It has been so much fun to watch Stephen Colbert go from the character of Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report to talk show host Stephen Colbert on Late Night. In his new role as host he is so smart, playful, silly, political, and funny you almost forget the old character.
If you have watched Colbert on either program he makes it look easy. It may not look like it, but he puts a lot of effort into what does. In fact, that’s what impressed me the most about him when I first met him back in Chicago in the ’90s, just when I was starting to get serious about my career.
Back then, the Holy Grail for an improviser was to get hired for The Second City touring company. When my friends and I found out Colbert had gotten hired, we were skeptical, judgmental and jealous — we just didn’t have words to describe our feeling in those days. Really, what we were was threatened. We didn’t know him or his work, well; the only thing we knew was that he worked at the box office at Second City, and that was enough to hold it against him.
Soon after, my friends and I went to one of his first touring company “home” shows in the Second City e.t.c. theater, and after the show, the skepticism, judgment and jealousy were replaced by “Where did he come from?” This guy was good, and his talent shut us all up.
A couple of years later, when I was at the Annoyance Theater, our leader/founder/guru Mick Napier got a shot at directing at the now-defunct Second City Northwest. The theater was out in the far, northwest suburbs of Chicago in a bland office building. A group of us from the Annoyance piled into someone’s Nisan and drove all the way out there to support Mick. Colbert was in the cast, and I remember him doing a great scene with Paul Dinello about two people who were working in a mail room. After the show, on the car ride back to the city, we all agreed that Colbert was our favorite.
By the time Colbert arrived on The Main Stage, he was someone we both looked up to and aspired to be. He was one of the biggest fish in the comedy trout pond of Chicago.
As his star was rising on Main Stage, I was fortunate enough to work with him in a corporate video for a regional chain of gas stations. Most corporate videos can be unoriginal, and this was no exception. It was a parody of Siskel and Ebert’s movie review show, where I played the fat one, while Colbert played the skinny one. I was excited to be cast in something that was paid, and even more excited and honored to work with Colbert, who was already a god to me since he was on Main Stage.
The first thing that impressed me was the fact that when he showed up to the set early in the wee small hours of morning, he had no attitude. Sometimes when people get on the Main Stage, they let it go to their head, but not him. He was personal, friendly and kind – and not in a “Oh, please like me” kind of way. In fact, he was genuine, polite and, most importantly, happy to be there. The guy was a gentleman.
You will hear agents and casting directors warn actors all the time how important it is not to be a jerk on set. That most sane directors prefer to work with nice people, since the days on a set can be long and you have to spend a lot of time with one another. Working with Colbert, he was showing me how that was done.
Even back then, Colbert was the consummate professional. He was prepared. He had his lines down cold so when the camera rolled, he did it effortlessly in a couple of takes, which was certainly different than my approach back then, when I was delusional and thought I was such a terrific improviser that I was going to improvise my way to the top. Memorizing my lines was difficult and I hated doing it, which made me a lot more challenging to work with than a pro like Colbert.
As improvisers, we can be a bit naive and arrogant, treating every gig like a bar-prov show. We can be defiant, thinking, “I don’t have to prepare, I am improviser. That’s what I do.” But talent without discipline will only get you so far. Talent alone is not the only thing that will make you successful. Being prepared and acting professional are equally as important, and that they don’t have to be something you look down on.
What Colbert taught me was that being prepared can actually be fun. Since he was so prepared, he had time to play in-between takes, stay loose, be silly, and enjoy himself. I, on the other hand, was desperately cramming, worrying I was going to screw it up, and feeling shitty about myself. His preparedness allowed him to play and have fun, which, of course, gave him better results on camera.
It also freed him up to be generous as a performer, since, unlike me, he was not worried about himself and how he was performing on camera. When I flubbed some of my lines, he was very patient and helped me get back on track. He never missed an opportunity to make me look good. Maybe this was no big deal for him. Maybe he’d done a hundred of shitty corporate videos before and he could do these in his sleep, and he was not a nervous wreck inside like me. I think one of the coolest compliments an actor can get, and one that I have not achieved or deserved, is “that guy is very generous actor.” That was Colbert. It all made sense to me when he told me later that day that when he couldn’t come up with any ideas for sketches at Second City, he would go over to other cast members’ apartments and help them work on their ideas to help him get unstuck.
In fact, it was so much fun to work with him and talk to him that all of my typical low self-esteem about my inexperience and not having my lines memorized went out the window. Hanging out with him had trumped doing a paying gig.
Today, when I see Colbert on TV, especially when he acts silly, it reminds me of how much fun I had working with him on that horrible corporate video, and I remember how his silliness is a direct result of his hard work and preparation. You can tell in everything he does from his interviews, to his political desk pieces, to the opening, that he is not just out there making it up as he goes along. He is improvising, yes, but that’s a direct result of all of his preparation and hard work. That guy has worked his ass off as a writer, performer and leader to get where he is today. And nobody just improvises their way to the top.