On Saturday morning, I had the honor of moderating a Colbert Report discussion panel, part of the extraordinary Second City 50th Anniversary celebration. All of the folk you see above: writers Peter Grosz and Peter Gwinn, former exec producer Alison Silverman, co-exec producer Tom Purcell and Stephen Colbert himself, are all alumni of the Second City’s performing troupes, touring groups, training center, and in Colbert’s case, the merchandise table. (He said that for a long time, he held the record for most T-shirts sold in one night.)
Colbert is a kind and gracious man — one of his former producers once told me that you bust your butt for him not because you’re afraid of him, but because you don’t want to be the one to let him down — and his colleagues on stage and off glowed with the feeling of people who enjoyed their jobs. I got to ask some questions, as did the audience — mainly, about the difficulty of presenting, night after night, one could have been in less talented hands a one-note shtickfest. Did they ever doubt they could maintain this conceit of an idiotic conservative talk show host for more than a night? No, they all answered, but many others did.
I marveled at how Colbert was able to conduct interviews with people while improvising in character — a task, in comparison to the straightforward interviews I do, that reminds me of the observation about Ginger Rogers: she did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in heels. (Actually, I misspoke and said, “Fred Rogers,” which led Steven to come back, “As in her movie, Flying Down to Miow-Miow.”) It turns out that Stephen rehearses the interview, with staff members offering things the guest might say, and Stephen finding things his character (the other Colbert is always referred to as “him” or “he” or “the character”) might say in response. It makes sense, but I still watch the show and am amazed… watching Colbert riff in character is to me like watching Michael Jordan go to the hoop.
They told a lot more stories, and made some more observations about their process — Peter Grosz talked about the discoveries they make about the character’s feelings, like and dislikes are like slowly uncovering his portrait; ie, finding things out about him that were always there, rather than adding new things to the conception — but my favorite moment came towards the end, where I asked the assembled whether or not it was important to them that the audience knew that Colbert (the person, not the character) was kidding.
Tom responded with something surprising — that one study of their audience discovered that everybody who liked the show, conservative and liberal, thought that Colbert — the real person — agreed with them. I suggested that this meant that at least half their audience — not saying which one — were idiots. They felt not; more, it was that the sincerity of the character’s opinions, whatever they were, and his generally honest and benign approach appealed to people. As Colbert said of his character, “He really wants to help people and help the country — he’s just really bad at it.” And then Colbert (the person — this does get confusing) said something that sounded like a practiced line, but was still wonderful: “Every night I say something I actually believe… I’m just never going to tell you what it is.”
I also was able to attend that evening’s Alumni Show, watching from above the packed theaters in one of the three packed simulcast viewing rooms, along with Second City alums and guests. It was… one of the most astonishingly great things I had ever seen. Legends of comedy — people like Shelly Berman and David Steinberg and Harold Ramis and Joe Flaherty and Fred Willard and Robert Klein and George Wendt, along with some brilliant young (as of yet) unknown performers, plus of course the Big Stars — Colbert and Steve Carell and Jim Belushi and Rachel Dratch and many others, doing the work that started them on their roads, and doing it with such incredible love and care.
The whole thing was one three hour highlight reel, but two of my favorite sketches involved Colbert: one with his old partners Paul Dinello and Amy Sedaris, in which they played two suburban brothers (and their mom), one worrying for the other’s success (and of course it was Colbert who played the loser brother) and the other, an insane piece of genius famous in Second City lore, as it was originally improvised on the spot (by Colbert and Carell) from
two audience suggestions: “Maya Angelou” and “going home.” [SEE UPDATE BELOW.] Colbert brings Carell back to his southern home town, and, explaining the bizarre welcomes he gets as “Miss Shirley” from his old friends, he says to Carell: “At home, I’m an old black woman.”
Also brilliant: a classic sketch about a father and son getting drunk at the White Horse Tavern recreated by Jim Belushi and his own son, Robert Belushi — I’ve never seen Jim Belushi do anything better, ever. A great modern sketch from Second City Toronto, in which a mother logs onto a chat as her teenage son…. funny and heartbreaking. And a genius, ten second bit with a guy playing a bagpipe, by which I mean, he was pretending to be a bagpipe. It was the kind of once in a lifetime event, like the Beatles at Shea, that one day, everyone will pretend to have attended.
*and here’s what I mean by that asterisk. The day after this amazing amalgamation of talent came back to Chicago whence it was born, I was able to take my family to a fantastic production of “A Christmas Carol” — that’s right, “A Christmas Carol” — – at the Goodman Theater, and then to a fantastic meal at Paul Kahan’s new tacos and bourbon (and lime rickeys for the kids) joint, Big Star. Second city? Second to where?
UPDATE: Thanks to Mike Thomas’ book, “The Second City Unscripted,” an oral history of the theater, I now know a lot more about the what is known around SC as the “Maya” scene. It was, in fact, improvised by Colbert and Carell, but not from audience suggestions. Colbert, who is from South Carolina, wanted to do something about going back home, where he felt he was a different person than in Chicago, and he also was intrigued by Maya Angelou… he’s quoted in the book as saying, “And I thought, ‘Ah, I wish I was an old black woman! They have so much character.’” And, as per Second City technique, he decided to try improvising a scene at rehearsal, with Carell as his primary partner, to see what happened. Says Colbert of the result: “We never changed a word of it.”