Stephen Colbert on “Stephen Colbert”

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I just got back from the Aspen Comedy Festival, where Colbert received their “Person of the Year” award, a copyright infringement that I’m sure Time’s lawyers are pouring poring (Thank you, commenters!) over as I type. (The Aspen folks had a better coverline for their mock magazine, though: “Not You. Me.”)

Most of the times I’ve run into Colbert, he’s been “in character,” and therefore a little hard to chat with. (He even appeared to be in character when we crossed paths at the hotel spa; he wore his bathrobe with the same stiff-necked anchorman aplomb as he would a $6000 suit.) I’m not sure most people realize that he stayed in the character of “Stephen Colbert” for the entire night of his infamous White House Correspondents’ Dinner appearance — right through the much-hyped Bloomberg after-party, where he parried my husband’s questions about the reception of his performance with the deadpan assertion that “I love the President.”

Fortunately, he did his “POY” interview with Jeff Greenfield out of character, talking about his creation “Stephen Colbert” in the third person and only occasionally slipping into the persona of the man he calls “a high class idiot.”

Not surprisingly for such a well-developed character, Colbert has an extensive backstory for his alter ego. He went Dartmouth, where he worked on the Dartmouth Review with Dinesh D’Souza and Laura Ingraham (“I think I tapped that while I was there, too,” he confessed, causing this audience member to throw up a little in her mouth). He was exposed to a good education “but basically wasted it.” He has a pre-show ritual of “shaving every inch of my body…I need to be able to slither through rocks, like an eel.” He then sings Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me” in the mirror to himself.

A good half the panel was devoted to the WHCD performance — though not its aftermath, which Colbert claims to have kept himself pretty ignorant of. “I read one really positive blog post about it and one really negative one and then I figured, I’m done.” Perhaps the most surprising revelation of the evening was that Colbert didn’t expect his routine to be the kind of watershed moment it turned out to be — he just wanted it to be funny. The only inkling he got that things might take a turn for the worse, he said, was that his wife, while reading the script, kept asking, “you’re not REALLY going to say that, are you?”

He confessed that he sort of knew that the routine was not going over well as he was doing it, though he reminded the audience that in a room of 3000 people, even getting a third of them to laugh was a victory of sorts. “I played to that 1000,” he said.

The somewhat sour reception only prompted one actual edit in the material. He had been planning on doing a bit where he talked about how journalists were always getting awards but “no one ever gives the President an award.” So he printed up, and had with him at the podium, a “certificate of Presidency,” which read, simply, “I, Stephen Colbert, recognize that George W. Bush is the President of the United States.”

Realizing that the president seemed not to be enjoying things so much, he skipped that presentation, though at this point, I have to say, I don’t think that necessarily made much of a difference.

The performance has actually gotten better with age. As I’ve written elsewhere, it didn’t seem as hilarious in the room, mostly because it seemed designed for television. Like a lot of things in this administration, actually. If only the years had a similarly beneficial effect on the war.

UPDATE: Because a commenter asked: Though politics is often a joke, I was not in Aspen on Time’s dime. I actually performed at the festival (insert “well, your career is joke, too” joke here). Marc Maron (formerly of Air America, hilarious stand-up comedian) and I did a kind of “live pilot” for a talk show called “The Gaggle.” If it went as well as people said then you’ll be hearing more about it soon.