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Stephen Colbert Has America by the Ballots

Colbert on the job, in front of a live audience, removing his TV face at the end of taping.  

It’s been a very good year for Stephen Colbert because it’s witnessed the birth of the Colbertocracy. We’re just voting in it.

For six seasons, Colbert co-starred as one of several sidekicks to Jon Stewart on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. He’d actually started on the show in 1997, two years before Stewart arrived, back when it was hosted by Craig Kilborn and was less a pointed political satire than a pell-mell send-up of corny local-news affiliates. Under Stewart, though, Colbert developed his trademark persona. With his cocked eyebrow and deadpan glare, he played the self-serious, implacable right-wing counterpoint to Stewart’s skeptical anchor. On the night in 2000 that Al Gore finally conceded the presidency, Colbert turned to Stewart after they’d finished taping and said, “This is the best job in television.”

In those years, though, The Daily Show was, by design, organized as Jon Stewart and the Stewartettes. Colbert was one of two emerging stars: The other was Steve Carell, he of the dusty brown hair and goofy grin. After Carell left in 2004 to star in NBC’s sitcom The Office (and The 40-Year-Old Virgin), Colbert became Stewart’s de facto second-in-command, subbing as the anchor when Stewart was on vacation. But it was clear that Colbert was outgrowing his role.

“If your name’s not Jon Stewart, there’s only so many places you can go on The Daily Show,” says Ben Karlin, the 35-year-old executive producer of both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. “Steve Carell and Steve Colbert were the first two we identified as giant talents with breakout potential. But we didn’t have the mechanism in place when Steve Carell started getting offers, so he left. With Stephen, we said, ‘Let’s not just let him go off and become a huge star and not be working with the guy.’ ”

Looking back now on The Daily Show, Colbert says, “I couldn’t imagine how much longer I could do it. I still liked it, and I didn’t want to not like it.” So on the day after the 2004 Emmys in L.A., at which The Daily Show won the Best Writing and Best Variety Series awards, Colbert met with Doug Herzog, the head of Comedy Central. Herzog wanted to expand the Daily Show franchise, and Stewart and Karlin were looking for a TV show for their production company, Busboy. So they decided to do their first project with Colbert. The Colbert Report premiered on October 17, 2005, and it was well received, though there were a few grumpy dissenters among the critics, including me. (I even went so far as to compare it unfavorably in print with David Spade’s show on Comedy Central, something about which I will be continually reminded while seated in the waiting room of hell.) Sure, it was funny, but here was the dilemma: An entire program built around a caustic right-wing bully—with no impish Jon Stewart to leaven the irony—struck some (well, me) as a joke with a built-in stale date.

Still, the debut episode had its moments, such as the introduction of a segment titled “The Word,” which facilitates an opening rant by Colbert. On the first show, the word was supposed to be truth, because a central element of Colbert’s character is his distinction between “truth” and “facts.” “I’m not a fan of facts,” he declared on-air, by way of a manifesto. “You see, the facts can change, but my opinion will never change, no matter what the facts are.”

At about 3:30 on the day of the first taping, during a rehearsal, Colbert stopped and beckoned to his writers. He’d decided they needed a better word. “It’s not stupid enough,” he said. “We’re not talking about truth, we’re talking about something that seems like truth—the truth we want to exist.” Then he had an idea: “Truthiness.” He now displays, on a bookshelf in his office, a sampler embroidered with TRUTHINESS inside a gold frame.

Colbert usually arrives for work about ten, having been driven the 45 minutes from his home in Montclair, New Jersey. On this morning, though, Colbert has arrived at his studio at 54th and Tenth at 8:30 a.m., so we’ll have time to talk.

Now, I don’t really expect Colbert to be wearing a suit at 8:30 in the morning, but I’m slightly surprised and disappointed that he’s not. I have to admit I pictured him sleeping in the suit, then waking in the suit, and then barking orders at his minions throughout the day in the suit, while standing still and thrusting his arms out straight so his robot manservants can steam the suit clean. But then, like a lot of people, I am prone to confuse Stephen Colbert with “Stephen Colbert.” He is fond of joking that he might start calling himself Stephen Col-Bert, with a hard T, rather than Col-Bear, just to accentuate the distinction.