America’s favorite newsman Stephen Colbert, a Roman Catholic by the way, recently spoke with Playboy magazine about the alter persona that stars in his satirical news program, his family, his fears, and about toying with the idea of starting a cult.
The interviewer, Erik Spitznagel, didn’t really ask Colbert any faith-oriented questions, although Colbert touched on some aspects of that a bit when discussing the death of his father and two older brothers:
PLAYBOY: Your father and two brothers died when you were just 10.
COLBERT: That’s right.
PLAYBOY: They were on a commercial airliner that crashed while landing in thick fog. Your brothers were both teenagers, and your father was taking them to Connecticut to enroll them in private school. How did you make sense of their deaths?
COLBERT: Things didn’t seem that important anymore. Nothing seemed that important anymore. My mother said to me—and I think she said this to all my brothers and sisters—she urged me to look at everything in the light of eternity. In other words, it doesn’t matter what I wear. I just wear the uniform of my youth. I wear an oxford-cloth shirt and khakis. What does it matter? What does it matter what I wear?
PLAYBOY: As a 10-year-old boy who just lost his dad, that advice helped you?
COLBERT: Sure, absolutely.
PLAYBOY: It’s been almost four decades since it happened. Does the grief dissipate?
COLBERT: No. It’s not as keen. Well, it’s not as present, how about that? It’s just as keen but not as present. But it will always accept the invitation. Grief will always accept the invitation to appear. It’s got plenty of time for you.
PLAYBOY: “I’ll be here.”
COLBERT: That’s right. “I’ll be here when you need me.” The interesting thing about grief, I think, is that it is its own size. It is not the size of you. It is its own size. And grief comes to you. You know what I mean? I’ve always liked that phrase He was visited by grief, because that’s really what it is. Grief is its own thing. It’s not like it’s in me and I’m going to deal with it. It’s a thing, and you have to be okay with its presence. If you try to ignore it, it will be like a wolf at your door.
PLAYBOY: It’s a loud wolf. It huffs and it puffs.
COLBERT: [Laughs] It does, doesn’t it? It can rattle the hinges.
But the interview was most interesting when Colbert revealed that back in high school he once thought it would be great to major in psychology and start a cult… and he responds as to whether “The Colbert Report” is essentially a cult:
PLAYBOY: One of your friends from high school said you once joked about starting a cult. Is that true?
COLBERT: Yeah, that was an L. Ron Hubbard reference. I was with a bunch of guys—we were all science fiction fans—and we were sitting around one day, drinking beer or doing something we weren’t supposed to be doing, talking about power. The question posed was, If you wanted power over people, what would you do? What career would you pursue? I remember one guy, who’s actually a colonel now, said, “If I wanted real power, I wouldn’t be a politician. I’d be in the Joint Chiefs of Staff.” It got around to me, and I said, “Well, I think I would probably major in psychology and start a cult.” [laughs] There’s something enjoyable about cults to me.
COLBERT: I’m interested in what makes someone a cult figure and what engenders cult adherence, what engenders that behavior.
PLAYBOY: Are you surprised people are drawn to cults?
COLBERT: Not surprised. I’m fascinated. I’m fascinated that people want to know what to do. And people want to know what to think. And people want to know how to feel. Not just what to feel but how to feel.
PLAYBOY: Do you think that’s unnatural?
COLBERT: No, it’s completely natural. I’m surprised there aren’t more unbalanced people in the world, because being alive is not easy. We’re just not that nice to one another. We’re all we have, and Jesus, are we shitty to one another. We really are. The only thing that keeps us going back to one another is that we’re all filled with such enormous self-doubt. We have doubts about our ability to be alone, to self-actualize. We’re on such a rocky road all the time. Every moment is new. Every inch of the mountain is fresh snow. If someone said, “I have been out ahead and I know what you’re supposed to do,” if I believed that were true, I would absolutely obey whatever father told me. I would stay on the compound.
PLAYBOY: You would just as happily be a cult member as a cult leader?
COLBERT: I’d love to be a cult member, just another loyal follower. It sounds very comforting.
PLAYBOY: The Colbert Nation could arguably be described as a cult.
COLBERT: In the loosest possible sense. It’s an ironic cult.
PLAYBOY: But your audience listens to you. It may be a joke, but it’s a joke with a lot of followers.
COLBERT: Which is not what we set out to do. When we started the show, we wanted it to have a mythos that would never be real. We’d play on the difference between reality and my character’s perception of reality.
PLAYBOY: He would think he had influence but he really didn’t?
COLBERT: Exactly. He thinks he says things and people listen and take action. He has a nation, this army he can mobilize. We were already too successful for that joke, to play on the vast difference in status between thinking you’re a prophet and being on a show that nobody watches.
PLAYBOY: Because people were actually watching, and they got the joke.
COLBERT: Not only did they get it, they were willing to play along. I’m constantly awed by their willingness to play along with almost anything. They actually cheer things they don’t believe in because my character says it. You know what I mean? I have a generally liberal audience, but they will applaud when I nail a liberal lion because they want my character to win. It’s a strange relationship that seems natural now, but every so often I have to remind myself that this is not normal. This is not common.
PLAYBOY: Will they do pretty much anything you say, or are there rules and parameters?
COLBERT: I put a lot of thought into the ways we engage with them. [laughs] I always say “we,” like “We’re pregnant.” But there are a lot of people involved. It’s not just me, by any means. With the audience, we think about things like whether we are dictating their actions or inviting them to take action. Dictation of action is not nearly as fun for an audience. We’ve done it sometimes, and it’s been a mistake. It’s much better to invite them to be part of an action rather than saying, “I command you to do this.” The other thing is, you have to follow through. If you initiate a game and they take part, you can’t stop until it reaches a mutually satisfying resolution.
I would put a link to the interview, but it’s on Playboy’s website and there are just way too many things going on on the page. Be forewarned.
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