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Posts tagged Stephen Colbert

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Stephen Colbert asked me a simple question.

“Are you an improviser?”

I didn’t say what I wanted to say, which was: yes, and it’s entirely because of you.

Instead, I stammered and hedged and spit out “um, sort of, like… on and off?”

Nerves weren’t to blame for my awkward reply, though anyone who knows how big of a fan I am of Colbert would be hard-pressed to believe it. After all, I flew to New York 13 times just to see tapings of The Colbert Report, and co-authored a full-length fan guide to the show. Students at Stanford university studied me as part of a course on fandom. That’s hardcore.

When he appeared before me as I waited in line outside the UCB Theatre last November, my friends concluded, “you manifested him!”

No argument here.

But I couldn’t give him my perfect answer because I wasn’t confident in the “yes” part. (The “it’s entirely because of you,” however, was entirely accurate.)

The story goes like this: I first saw Colbert in person 10 years ago, on a Daily Show discussion panel at the Just for Laughs Festival. His obvious joy for connecting with the audience was unlike anything I’d ever seen. I felt invigorated just watching him, and marvelled at whatever this thing was that made his presence so electric.

His new series became a hit, and he made global headlines when he roasted President Bush at the White House Correspondents Dinner. But it was a much less scandalous speech a few months later that made my jaw drop for the second time: his commencement address at Knox College.

He implored the graduating class of 2006 to “say yes.” He explained how to create an improv scene — accept offers, be open, make agreements — and told them they were about to embark on the biggest improvisation of all.

“Will saying yes get you in trouble sometimes? Will saying yes cause you to do some foolish things? Yes it will. But don’t be afraid to be a fool,” he said. “You cannot be both young and wise.”

I saw the connection between the freedom he seemed to have in his performance, and the openness in the philosophy he shared with those students.

His words caught me at a critical time. I’d always been passionate about comedy, but knew I wasn’t meant to be on stage. I worked as a comedy journalist as I tried to claw my way into the business side of “the” business, where I could be where I was most at home: behind a desk.

But it clicked: I’d actually been saying “no.” I tried so hard, but was only pursuing opportunities that I knew I could succeed at if given the chance. Saying “yes” would mean removing these parameters. I had to channel my passion in every direction, no matter how much discomfort, risk, or even failure it brought with it.

I took a page from Colbert’s book, and signed up for an improv class.

Improv? Had I lost my damn mind?

Between my paralyzing stage fright and control issues and only-child syndrome, this would surely be a disaster. This experiment was so doomed that I travelled 1,600 miles away to study in New York, reducing the chance of any gory details reaching my hometown.

It wasn’t easy, but it was great. Aside from bonding with wonderful classmates and teachers, it immediately changed the way I operated in life, in all the ways we know it does. I didn’t dwell on difficulties, I became a better problem-solver, and was super proud because holy crap you guys I did improv.

I upped the ante. I moved halfway across the country. I dove head-first into comedy writing classes that were way too advanced for me. I wrote and performed a one-woman show, somehow spending an entire hour on stage by myself. And I kept taking improv classes.

This is the part where you’re expecting me to say that I found my calling on stage, got overpriced headshots, and never looked back.

But no. All of those creative pursuits were exceptionally hard, and I still didn’t crave the spotlight.

So a few years in, when I started getting busy with other stuff, it was easy for me to take a break from improv. It was easy to let months pass. And easy to then let the months pass in packs of 12. After four years away, it became too hard to go back.

I didn’t realize how big a mistake I was making, because I was still using what I learned in those first improv experiences to say “yes” to things. I mean, I wrote a book for crying out loud – and accomplished in eight months what most writers have 18 to do.

It was a huge challenge. But a challenge I knew I could do as long as I sacrificed enough sleep. Big workload, low risk.

I was accomplishing, but not growing. That’s not what improv — and by extension, Colbert — taught me to do.

When Colbert and I spoke that night, standing just feet from the first stage I ever improvised on, the end of The Colbert Report was four weeks away. It would be nine whole months before he returned to television. I dreaded it, wondering what I’d do with myself in his absence.

The answer was in his question. I would make up for lost time, and “yes” the fuck outta 2015.

In January, I went to my first improv jam, and (predictably) sucked in front of Colin Mochrie. “Get in trouble,” Colbert once said in an interview. “You’ll never get good unless you fail.” I chose to chalk this up as a win.

I took some refresher classes at Bad Dog Theatre, where a whole new generation was discovering improv while I re-discovered it.

I did a three-day intensive Second City Chicago (Colbert’s old stomping grounds), where Jay Steigmann made me prove that I don’t suck at sketch writing after all, and Rachael Mason made me wish I wasn’t too old to be adopted by her.

I wrote a pilot, a daunting and painful process, often with little to show for in the end. I did it anyway.

I studied theatrical clown, a difficult and vulnerable artform for anyone, but thick with layers of anxiety for me. Can I handle looking like an idiot? Can I handle people knowing that I want to look like an idiot? AM I an idiot for worrying? I pushed through my nerves to develop a solo piece, and was invited to perform it on the biggest stage I’ll likely ever step on.

It was hard. All of it. Performing will never be in my DNA, and I’ll always feel like I’ve had to work harder than those who are hungry for it. But it’s because it’s hard that I’m a better person for pushing myself towards it. Each and every one of these creative challenges has made me stronger and my life richer.

I learned this year that just saying “yes” over and over again, in itself, doesn’t cause growth. I need to say “yes” louder, and say it in agreement to bigger and scarier things. Otherwise, all I’m doing is repeating a scene I already know the ending to.

I’ll be in the audience at the Ed Sullivan Theatre when Colbert tapes his Late Show premiere on Sept. 8, officially marking the end of my fandom vacation.

But as excited as I am to watch Colbert’s next chapter take shape, I’m even more excited about my own. I have pilot script rewrites to finish, a clown character to develop, and fall improv classes to get into the groove of.

And then?

Like in any good improv scene, I have no idea what’s going to happen. But I know “yes” will take me there, as long as I say it loud enough.

Sharilyn Johnson is the author of Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z. She has been an entertainment reporter since 1995, focusing on comedy since 1998. Her blog, Third Beat.com, is required reading for comedy nerds. Follow her on twitter @thirdbeat.

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.

Cover Design © Kurt Firla

Cover Design © Kurt Firla

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.

Photo © Chantal Renee

Photo © Chantal Renee

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. 

John Hodgman spoke recently about how Stephen Colbert overcame embarrassment by doing embarrassing things in public, until it no longer bothered him.

This makes perfect sense.

Whether he’s bobsledding in skintight Spandex, or telling George Bush to his face what a douche he is, Colbert’s commitment to character is unflinching.

But for some people, fear of embarrassment can be debilitating.

Katagelophobia, Anyone?

Katagelophobia is the fear of embarrassment, ridicule, or (ironically for comedians) of being laughed at.

I’ve blogged before about Cameron’s anxiety-ridden past. For years he suffered from daily panic attacks, cold sweats, vomiting, eczema, coughing, diarrhea…you name it. Finally in desperation, we went to a shrink.

The therapist, it turned out, had problems of his own. But he said two things that completely changed Cameron’s life – and mine, too.

First, he suggested Cameron take up improv. And second, he said that most anxiety comes from a fear of embarrassment.

We left the therapist after only a few sessions, but Cameron enrolled at Second City. And he did something else that helped him, in improv and in life: he started doing “embarrassing” things, like purposely tripping and stumbling in front of strangers.

At first he would blush and get cold sweats. But he kept on doing it, day after day, until he actually looked for excuses to do silly things in public.

Today he’s so happy, calm and confident that people who didn’t know the “old” Cameron are flabbergasted to learn he wasn’t born fearless.

Disapproval Starts With You

Fear of embarrassment often comes from wanting approval. (“I hope I don’t fuck up on stage tonight. I’ll never be able to show my face again!”)

I’ve seen wanting approval cripple a lot of funny people, especially at festivals, where they put extra pressure on themselves to be brilliant.

Worrying about what your audience thinks is a surefire way to get in your head. When you worry, you judge, and it’s a fast trip to Suckville from there.

Richard Burton used to stand backstage before performances and whisper, “Fuck you! Fuck you!” to the audience. If you can let go on needing approval, you’ll have a much better show. And a helluva lot more fun.

Some people say anxiety before a performance is good, even necessary. I say bullshit. I’ve done plenty of crappy shows where I was nervous beforehand, and just as many good ones where I wasn’t.

It’s natural for some adrenaline to kick in before going on stage, but if having your girlfriend in the audience makes you jittery, click here for some exercises that can help.

Don’t Take Yourself So Seriously

One of my favourite sketches of all time is the Ministry of Silly Walks. It’s so quintessentially British. And yet as John Cleese said, “The aim of any good English gentleman is to get safely to his grave without ever having been embarrassed.”

To err is human. And life’s too short to worry what other people think. Chances are, they’re busy worrying what you think of them.

So if anxiety about making the wrong move, or even just looking stupid in public is holding you back, try looking stupid on purpose. It works.

To hear Hodgman talk about Colbert, click here.

Photo © Laura Dickinson Turner / Second City

Photo © Laura Dickinson Turner / Second City

Colbert kissing David Razowsky while Steve Carell watches at Second City’s 50th anniversary.

There’s a ton of comedy-related podcasts out there, with more being added every day (or so it seems). So it takes something pretty special to break through the clutter and grab our attention.

Well, get ready to add A.D.D. with Dave Razowsky and Ian Foley to your must-hear playlist.

Few people have as much depth and breadth of experience in improv as David Razowsky. His joyful outlook on life, sense of humour, and famous friends-slash-guests make this podcast a true standout.

The conversations are funny, interesting, and wonderfully honest. Whether you’re an improv student, a seasoned actor, or just a fan of comedy, you’ll find inspiration as well as entertainment.

Guests include Phil LaMarr, Susan Messing, Rick Shapiro, Joel Murray, George Wendt, and most recently, someone by the name of Stephen Colbert.

Follow the podcast on twitter @ADDComedypod. And stay tuned for the Colbert episode, which debuts November 21st on iTunes.

Photo © David Razowsky