Stephen Colbert Profile

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Filed under: Satire

The Man in the Irony Mask
by Seth Mnookin
Vanity Fair
October 2007

Photograph by Mark SeligerLike Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat, Stephen Colbert so completely inhabits his creation””the arch-conservative blowhard host of The Colbert Report, his Daily Show spin-off hit””that he rarely breaks character. As Colbert’s new book, I Am America (And So Can You!), is published, Vanity Fair gets a revealing interview with the real thing: a master comedian, forever altered by family tragedy.

I used to make up stuff in my bio all the time, that I used to be a professional ice-skater and stuff like that. I found it so inspirational. Why not make myself cooler than I am? I [told an interviewer that] I’d been arrested for assaulting someone with a flashlight. And I said that I drove a Shelby Cobra, like the Road Warrior, like Mel Gibson. I said, “I’d like you to know I drive a Shelby Cobra.” They totally swallowed it, and I felt bad. Then I thought, It doesn’t matter. It’ll make a better story. “”Stephen Colbert in an interview in his office, June 19, 2007.

Photograph by Mark SeligerStephen Colbert, holding a glass of champagne in one hand and a fluorescent-pink smiley-face cookie in the other, stood behind his desk, which functions as the nerve center of The Colbert Report, the faux newscast on which he plays a blindly egomaniacal, Bill O’Reilly–esque talk-show host also named Stephen Colbert. The majority of the show’s 86 staffers””the writers and producers and stagehands and bookers and interns and assistants who ensure that the show makes it on the air every Monday through Thursday night at 11:30″”sat in front of Colbert in the bleachers that would soon be filled with 110 foot-stomping, hand-clapping, screaming members of Colbert Nation.

Moments before, Colbert had finished showering and shaving in his second-floor, brick-walled office. He’d changed out of the chinos, rumpled short-sleeved button-down shirt, and black Merrell slip-ons he’d worn to the office and into his costume for the evening: a crisp, white Brooks Brothers dress shirt, a bold (but not too bold) Brooks Brothers tie, and a conservative, pin-striped Brooks Brothers suit. Colbert has a square jaw and thick, black hair, and he wears fashionable, rimless glasses. His getup, combined with the swagger he affects onstage, made him seem like Clark Kent, if Clark Kent acted more like Superman in his everyday life.

The show’s set is designed to emphasize the notion of Colbert as the supreme master of this self-created, enthusiastically narcissistic universe. Behind his desk, a faint, almost subliminal outline of a star frames Colbert’s head. A series of lines that bisect a ring of concentric circles on the floor converge where Colbert is seated, as if he were a black hole toward which all matter and energy are drawn. His anchor desk is shaped like a giant C, and the colbert report is plastered on more than a dozen places on the set.

The Report (pronounced with a soft t, as is Colbert) debuted in the fall of 2005 as a spin-off of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, the critical and popular success that’s often referred to by its host, Jon Stewart, as a “fake news” show. Stewart has turned The Daily Show into a cultural touchstone in the eight years he’s been there, and has become such an icon that he hosted the Academy Awards in 2006. But The Colbert Report couldn’t take a page from its forebearer’s playbook. Stewart plays himself on TV””a smart, witty, liberal Jew who’s alternately amused and enraged by the political realities of our time””and a large part of The Daily Show’s popularity stems from his personal appeal.

Colbert’s character, which grew out of his role as the most noxious and ill-informed of Stewart’s on-air correspondents, is most definitely not the type of guy you’d want to share a beer with after work. If Colbert’s show were to succeed, it would need its fans to embrace the type of grating know-it-all they would normally disdain. One of the ways the show attempted to do this was by having its audience affect the mob mentality from which Colbert’s character drew his power. That way, viewers weren’t just in on the joke, they were part of it.

“This show is not about me,” Colbert explained his first night on the air. “No, this program is dedicated to you, the heroes.”¦ On this show your voice will be heard, in the form of my voice.” Colbert went on to define the show’s ruling ethos as “truthiness,” an almost Nietzschean philosophy inspired by President Bush’s faith in those that “know with their heart” as opposed to those who “think with their head.” If one part of the subtext here was how terrifying “truthiness” was in a world leader, another was that having the will to bend reality to reflect your every desire actually sounded pretty cool””as Colbert’s id-driven character promised to demonstrate night after night.

This conceit has worked far better than anyone expected. Almost immediately, the Report attracted an audience of more than a million viewers a night. (Today, the show averages about 1.3 million viewers and draws more young men than Letterman, Leno, or Conan.) And by about 10 months into his run, something else had emerged, something that was both more powerful and more complex than anything as prosaic as a late-night, basic-cable hit. Colbert wasn’t just getting people to watch his show; he was convincing them to join him as he used the truthiness of his world to influence the real one. After instructing his fans to enter his name in a Hungarian-government-sponsored online poll to determine the name of a new bridge over the Danube River, Colbert beat the runner-up, 16th-century Croatian-Hungarian war hero Nikola Šubi? Zrinski, by more than 14 million votes. (The Hungarian ambassador came on the Report to explain that the winner had to be, among other things, dead.) Colbert eventually coined a neologism to reflect this truthiness in action: “Wikiality,” which he defined as “a reality where, if enough people agree with a notion, it becomes the truth.” To demonstrate, Colbert told viewers he was going to silence the endangered-species lobby by claiming that the population of African elephants had increased threefold in the previous six months. Within hours, so many changes had been made to Wikipedia, the popular, communally edited, online reference site, that its administrators had to restrict access to its “elephant” and “Stephen Colbert” entries.

Before long, the political and cultural cognoscenti joined in the fun. During his “tribute to the ladies,” Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem showed Colbert how to bake an apple pie. Last March, Richard Holbrooke drew on his experience brokering peace in Bosnia to mediate a truce between Colbert and Willie Nelson over who had the better flavor of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. (Colbert’s is called AmeriCone Dream.) In April, former United States poet laureate Robert Pinsky judged a “Meta-Free-Phor-All” between Colbert and Sean Penn. (Sean Penn won, 10 million to one.) In December, New York governor-elect Eliot Spitzer and Henry Kissinger appeared on the show to preside over a guitar contest between Colbert and members of the indie-rock group the Decemberists. (Peter Frampton ended up filling in for Colbert, but that’s a whole other story.) And perhaps most surprisingly, more than three dozen congressmen and -women have subjected themselves to Colbert’s merciless and occasionally demeaning ridicule as part of the show’s ongoing series “Better Know a District.” (More on that later.)

“He’s able to create a universe where something surreal happens on the program that seems ordinary, and all of a sudden the absurd appears not mundane but expected, organic,” says Stewart. “So he can have a conversation with Richard Holbrooke and Willie Nelson and it all makes perfect sense and yet it couldn’t appear anywhere else without appearing burlesque. Somehow he has managed to create a fake world that has impacted and found standing in the real world.”

Colbert’s unique appeal has been duly noted by the television industry: the champagne and smiley-face cookies were in honor of that morning’s announcement that the show had been nominated for four prime-time Emmys. This was hardly a surprise””the Report had also been nominated for four Emmys a year earlier, even though it was on the air for only two and a half months in 2005. It came home empty-handed that year, losing out twice to Stewart and The Daily Show. (On his show, Colbert frequently references a supposed rivalry between himself and Stewart. Last May, he played a tape of what he said was a phone call he made to the disgraced Los Angeles private investigator Anthony Pellicano in which Colbert said, “Stewart thinks he’s so high and mighty. He doesn’t have to say ‘hi’ to me in the halls? You take him down a peg! Permanently! Do you catch my drift?”) More demeaning””to Colbert’s character, anyway””was that he lost out to Barry Manilow for best individual performance in a variety or music program.

This year he’s up against Tony Bennett in that same category. Colbert took a sip of champagne before raising his glass. “And the winner is “¦ Tony Bennett!” The show’s staff, all of whom seem to truly both like and admire Colbert, let out a combination giggle-groan. “Who’s going to give it to me over Tony Bennett? Nobody. Are you kidding? It’s Tony Bennett.” By this point, Colbert had taken a seat behind his desk in preparation for a quick rehearsal of that night’s show. After he got comfortable, he brought his champagne up to his nose. “Yummmm “¦ that smells like Tony Bennett’s aged sack.” More groans. “Come on! That wouldn’t be so bad, if your aged sack smelled like champagne.” (Don’t be surprised if Bennett ends up as a guest on the show: after countless gibes, Manilow came on the Report and agreed to share his Emmy, which he admitted he “stole” from Colbert. Then the two men sang a duet of “I Write the Songs.”)

As soon as the run-through ended, Colbert and his writers disappeared into a claustrophobic, windowless room with blood-red walls to make a series of final, frenzied changes to that night’s script””a night, incidentally, that would conclude an unusually difficult week. A slip onstage a little while back had resulted in a broken wrist Colbert hadn’t yet had set. His 12-year-old daughter, Madeline, had been in and out of the hospital with a crippling ear infection, and Colbert hadn’t gotten a full night’s sleep in days. (Colbert himself is deaf in his right ear due to a childhood tumor.) And he still hadn’t fully recovered from the round-the-clock heave required to get I Am America (And So Can You!) to the printer on time for its October publication date; the book, Colbert’s first, lays out his character’s thoughts””er, feelings””about life. (Sample chapter titles: “Hollywood: Lights! Camera! Treason!” and “Sports: When It’s Okay to Shower with Men.”)

Despite all this, Colbert seemed happy, even excited. “I love being onstage,” he said. “I love the relationship with the audience. I love the letting go, the sense of discovery, the improvising.” Colbert also loves the freedom his television persona gives this down-to-earth, all-around decent guy to indulge his most narcissistic fantasies. “I get to piggyback my own ego on the character’s unlimited ego,” he says. This theme of porous but distinct personas is one Colbert returns to often. That night, when an audience member asked him about the differences between him and “Stephen Colbert” during a pre-taping Q&A, he replied, “I wouldn’t want to be that asshole. He’s got a tremendous ego. I get to pretend I don’t.”

Colbert’s infectious enthusiasm is felt by everyone who comes in contact with the show. “That was the most fun I’ve ever had on television,” says Holbrooke. “There’s this great sense of groundbreaking adventure, this feeling that it’s on the cutting edge, that it’s the hottest thing in America. And at the center of it all is Colbert himself. I have never seen a television performer about to go on live television who’s enjoying himself so much.”

Colbert has not always been so content. By his own admission and according to those who know him best, it wasn’t until he was in his 20s that he began to develop a sense of who he really wanted to be; before that, he had gone through periods of being everything from a science-fiction geek to a tortured (and bearded) poet. And now? Stephen Colbert is your basic well-grounded, Sunday-school-teaching, authority-distrusting, intensely loyal, 43-year-old man who’s happiest when he’s either spending time with his wife, Evelyn, and their three children, or playing an obnoxious, over-the-top alter ego that makes fun of the world and has the world join in the game.

I watched [the movie All That Jazz] and I thought, Well, I’d like to do that. I’d like to live that dark life. That kind of appeals to me. I liked how damaged they were and how they used that to “¦ create art, create something beautiful.”¦ There was something viscerally attractive to me about living this sort of life that might kill you young. I liked these unhappy people.”¦ There’s [also] lots of drinking and fucking. And that was appealing.

At around six in the morning on September 11, 1974, Dr. James Colbert, the vice president of academic affairs for the Medical University of South Carolina, and two of his sons left the family’s house on James Island and headed to the Charleston International Airport. Paul, 18, and Peter, 15, were the second- and third-youngest of the 11 Colbert children, and Dr. Colbert was taking them to New Milford, Connecticut, where they were to enroll at the Canterbury School, a prestigious Catholic institution founded in 1915. Once they were gone, only the Colberts’ youngest son, 10-year-old Stephen, would remain at home with his parents, both of whom were in their early 50s.

The three Colberts were booked on Eastern Airlines Flight 212, which departed at seven a.m. for the 35-minute trip to Charlotte, North Carolina. It was a slightly overcast morning, but the flight started out smoothly enough. Just after 7:30, the plane began its descent. As they prepared for their landing, the plane’s pilots, Captain Jim Reeves and First Officer James Daniels, were wrapping up a rambling and wide-ranging conversation.

“One thing that kills me so damn much is all this shit that’s goin’ on now,” Daniels said, according to William Stockton’s 1977 book, Final Approach. (Stockton’s transcripts are drawn from the flight’s cockpit voice recorder.) “We need to be takin’ definite steps to save the economy of this damn country. I think the A-rabs are takin’ over every damn thing.” The fog in Charlotte was obscuring the ground, and instead of relying on visual cues, the pilots were now conducting an instrument approach.

Less than three and a half miles from the runway, the DC-9 crashed into the earth. The impact and resulting fire destroyed the plane and killed 71 of the 82 passengers onboard, including the three Colberts. The National Transportation Safety Board report on the accident blamed the disaster on the pilots’ discussion of “non operational subjects.” (In 1981, partly in response to the crash of EA 212, the Federal Aviation Administration instituted the Sterile Cockpit Rule, which forbids all “non-essential activities” below 10,000 feet.)

In 1974, Charleston’s population was fewer than 70,000. “It was really wrenching for the entire community,” says Benjamin Hutto, the choral director at Charleston’s Porter-Gaud school from 1969 to 1985. “But it was worse for the Colbert family than anyone else.” After Peter and Paul died, Stephen Colbert’s closest sibling was nine years his senior. Until he left for college, eight years later, Stephen, who’d spent the first years of his life in a household overflowing with brothers and sisters, lived alone with his mother.

Colbert isn’t a big fan of discussing his personal life with the media. He’s compared the press to a “lamprey that latches onto a subject and just sucks and sucks and sucks until your brain and your soul is as dry as a crouton.” That’s one of the reasons he does many of his interviews in character. “I like preserving the mask,” he says. “Stepping out from behind it doesn’t do me any good.” But he also recognizes that he is expected, as an increasingly well-known public figure, to let the world know at least a little bit about his private life, and he’s spoken about how the deaths of his father and brothers forever altered the direction of his adolescence. After being stricken with a “blazing headache” following their funerals, Colbert picked up a science-fiction novel to distract himself from the pain. He soon was tearing through a book a day. He detached from his peers and more or less ignored school.

He also struggled with his identity. He toyed with changing the pronunciation of his last name from Col-bert to Col-bear. (Several years earlier, after realizing that popular culture employed thick southern accents as a kind of shorthand for stupidity, he had decided to get rid of his.) He threw himself into the alternative realities of role-playing games, becoming an aficionado of the science-fiction-based Metamorphosis Alpha and fantasy world of Dungeons & Dragons.

“The D&D phase and all that, that was partially a function of his loss,” says Chip Hill, who has been friends with Colbert for almost 30 years and is the godfather of Colbert’s nine-year-old son, Peter. Hill and Colbert were part of what became a close-knit group of high-school friends. “The thing about Colbert is he’s fucking brilliant,” says Scott Wherry, another friend from high school and the godfather of Colbert’s five-year-old son, John. “He was always the smartest guy in the room, and he was always smart enough not to let you know he was the smartest guy in the room.”

After high school, Colbert and Wherry enrolled at Virginia’s Hampden-Sydney College, an all-male school with a social life that centers on fraternities. Colbert never embraced that scene, and after two years, he transferred to Northwestern University, to enroll in its prestigious theater program. It was on his flight to Chicago that he decided once and for all that he was going to change the way his last name was pronounced. He was bumped up to first class and seated next to an astronaut. “I thought, well, if I’m ever going to do it, it’s going to be now,” Colbert says. “I talked to [the astronaut] about it, and he said, ‘Well, I think you know.'” When Colbert had boarded the plane, he had a hard t at the end of his name. When he got off, it was gone.

With the new pronunciation came a new focus. The Stephen Colbert who had once lost himself in science-fiction novels and role-playing games and more or less ignored academics had found something he was willing to devote his life to: acting as if he were someone else.

There’s a great line by Elvis Costello: “And I tried so hard just to be myself but I keep on fading away.” Sort of like, “Who am I?” You’re continually asking yourself that question, which actors are supposed to do to act as a character in performance. So especially for students of performance, you ask yourself that all the time. That isn’t a bad thing, but it can make you insufferable. I was a poet-slash-jerk.

Unlike many of his friends, Colbert did not return to Charleston after graduation, instead staying in Chicago. He cut a distinctly un-southern look: he wore black turtlenecks, had what he describes as a “Jesus beard,” and grew his hair out. “I didn’t want to play Hamlet. I wanted to be Hamlet,” he says. The comedian Amy Sedaris, one of Colbert’s closest friends and a longtime collaborator who to this day insists on pronouncing a hard t at the end of “Colbert,” describes him affectionately as “pretty awful” during that time. Despite his determination to become a “real” actor, Colbert joined the training center of Second City, the legendary Chicago improvisational-sketch-comedy venue that has launched the careers of Alan Arkin, Bill Murray, John Belushi, Joan Rivers, and Tina Fey, among many, many others. In 1987, when he was 24 years old, Colbert was hired as one of the troupe’s full-time touring members, along with Sedaris, Paul Dinello, and Chris Farley.

“He showed up with really high hair and an actor’s attitude,” says Dinello. “[Sedaris and I] were more like clowns. We tried to corrupt him.” It didn’t take long for them to succeed. “As soon as he realized he could [relax on stage], he got more playful and became sillier and sillier,” Sedaris says. Even though Colbert remained torn for several more years between comedy and “straight” acting””on several occasions, Sedaris and Dinello had to persuade him to come back to Second City after he’d quit to do what he thought of as serious theater””he came to embrace his comedic and improvisational skills.

Colbert, Dinello, and Sedaris kept working together after they left Chicago, and eventually launched two shows on Comedy Central in the 1990s””Exit 57, a half-hour absurdist sketch-comedy series, and the cult hit Strangers with Candy, a surreal take on 70s after-school specials. (In that show, Sedaris played a 46-year-old ex-con runaway high-school freshman and Colbert and Dinello played teachers engaged in a secret homosexual affair.) In between, Colbert worked on the short-lived Dana Carvey Show, a Craig Kilborn–hosted version of The Daily Show, and, improbably, Good Morning America.

When Strangers with Candy was canceled, in 2000, Colbert went back to The Daily Show, which by then was hosted by Stewart. It turned into the most satisfying and secure job of his career, and, along with Steve Carell (now the star of NBC’s The Office), Colbert became one of the show’s primary correspondents, occasionally subbing as anchor when Stewart was away. By the time the 2004 election cycle was in full swing, Colbert’s persona””someone who “is a fool and has spent a lot of his life playing not the fool”””was fully developed. When the election concluded, however, Colbert, despite loving his job, realized he was ready to move on.

“He’d been there a long time,” says Ben Karlin, who left The Daily Show in December after eight years as head writer and executive producer. (Karlin recently signed an exclusive production deal with HBO.) “He was never going to be the host””it was Jon’s show. But we didn’t want to lose him, so we tried to figure out what else could someone like Stephen do.”

The answer lay in a series of short pieces that were dropped into The Daily Show when it was running short. The original iteration of the Report was a series of fake advertisements for a talk show, in which Colbert would amplify his character into an even more ridiculous caricature of odious talk-show hosts, with Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly (or, as Colbert’s character calls him, “Papa Bear”) as the main inspiration. When Karlin and Stewart started casting about for another show they could create and produce, they sat down with Colbert, and the three men decided to take those fake advertisements and turn them into something real.

I’m a satirist, so I’ve got boxing gloves on if the person is worthy of satire. But I’m not an assassin. If that ever happens, it’s only because something happened during the interview that got me going, and then I had to translate my feelings to the mouth of the character. Something the person said and I just got blindsided by how I felt about it, and then I have to immediately encapsulate how I feel as the character or else I’ll reveal myself.

In the summer of 2005, The Colbert Report set up shop in The Daily Show’s old studios on West 54th Street. The show, which is produced by Stewart’s Busboy Productions, was scheduled to launch in October. In addition to his responsibilities on The Daily Show, Karlin would help run the Report as well, and he and Colbert hired former Daily Show and Late Night with Conan O’Brien writer Allison Silverman and former Onion editor Richard Dahm as head writers.

The Report, which was guaranteed only an eight-week run, debuted on October 17. Before it aired, Doug Herzog, Comedy Central’s president, had wondered whether the premise of the show provided enough material for a four-nights-a-week project. “It became so clear so quickly that it was going to work that it was kind of astounding,” Herzog says. “I remember at the time the show debuted thinking that it had been birthed fully baked. That’s so rare””I don’t know if I’ve ever seen it before. The whole thing fits him like a glove. It’s really a virtuoso performance.”

A large part of Herzog’s confidence was inspired by Colbert’s remarkable ability to take in information, determine the reaction his character would have, and improvise. “[The whole show] depends on Stephen’s ability to process information as this other person,” says Stewart. “I’ve seen talk-show hosts who can’t do that for real.”¦ And then you watch Colbert and it’s like the first time you use broadband: ‘How the fuck did that happen?’ He’s rendering in real time. He’s basically doing his show in a second language.”

It was on the Report’s second show, when it aired the first “Better Know a District” segment, that Colbert demonstrated the extent to which he could use those improvisational skills to hilariously, and uniquely, lampoon the fatuousness of American politics. In the course of the four minutes, Colbert, after learning that Georgia Republican Jack Kingston had lived in Ethiopia, asked the bespectacled, milquetoast, white congressman to talk about the “African-American experience” and implied that Kingston had been raped at his college fraternity. (“I don’t know what your pledge week was like,” Colbert said, “but it was more horrific than you knew.”)

In later installments, he combed New York Democrat Eliot Engel’s mustache, and after expressing surprise that California Democrat Brad Sherman had ever seen a naked woman in the flesh, Colbert asked him repeatedly to star in a porn movie. (Sherman’s district in the San Fernando Valley is considered the Hollywood of the country’s adult-film industry.) He coaxed Florida Democrat Robert Wexler, who was running unopposed and therefore “there’s no way [he could] lose,” to say that he enjoyed hookers and cocaine because they were “fun thing[s] to do.” (Colbert concluded that segment by saying, “We better finish this interview quick because I’m not sure how long you’re going to be in Congress.”) But the best-known segment to date is likely one with Georgia Republican Lynn Westmoreland that included this exchange:

Stephen Colbert: You co-sponsored a bill requiring the display of the Ten Commandments in the House of Representatives and in the Senate.
Lynn Westmoreland: Um hum.
S.C.: Why was that important to you?
L.W.: Well, the Ten Commandments is not a bad thing for people to understand and to respect.
S.C.: I’m with ya.
L.W.: What better place could you have something like that than in a judicial building or in a courthouse?
S.C.: That is a good question. Can you think of any better building to put the Ten Commandments than in a public building?
L.W.: No. I think if we were totally without them we may lose a sense of our direction.
S.C.: What are the Ten Commandments?
L.W.: What are all of them? [Colbert nods.]
L.W.: You want me to name them all?
S.C.: Yeah, please.
L.W.: Ummm. [Colbert holds up two fists, waiting for Westmoreland to count them off.]
L.W.: Don’t murder. Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Uhhhhh “¦ I can’t name them all.
S.C.: Congressman, thank you for taking time away from keeping the Sabbath Day holy to talk to me.

“Don’t you think he should have memorized those before he came on?” Colbert asks a year later in his office. The answer is not as simple as it might appear. Before Westmoreland’s appearance on the Report, he’d never encountered a reporter who’d had the temerity””or, as Colbert would put it, the balls””to ask such an obvious question. Still, Westmoreland should not have been surprised: Colbert had already demonstrated, in his infamous April 2006 keynote address at the White House Correspondents Dinner, that he had no fear of lampooning politicians even if they were right beside him. (Referring to President Bush, who was seated just feet away, Colbert said, “I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers, and rubble, and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message: that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound””with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.” While neither the president nor the Washington press corps was amused, the speech turned Colbert into a kind of folk hero for the left. Six months later, Frank Rich christened Colbert’s speech a sort of “cultural primary” and the “defining moment” of the 2006 midterm elections.)

Despite disastrous experiences like Westmoreland’s, many congressmen are eager to go on the show. (Robert Wexler actually appeared again, although he didn’t discuss any illicit activities his second time around.) Even after being called “a poor man’s Ted Kennedy” and “the Mike Tyson of the House of Representatives,” Virginia Democrat Jim Moran says that appearing on the Report “was a positive experience.” (He also compared it to “consensual rape.”) “I’m just stunned by the number of my constituents who watch it,” he says. “Colbert reached more of a demographic that’s difficult to reach, and in a more positive way, than anything I can think of.”

As it turns out, that demographic is remarkably well informed. Last April, a Pew Center for the People and the Press report on news audiences found that Daily Show and Colbert Report viewers tied with regular readers of major newspaper Web sites as being the most knowledgeable about current events, scoring higher than daily-newspaper subscribers, evening-news viewers, and National Public Radio listeners. How’s that for truthiness?

I’m the Sun King. Think of me as Jesus in the Last Supper.”¦ Everything focuses at me in that room. And so I raise myself so high, status-wise, that every idiotic statement I make becomes a comedic one because of what I’ve assumed in terms of my authority. And I love that.

When he was growing up, Colbert, according to Chip Hill, used to joke about how he “wanted to major in mass psychology and start a cult.” While Colbert isn’t going to be dispensing Kool-Aid anytime soon, he has fostered an almost cult-like devotion to his on-air persona. “A lot of times when he’s starting a scene, instead of starting it with the other person who’s onstage with him, he’s starting a scene with whoever is out there watching the television, and saying, ‘Are you going to participate in this with me?'” says Allison Silverman, who took on the role of executive producer with Richard Dahm after Karlin left the show. “And a lot of times, people will. They’ll throw something back.”¦ That’s often led to the most fun we’ve ever had.”

It wasn’t until last August, when Colbert aired a green-screen clip of himself wildly contorting his body while wielding a lightsaber, that the full scope of the porousness between the show’s world and the outside world became clear. Within days, dozens of homemade clips had been posted online””clips of Colbert slashing his way through a locked door to free President Bush, of Colbert fighting Darth Maul, of Colbert slaying assorted “evildoers.” Even George Lucas submitted a clip. (Lucas’s ended with Colbert sharing a moment with Jar Jar Binks.) And, naturally, Lucas came on the Report to engage in an in-studio lightsaber battle with Colbert.

Everyone, it seemed, wanted to play along. “Don’t underestimate how much people appreciate someone who is funny,” Karlin says. “He’s very entertaining and likable and that makes people excited to cheer and to do what he wants them to do. The cult of personality only exists because he is a good comedian.” Colbert wryly acknowledges the devotion his character engenders. Before a recent taping, he got his audience to scream in unison and then go utterly silent with a wave of his hand. “And you wonder how Hitler took power?” he asked.

The rest of the media world is increasingly playing along. In 2006 the American Dialect Society named “truthiness” its word of the year. Colbert was named one of People’s Sexiest Men Alive, one of GQ’s Men of the Year, and one of Time’s 100 most influential people. When he finally got around to getting a cast for his wrist, the news was reported on the wires. And in August, Richard Branson christened one of the planes used for Virgin America’s inaugural flights “Air Colbert.”

It is into this already pumped-up atmosphere that I Am America (And So Can You!) will be launched, and judging from the reaction at last summer’s BookExpo, it will be a smash hit on par with Stewart and The Daily Show’s 2004 best-seller, America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction. In I Am America, Colbert lampoons the pretensions and hypocrisies of modern American society in a way that blends high- and lowbrow humor (or “Ganesh jokes and poop jokes,” as Colbert tells me). “I deliver my Truth hot and hard,” Colbert writes in the introduction. “Think you can handle it? I’m scared of Koreans. Bam! That’s me off the cuff. Blunt and in your face. No editing. I think it. I say it. You read it. Sometimes I don’t even think it, I just say it. Baby carrots are trying to turn me gay.”

Even while playing a character who has described for his audience every squirm-inducing detail of his stalking of an ex-girlfriend named Charlene, Colbert has for the most part kept his actual private life just that””private. That could be because it’s not very exciting””he really does teach Sunday school, which isn’t going to make many tabloid headlines. It could also be because, as Amy Sedaris says, it’s easier for Colbert to be funny when he’s doing so in character. “I am always surprised that he can get up in such a good mood,” she says. “He has had so much sadness in his life.”

In early July, during the show’s two-week summer break, Colbert and his family went to Charleston, where they spend most of their downtime. While they were there, Chip Hill helped Colbert build a 12-foot rowboat. The two men recently began taking their sons on an annual fishing trip.

“He obviously comes from a large family, and his own family is very, very important to him,” Hill says. “You know, the typical story is a guy gets famous and loses perspective on their life. He works very hard to stay grounded.”

“I get away with a lot,” Colbert says. “My character gets to ask for a free iPhone [on-air] and I actually get to use it. I have an ice cream with Ben & Jerry. And that’s exciting “¦ but that character’s not hard to drop. This guy, the guy who’s talking to you right now, that’s harder to drop. Being a writer and executive producer and the star requires a great deal of my focus.”¦ Letting go and not being the boss is much harder [at the end of the day] than letting go of my character.

“That’s why I drive myself home at night,” adds Colbert, who lives on a cul-de-sac in suburban Montclair, New Jersey. “The network would happily””they don’t want me tired; they don’t want me running off the road””they’d happily send me home in a car. But I’d work the entire way home, and I need more than the 30 seconds from the car to the front door to become a dad and a husband again. So I drive home and I crank my tunes. And by the time I get there, I’m normal again.”

Seth Mnookin is a Vanity Fair contributing editor. Photographs by Mark Seliger.