NPR Fresh Air host Terry Gross is never more favorable toward a guest than when she’s hosting a conservative-bashing comedian. (See her cooing over Jon Stewart.) On Tuesday, Gross interviewed Stewart’s partner in satire Stephen Colbert for 40 adoring minutes. She fawned over his moonlighting on Broadway and boosted him as brave for going to Iraq (and Colbert mocked both attempts to fawn).
When they discussed how Colbert took his fake O'Reilly-mocking character to a House hearing chaired by liberal Democrat Zoe Lofrgren last fall to advocate for migrant farm workers, Gross found it "like, so amazing" and Colbert said that after Rep. John Conyers asked him to leave, he recanted and they had a great time talking jazz and listening to records in Conyers' office. How cozy, Colbert and the Democrats and NPR:
TERRY GROSS: So this is in favor of the rights of migrant farm workers, and one of the things you said is this is America. Um, ‘My great-grandfather did not travel across 4,000 miles of the Atlantic Ocean to see this country overrun by immigrants.’ (She laughs.)
I thought this was like so amazing that you were doing it in character at a congressional subcommittee hearing where not everybody thought you belonged. John Conyers asked you to leave the committee room and submit your statement in writing instead. So it's not like oh boy, it’s a Stephen Colbert, you know, performance.
STEPHEN COLBERT: Oh, absolutely not. This all started off because I had Arturo Rodriguez as the head of the United Farm workers on the show, and that -- oh, that'll be interesting. You know, I'm kind of interested in Cesar Chavez and this is the only other guy who’s headed of the United Farm Workers and my character thinks of himself as kind of a conservative Bobby Kennedy. (She laughs.) You know, young, dashing, you know, fighting, you know, for the little guy out there.
And, you know, Kennedy had broken bread with Cesar Chavez on his hunger strike and I thought yeah, that would be a perfect model. And then he said would you do this thing called Take Our Jobs Please? I said oh, that'll be a nice thing. It's sort of improvisationally, oh, it led to the next thing because in improvisation you accept the initiation of the person that you're playing with and sort of accepted without question and trust that a good thing will come of it if the first initiation was good.
And it was nice to have them on. He said would you do this thing called Take Our Jobs Please? So I went and did their one-day program of working on a farm and, you know, packing corn and that sort of thing and, of course, did it in our own comedic way. And that when we were going to go and that they said well, would you interview this congressman who is trying to introduce new legislation? I said okay. So I interviewed her and that was the next sort of part of the initiation. And then she said would come testify before Congress?
And one of my producers on it initially said no to her. And I said no, that's part of the improvisational nature of this. What would that, tell me what that would mean? And they said well, you'd make a statement and answer questions. And I said I think I have to. I think, I don't think you can say no to a congressman asking you to testify on a subject as long as you're honest about what's going to happen.
So I said, you know I'm and luckily I had this on tape. I said you know they're going to, they're going to go ape. You know, they're not going to be happy that I do this because I'm going to do it in character. I'm going to have to do it in character. There's no reason for me to go. But my character really feels like he has something to say and I'll do my best to say something through the character. And she said, Oh no, it'll be fine. I said no, I really think they're going to go crazy. And she goes no, no, no. It's my committee and I get to control, everything is going to be fine.
And I was right. People went crazy. And when I got there she said yeah, there's been a little bit of back-and-forth about whether you should submit your testimony or whether you should speak. And I said I'm here on your invitation, whatever you want me to do. And she said no, it's going to be fine. And so when Conyers said I'd like - before anything started - I'd like you, you know, to submit your statement, I really was confused because I was told that everything was fine. And I said, are you asking me not to talk? And I think I said something like that. And he said, I'm asking you to leave.
COLBERT: And that's when I actually started getting not nervous because something was happening that I didn't expect. And I thought oh, this is fascinating. This is far more interesting than I thought. I'm watching a fight that I don't know about and I'm the subject of the fight. Which, you know, is not an ego stroke but it is certainly, it makes you interested in the fight in ways that you can't imagine.
GROSS: Wait, now, were you thinking that, or was your character thinking that?
COLBERT: No, I was thinking, I was thinking that. I was thinking oh, this is fascinating. I have engendered a fight that I did not mean to. But what's actually more fascinating is not that I'm in it, what's more fascinating is that I don't know what's going to happen next. And that's just, as an improviser, that's what I like more than anything else, not knowing what's going to happen.
And so I just said well, I'm in here at the invitation of the chairman – the chairwoman, and if she'd like me to leave I will. And she wanted me to stay so it happened. But what I, what I love is Conyers, who was head of the full committee, sent me a letter thanking me for having testified. And was, couldn't have been nicer to me afterwards, by the way. Came in. We talked about jazz. Sat in his office. He played me some music and we just, you know, BS'd.
But he sent me a letter thanking me and then sending me the transcript and saying here, look at the transcript because you're allowed to amend the transcript. So I said I have no amendations to make this transcript. I'm fine with it. Except that I took the letter of him thanking me for having testified on how valuable my testimony was and I framed it next to the page of the transcript that has him saying I want you to leave. (She laughs.)
GROSS: That's great.
COLBERT: It's a highlighted thank you. It was so valuable, "Sincerely, John Conyers." And then on the next page it's highlighted, I am asking you to leave. And that's double framed on my wall of my office and that's my favorite thing about the testimony.
Gross was still amazed that Colbert could turn a House hearing room into a Comedy Central stage, but only Colbert felt that this whole mocking of reality should properly be seen as "suspicious," as something that should be too cute for Congress:
GROSS: You have to have some kind of genuine faith in your ability as a performer to be in a real place like Congress and to speak when somebody really important like John Conyers has asked you to leave. I mean...
COLBERT: To leave. Yeah.
GROSS: ...that's really, you talk about committing to a performance, that is really committing to a performance.
COLBERT: It sure was. And that's, I really, that's one of the things that we have fun with on the show that I think might differentiate us at times from other people, is that we really like engaging with the world in reality. You know, Jon is real and he has fake correspondents. I'm fake and so I like to engage with real things.
COLBERT: I like to have, like my first guest, instead of having a correspondent come on to have sort of a satirical take on a subject and therefore you explain the news of the day to this conversation, I have the satirical take and I have a real guest on to be my foil and to express what's going on in the news. In the same way, I like to actually go out into the world and be the character out in the world, and as we say on the show, like I throw, we threw ourselves into the pond of the news and report on our own ripples. (Laughter)
GROSS (Laughs): That's good.
COLBERT: And or, you know, anything that looks like me, if I go out into the news and put myself out there, anything that looks like me is probably suspicious. You know, you should probably not trust anyone out in the news who you can't tell apart from me.