Bullblog: What’s up, Stephen?
Stephen Colbert: Hello, hello, hello, hello, hello.
BB: How was your talk?
SC: It was good. When Akhil [Reed Amar] said that I should come up to the Law School, I said, ‘Well I’m not a lawyer.’ On my show, I did a lot of things with campaign finance—testing the legality, or the strange legality of certain things you can do with money. Thankfully, my lawyer, Trevor Potter, McCain’s lawyer in 2008, who I really love, came up to do this talk with with me—and Trevor was a sport. At the talk, we played little clips of the show, and basically showed how we got ourselves into this kind of trouble.
What we talked about was how my character on the show got into campaign finance trouble, and then how we got ourselves out of it in oddly, oddly legal ways. In other words, the things I was able to get away with were very strange, and the whole part of the game was showing how strange our laws are in that there are almost no restrictions on what you can do with money in politics. And so it took an hour and a half just to explain that. It was supposed to be 20 minutes of talking, and then an hour of questions. It turned out to be an hour and a half of talking and 15 minutes of questions, so I felt like I gypped the audience a little bit because people always have follow-up questions. We just ran out of time.
BB: Have you ever given a talk like this in an academic format or setting?
SC: I have. I’ve done interviews at universities before, but this was the most presentational I’ve ever been, where I was explicating the game for an audience. I’ve never done that before. And I’ve certainly never done that with one of my close advisors so that he [Potter] could get into the nitty-gritty of the meaning of everything I was doing. But no, it was fun. It was nice, and Akhil made it easy.
BB: You have a character on the show that you try to maintain, but giving a talk on campaign finance in this setting seems to be something interesting to you, and maybe something you want to break character for. Are there other issues besides this one for which you want to not be in character?
SC: No, I actually have no desire to break character in public, even to talk about campaign finance. This is a very unique situation that I’ve never done before. Without having the character, I could have never done the jokes I did about campaign finance, because then, I’d just be talking about campaign finance.
In this case, what the character allows me to do is actually embody the issue: we like to say, ‘We make the show into a pebble and we throw ourselves into the pond of the news and we report on our own ripples.’
I mean to say, we get right in there. We make ourselves the news. Not for our ego’s sake—though many times, for my character’s ego’s sake—but because once you are actually doing the thing in the news that you’re talking about in the first place, you learn stuff you wouldn’t have learned before.
I would never have learned all the ways you could use money in a campaign if I hadn’t actually tried to do it, because suddenly opportunities were given to me that people don’t like to talk about publicly. One of the things I used to say was all the stuff that people do below board…
BB: What do you mean?
SC: Like, ‘You know how we do these things’—I do [the campaign finance stuff] above the board, you know what I mean? I like to do it so people can see it. I want the audience to be gob-smacked in real time as to what the reality of our politics are.
BB: Do you even think you are playing-up the absurdity of campaign finance law? Do you think that the people in charge of other Super PACs may even be more ridiculous without trying?
SC: What I love, of course, is the most ridiculous example that we kept on using was Karl Rove, who I am sure is a lovely fella; but he had a very unique thing. He had a Super PAC, Crossroads, that, at one point, had raised $200 in a month in what I think was Aug. of 2011 or something. That month, he went to his donors and he said, ‘What gives? Why aren’t you giving me—it’s unlimited corporate donations, why aren’t you giving me any money?’ And they said, ‘Well, we don’t really want to be on record as having given you any money.’ And so, he started something called Crossroads GPS, which was a 501(c)(4), where you don’t have to disclose any of your donors. Over the same period of time later after he did that, $200 for what was transparent in the Super PAC where you could find out who gave the money, $5.1 million of secret money and all the secret money consistently outraised [the publicly disclosed money]. It’s hard to top. I couldn’t top that. I couldn’t be more ridiculous than that.
But I tired. At one point, I had a billionaire who was ready to help me. He was ready, with a big check, with a lot of zeroes on the end if the right game came along to use it. And I had found the ‘right game’ actually, which was to buy the naming rights to the South Carolina Republican Primary.
BB: You can buy the naming rights to a presidential primary?
SC: Well, no one had ever done it. But, I went to the Republicans because they were down about $500 thousand and couldn’t hold their primary because they had to pay for it, said the law. So, I went to them, and I said, ‘You know, I hear you don’t have any money.’ They said, ‘We’re gonna raise it. It’s gonna be fine.’ I said, ‘No, you don’t understand. I’m not a reporter. I’m a guy with deep pockets. I’ve got some money. I can take this problem off your shoulders.’ They asked, ‘Whad’ya mean?’ I said, ‘I’ll write you a check.’ And they go, ‘Well, why would you do that?’ And I said, ‘Because I want the naming rights to the primary.’ And they said, ‘Why would you do that?’ And I said, ‘Because it would be funny, and you need the money, and I’ll be up front—it would demonstrate that there’s too much money in politics, and it gets used in abusive ways that end up giving people ownership of our political process.’ And they said, ‘Sounds good.’
And at that moment, there was actually a change in South Carolina law, at the last minute, that made the state pay for the primary instead of the party, and so they didn’t need my money anymore. But it really came down to the 11th hour. I thought that was going to be the best thing we could do with the money.
BB: So it was gonna be the ‘Stephen Colbert South Carolina Primary?’
SC: It was going to be the ‘Colbert Super PAC South Carolina Primary.’ It was going to be sponsored by the Super PAC, and not me. We raised about $1.2 or $1.3 million, and I didn’t know what to do with this money, because what do you do with that kind of money? I didn’t really want to help [a politician], you know what I mean? I didn’t want to be a political player. But this would’ve just allowed the Republicans to hold a primary. It didn’t actually help a candidate, and I thought that was worthwhile.
It’s all so ridiculous that it was a real challenge for us to leapfrog—how do I leapfrog reality?
BB: Do you feel like you made your ultimate point on campaign finance? Is there anything about this issue left for you to tackle for right now?
SC: Well, I hope we did. We eventually ran for president in South Carolina, and Jon Stewart took over my Super PAC. You know, we’re dear friends, and we spend a lot of time together, but we supposedly weren’t coordinating: it was all perfectly legal. And he ran my Super PAC, and I ran my campaign, and I would explicitly say what I wanted him to do on my TV show and he would watch my TV show and then do that thing, and that’s how we did not coordinate.
BB: Switching gears, can you tell us about your first kiss?
SC: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I think kindergarten maybe. I think kindergarten. I think waiting for our moms to pick us up outside of Our Lady of—not Our Lady of Lords—outside of Church of the Nativity kindergarten. I think that was it. I’m not gonna name any names.
BB: Was it awesome?
SC: I mean, I liked it. It was good for me. It was good for me.
BB: What was college like for you?
SC: Well, it’s a fractured answer because I barely graduated from high school. I was not a model student. I read a lot. I like to say that I graduated from high school incidentally, because I just read so much that I incidentally learned enough to pass things, but barely. If I hadn’t aced all my finals senior year, I’d probably still be in high school.
BB: What were you like in class? Did you screw around a lot?
SC: No. I mean, in my senior year yearbook I was voted wittiest, which is never a good sign. I would sit in the back of class and read. I had stacks of books returned to me at the end of every year at school. They would hand me my books back because they would take them away, and I would just move on to the next book. I would lean back in my desk, or put a book inside of whatever book I was supposed to be reading.
BB: That’s bad, Stephen. That’s very bad.
SC: Is it really? It sure doesn’t get you into Yale.
The first place I went to was Hampden-Sydney College in Hampden-Sydney, Virginia, which I actually loved. It was the sort of place that was very easy to get into, and very hard to stay at. I think only 65 percent of the freshman class graduates—they get knocked out. It’s very rigorous once you’re in there. Especially their rhetoric program—it’s very admirable, and that’s really influenced how I do my show. I do this thing on my show called “The Word,” and [to do it], I’m directly taking the lessons of my rhetoric teachers at Hampden-Sydney College to write that part of the show.
And so I did two years there, and it was an all male school. I left because I wanted to study something else, and I also wanted to be on a coed campus—I wanted to see some girls.
BB: So you wanted some more kisses?
SC: I wanted more kisses. At Hampden-Sydney I had a girlfriend at Georgetown, so I’d take the bus up there every so often, but that didn’t last. So, I transferred to Northwestern University to study in their theater program, because I found the only thing I worked hard on whether you asked me to work on it or not was theater. I would rehearse on time, show up, stay late, anything you wanted. With theater, I was the opposite of how I was academically. So, I thought, ‘Well, that’s probably a clue of something,’ and so I transferred to Northwestern. And I finished the core curriculum while I was at Hampden-Sydney, so when I got to Northwestern I took a couple of electives and then just theatre. It was like being in a conservatory.
BB: Did you party?
SC: I partied more at Hampden-Sydney. I didn’t really party at Northwestern because the theater program there is three years and since I transferred, I only had two years to do everything. I was slammed: I had to do like three crews, which is like having a job, and I also had a job—I had two jobs. I worked the steam table line, and I also worked in the library—I did cataloging in the library.
BB: Did you like the Dewey Decimal System?
SC: No, no. At the time, Northwestern was a pioneer in digitizing their stacks, and our big claim to fame was that I think Northwestern had more volumes than any other university except for Harvard and it was our job was to digitize them. I said, ’How long will this take?’ And my boss said, ‘It won’t happen in your lifetime.’ I’m sure they’ve figured out a better way to do it now, but it was manual input. Typing in cards at a time when you couldn’t scan—there was no technology to scan. You had to input the manuscripts manually into this thing called the LUIS system—Library Users Information System—that was designed at Northwestern. Fascinating stuff. Hilarious, I realize. But that’s what I did.
BB: Which begs the question: has anyone ever tried to download your brain?
SC: Is that possible?
BB: No, but it could be.
SC: Well, here’s the thing. You guys aren’t married, but there’s an aspect of that when you get married. You offload—I don’t know if you download, but you offload info onto your spouse, I believe. I used to keep a checkbook. I used to know what kind of money I had. I had my saving account. I had my checking account. I used to know what I had to the penny! I don’t know what happens with that anymore. I offloaded that to my wife. She could just take my money and run to Venezuela. And she’s offloaded things onto me. I’ve offloaded things onto my children.
I think you’ll one day be able to download a brain. Ray Kurtzwiel thinks you’ll be able to.
BB: Who is that?
SC: Ray Kurtzwiel is the guy who thinks we’re all going to live forever if we just live for 50 more years. He thinks the robotization of humanity is actually going to be a great thing, because within 50 years we’ll be able to get a copy of your DNA, and put it into a robot, or that things like stem cell technology will allow us to plug and make new organs or new skin. Basically, you’ll dip your finger into a vat of goo and it’ll grow new skin. Trouble is when you get to the eyes and the mouth…
Are these questions you ask everyone? Are these standard questions?
BB: Of course they are. We noticed on your Wikipedia page that you are making a cameo appearance in The Hobbit…
SC: It’s listed, is it? Is it verified by anyone? Well that’s an interesting rumor. That’s a very interesting rumor. Well, I’ll definitely see the second movie. I’m definitely going to see the second movie to see if that happens.
BB: Yeah, us too. The first one was cool.
SC: Do you know The Hobbit?
BB: Yeah, we do know The Hobbit.
SC: What’s your favorite part of The Hobbit?
BB: For us, it’s your cameo in the new movie.
SC: Really? I hope that happens then. That would be great. I did go down to New Zealand to the set.
BB: What do you like more, hobbits or trolls?
SC: Well, there’s no personality to the trolls except the ones in The Hobbit. By the time you get to Lord of the Rings they’re sort of mindless brutes. I like hobbits, I like the Tooks. They’re adventurous. They get into trouble. They’re not that smart. You know? How many times—if you read Lord of the Rings, it comes off better in the movies, does Pippin do nothing right? Everyone had their moment, and you could say maybe him saving Faramir—when Denethor wants to torch Faramir—spoiler alert—was Pippin’s moment. That’s one thing, but basically, Pippin never gets his moment in the entire book series. I’ve read it many, many, many, many times—but I went back and read it a few years ago and said, ‘Okay, this is the page… and even Faramir isn’t that big of a deal!’ Mary kills the Witch King along with Eowyn. And Frodo and Sam save the world. Pippin, you know, he’s just a guy.