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Stephen Colbert Has America by the Ballots

So Stephen Col-Bert shows up at 8:30 in a charcoal polo shirt with the collar half-turned up, and ruffled hair, and those rimless rectangular glasses, and black rugby pants, and brown Merrell slipper-sneakers. We sit down in his office, which is big, and has brick walls, and features a few distinctive decorative touches, such as a Lord of the Rings pinball game, and an elliptical machine with an American flag folded on the console, and a bobblehead doll from that strange, not-that-long-ago-but-seems-like-forever-ago period when Colbert served as GM’s national “Mr. Goodwrench” spokesperson. One difficulty in writing about Colbert is that when you point out things like the fact that he’s a huge Lord of the Rings nerd and has, on his desk, a heavy picture book titled A Tolkien Bestiary, roughly half the readers will think, Hmmm, interesting, while the other half will think, Yes! Yes! Of course! Colbert’s a Tolkien nut! because they worship Stephen Tyrone Colbert and know everything about him.

Here’s a few more things they know: He’s the eleventh of eleven children, born into a Catholic family in Charleston, South Carolina. He’s deaf in his right ear. His father was a doctor, and his mother stayed at home. When he was 10, his father and two of his older brothers were killed in a plane crash. Every night, he would listen to “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” before going to bed and it would make him cry. As a kid, he was fascinated by the geographically indistinct accents of TV news anchors, and he purposefully dropped his southern twang, because he sensed that Southerners got stereotyped as being dumb. He studied philosophy in college. His favorite comic was Bill Cosby. He was also influenced by the comedian Don Novello, best known as Father Guido Sarducci—but what Colbert loved best was the ultrapatriotic correspondence Novello wrote to various corporations under the pseudonym Lazlo Toth, published as The Lazlo Letters, each one concluding with the sign-off “Stand by our President.” He studied comedy at Second City in Chicago and got his start in news by doing a wacky segment on Good Morning America. He’s married to a woman from his hometown, and they have three kids, the oldest of whom is 11. He still teaches Sunday school.

Here’s something Colbertophiles might not know or might not want to know: He loves Richard Nixon. He has a 1972 Nixon campaign poster on the wall of his office. He points at it and says, “He was so liberal! Look at what he was running on. He started the EPA. He opened China. He gave 18-year-olds the vote. His issues were education, drugs, women, minorities, youth involvement, ending the draft, and improving the environment. John Kerry couldn’t have run on this! What would I give for a Nixon?”

Colbert in person is one of those rare comedians who like to dissect comedy, especially his own comedy, and especially what makes his own comedy funny. This is owed in part to the nature of his show—he plays an abrasive character who is, on the surface, designed to be repellent but is actually meant to entertain—which means he’s spent a lot of time thinking about how exactly to pull off this trick. When he was developing the idea with Karlin and Stewart, he said to them, “I can’t be an asshole.” And Stewart said, “You’re not an asshole. You’re an idiot. There’s a difference.” For starters, being an idiot gives him a certain license. “The audience wouldn’t forgive Jon for saying things most comedians would want to say. But we can say almost anything, because it’s coming out of the mouth of this character.”

Still, there’s obvious room for overlap and conflict between the two shows; for example, a “War on Valentine’s Day” story that Colbert’s writers had prepared a long segment about, only to learn The Daily Show had already done a field piece on the topic. Both shows maintain independent writing staffs, so Ben Karlin zips back and forth between the studios, overseeing the tapings and making the final call if there’s a tug-of-war. “The game they’re playing is a slightly different one from us,” says Stewart, “so we don’t trip on each other that much. And let’s put it this way: This ain’t the Serengeti. There’s plenty of food to go around.” If a story’s big enough, like the Mark Foley sex scandal, both shows will take a bite—Stewart with his What is this world coming to? lament and Colbert with his contrarian-at-all-costs irony. “It’s the Jewish Day of Atonement,” said Stewart on-air, about Foley. “I don’t know how many days of fasting can get you out of trying to bang 16-year-olds. My guess is at least three days. Even after that, probably a month of salads.” On his show, Colbert defended Foley as misunderstood, claiming “stud” is a text-message acronym for “Strong Teenager Using Democracy,” and “horny” stands for “Happy On Reaching New Year’s.” “Every January 1,” announced Colbert in that unwavering pundit’s tone, “that is the message I send to my buddies at Stephen Colbert’s Youth Camp for Young Studs: ‘I am incredibly horny.’ ”