Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert set aside satire on Friday night to entertain a full house at the Wellmont Theatre with anecdotes, jokes, previously little-known tales, and a clear admiration for each other. This event is the second conversational event for the Montclair Film Festival in which Colbert has participated, the first being last year’s sold-out show with Jonathan Alter. During the two-and-a-half hours on stage, the two friends kept the audience laughing while they helped to raise money for the second season of the Montclair Film Festival, which begins in April.
Despite having grown up in New Jersey, Stewart began with some ribbing of the commute from New York City and its Route 3 traffic. The conversation quickly became Montclair-centered with references to the plethora of Prius hybrids causing traffic jams in our streets. But really, this conversation was about the career and friendship history the two men share, and those of us in attendance were not disappointed.
Stewart started by explaining the difference between what he does on The Daily Show and what Stephen Colbert does on The Colbert Report. Stewart said he deconstructs the news and satirizes what he finds; Colbert deconstructs, revises, and then reconstructs through the lens of Stephen Colbert – the character. Said Stewart, “I don’t understand how you can do all that and your hair is still dark.” For his part, Colbert admitted that his show hasn’t reached the same balance of work and life that Stewart’s show seems to have found.
One of the most poignant moments came out of the comedians’ love of rock-n-roll. Stewart mentioned his well-documented love of Bruce Springsteen and Colbert’s admiration of Elvis Costello. Stephen Colbert shared a conversation he had with his favorite rocker, after a show Costello put on at the Wellmont. Colbert was showing Costello his LP collection when Costello’s Radio, Radio came up. According to Colbert, Costello admitted that the song had been an attempt to write an anthem a la Springsteen; it was in trying to be like Springsteen that he found his own style. Colbert said that he had had a similar creative evolution. “I tried to be like Jon Stewart,” Colbert said. “And by trying to be him, I found myself.”
The mutual admiration continued with Jon Stewart emphasizing that, unlike character comedians like Ali G., Colbert uses no cutting and splicing in interviews to make guests look ridiculous. Colbert explained one instance with Georgia Congressman Lynn Westmoreland, who wanted the Ten Commandments displayed in the houses of Congress. Westmoreland insisted that all people should have the Commandments in their hearts, so Colbert asked Westmoreland to name them – and held up his hands, prepared to count on his fingers. The congressman was able to name three. For his part, Stewart said that his favorite guests include Bob Dole, while Colbert said he loved having Dolly Parton on his show.
When asked about least favorite guests, Stewart lost no time in saying that of all the people he’s had on the show — Musharraf, Rumsfeld, dictators and criminals — the guest who “creeped everyone out” the most was Hugh Grant. Also, Harry Reid was a perplexing guest because it seemed like he didn’t know his own autobiography or photos from his childhood home.
Talk of guests opened another opportunity for Stewart to compliment Colbert’s talents. For one episode of The Daily Show, Al Sharpton didn’t show up for his interview, and they turned to Stephen Colbert to fill-in the spot. As Colbert tells it, he was out the door with a ticket to a preview of The Fellowship of the Ring when he heard his name over the loudspeaker. (At this point, several Tolkien-loving members of the audience let out an audible groan.) He returned to the studio, however, and performed as Al Sharpton — leaving the Fellowship to wait for a later date.
The Q & A session was also revealing. One audience member simply thanked Stewart for his post-9/11 speech, saying it helped the healing process. Other questions were about favorite moments in this past election season. Another centered on successes and failures on stage, which brought out Stewart admitting that he “Bombed so hard at Radio City Music Hall that the mother [Shirley Jones] of The Partridge Family gave me a hug.”
When asked about comedic influences, Stewart and Colbert had very different responses. Stewart cited Kurt Vonnegut’s books as shaping his world view and attitude to politics. Colbert mentioned more traditional influences with a number of comedy albums, and not surprisingly, the work of Don Novello of Father Guido Sarducci fame. Clearly, both men are influenced, or at least inspired, by each other. “It’s nice to have a brother in the business,” Stewart said.
On Friday night, Montclair Film Festival’s John Stewart in Conversation with Stephen Colbert allowed the audience to listen in on a funny, enlightening, honest discussion between two great friends and comedians. It truly felt like a human moment between two men known for their sharp and satirical facades.