How Do You Survive an Interview on The Colbert Report?

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April 8 2014 8:22 AM

How Do You Survive an Interview on The Colbert Report?

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The author with Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report.

Screenshot courtesy of The Colbert Report

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Jennifer 8. Lee, Colbert, Today show, Early Show, CNN, etc.:

j8lee
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Don't try to be funny.

That was the piece of advice that was repeatedly given to me in 2008 when my friends first heard I was booked on The Colbert Report to talk about my book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, on Chinese food in America. I had never watched a full episode of The Colbert Report because not only do I not have cable, but I also don't own a television (which makes me a bit of an oddity, but very productive).

A friend who writes for The Daily Show, Rachel Axler, advised over instant messaging that with Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, "The only way to come off looking bad is to try and out-funny them." Colbert is a tougher interviewer, so "just be calm and roll with the weirdness," she said. Or as my friend Dana explained: "Colbert comes from an improv tradition, and the first rule in improv is never deny. In other words, treat the outrageous things that he says at face value and segue into your points—don't brush them off. And keep talking. He needs the author to keep talking in order to riff."

Appearing on The Colbert Report as an author can be a double-edged sword, because although it's high-profile, you are also a punching bag in his bombastic red-blooded American act. A Random House editor said he preferred putting authors on The Daily Show because Jon Stewart, like most interviewers, has a style that is essentially "so tell me about your book." Whereas with Colbert it's a tête-à-tête where he's trying to be funny while the author is trying to get her point across. Sometimes those goals converge; sometimes they don't. So in advance, my friends brainstormed on which of my points he might jump on. My friend Alexis (a huge Colbert fan) sent me an email predicting how Colbert might respond to my argument that Chinese food is more American than apple pie, given how much we eat apple pie versus Chinese food, and how I should recover from that:

Colbert: "I eat apple pie every morning—with a jack and coke—and a bald eagle egg omlette."
Jenny: "Well, there are exceptions—and you are clearly an exceptional American—for most would say Chinese food."

Other things he might do:

  • Introduce the idea that the Chinese are taking over the world, starting with the restaurants. ("If that happens, I'm hedged. I speak Chinese, what about you?" or "That might happen. I suggest that your kids learn to speak Chinese. My mom's a tutor.")
  • Bring up any comment about the fact that fortune cookies were copied from the Japanese by the Chinese. ("We don't feel so bad about it. They've been copying us for centuries.")
  • Of course, ask about the middle number as initial. ("The Chinese love the number eight. The Beijing Olympics are starting at 8 p.m. on Aug. 8, 2008. They really wanted this Olympics.")

Colbert greets his guests before the show, where he briefly explains his character to people who have not seen it. (In person, he is nothing like on television: very thoughtful with an almost professorial air.) Guest interviews last about six minutes, which under the lights and in front of a live audience seems simultaneously like an eternity and an instant. Something I wasn't expecting was that Colbert would shift the interview to Mandarin Chinese. (So what did I say? "I started working on this book several years ago, and now I'm talking about it on your television show." It was what popped into mind.) Something we did anticipate correctly was the apple pie line.

And then it was over. At the moment the lights went out, I slumped in exhaustion down in my chair. Colbert reached over the table, calmly smiled and said, "Don't worry. You did great."

Here's is the video. I have never watched it in its entirety. It's like reliving trauma.

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