson has been an entertainment reporter since 1995, focusing on comedy since 1998. Her blog, Third Beat Magazine, has been called “the Wikileaks of comedy” by CBC Radio. Her comedy coverage has also appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press and the Toronto Star, and she’s appeared on CBC Radio’s LOL and Definitely Not the Opera.