As a veteran correspondent for Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, Stephen Colbert has been blurring the line between satire and legitimate journalism since 1997. With fans like Virginia Heffernan and Al Gore, he’s become the most respected “fake reporter” working in the media today. In late July, he travels to Boston to cover the Democratic Convention and, in his own words, “sift the corn of truth from the turd of the 24-hour news cycle.”
Eric Spitznagel: You’ve been promoted to “senior” senior correspondent. Just how far up does the Daily Show career ladder go?
Stephen Colbert: It’s like the Masons. We can’t actually tell you how many levels there are.
What’s your interviewing technique? How do you make a candidate feel relaxed and trust you?
I approach all interviews with fear. I’m frequently afraid that somebody is going to take a punch at me. It’s only cowardice that keeps me from laughing.
You once described Democratic hopeful John Kerry as “cadaverous.” Was that meant as a compliment?
I’ll like to officially change that to “Lurch-like.” Wait, how about “thoughtful zombie?” Does that sound better? He’s a thoughtful, caring, intelligent, committed zombie.
So you’re predicting that he’ll capture the overlooked Zombie-American vote?
[Laughs.] Oh, yes. With the military intervention in Haiti, our shores are going to be overrun with zombies. And nobody’s talking about it. Nobody’s dealing with the zombie refugee issue.
How will your election coverage be superior to the major news networks?
One word: Pyrotechnics. And lots of smoke machines. All of the correspondents are going to be flown in on harnesses in spider costumes, and our new motto is, “We’ll catch you in our satirical web!”
Any chance you’ll get that coveted interview with Bush Jr.?
I don’t see why he wouldn’t talk to me. I’d make him look like a genius. He could bat me around like a redheaded stepchild. In fact, I’d go so far as to say he’s losing votes by not talking to me. I invite him to watch my interviews with Al Sharpton or Bob Graham and see who came out on top.
The Daily Show has received a lot of accolades during the last few years. Does all the attention help you or hurt you?
It’s actually made things more difficult. During the 2000 Convention, we could get away with a lot more. But now everybody knows about the show and they’re more wary of us. I’ve caught aides trying to look at my questions surreptitiously over my shoulder before I do an interview. They suddenly think there’ll be some consequence to talking to me. I don’t need that. I’m just there to get laughs.
What happens if you get shut out of this year’s Democratic Convention?
That’s fine. We kind of enjoy our outsider status. It just gives us more emotional fuel to hit ‘em harder. You won’t let us come to your party? Super. We’ll take pictures of your party and project them on a green screen behind me and I’ll pretend to be at your party.
Rumor has it that you’re the first choice to replace Jon Stewart as host if he ever decides to retire.
Jon’s never leaving. He’s imbued that desk with the strongest part of his essence. Which isn’t to say that any of the four correspondents wouldn’t be willing to kill him in his sleep if and when the opportunity arises. For the moment, we’re just going to watch and wait.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the August 2004 issue of Esquire magazine.)