Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Stephen Colbert share a lot in common, besides making people laugh.
Both attended Northwestern University. Both performed in Chicago’s Second City improv comedy troupe. Both worked on SNL (Louis-Dreyfus as a player; Colbert briefly as a writer). And both have had people ask them if they might run for office (spoiler: neither one has plans to run).
The two learned more about each other, as they bonded over cocktails, crafted by Colbert, despite his first onstage mishap bartending Saturday night at Newark’s NJPAC. Colbert ended up breaking a glass while making the star of “Veep” and “Seinfeld” a Manhattan, but quickly recovered, using water mugs instead to make them each a drink (he sipped his ritual drink — an Old-Fashioned with his own homemade candied orange peel).
Their intimate conversation, lasting close to an hour, played out in front of an appreciative audience of 2,800 people. The annual event, which Colbert has graciously appeared at for nine years, was a fundraiser for Montclair Film, the film/arts organization led by founder and chairman of the board Bob Feinberg, and president of the board Evelyn Colbert, Colbert’s wife.
Introducing Louis-Dreyfus, Colbert described her as an actress, a producer and an activist, adding “and the fact that she is here tonight proves she is a saint walking among us. I believe sincerely she is the greatest comedic actor of our generation. My love of her work borders on chemical dependency.”
Colbert then talked about how he had seen Veep so many times he could recite episodes by heart and how it was his go-to show, especially when he needed a pick-me-up.
“It doesn’t matter what mood I’m in, how ill I am, or how low I’ve sunk. I can put on Julia and instantly feel better. It’s partly because she’s such a brilliant actress, but also because she plays so many horrible people that I’m briefly reminded I’m not as bad as they are.”
Colbert was in awe of Louis-Dreyfus for other reasons, too. At Northwestern, she auditioned for and was accepted into the school’s venerable “Mee-Ow Show” comedy improv group, while Colbert didn’t make the cut.
“What was that like? Because I didn’t get in and I’m fine with that,” Colbert said, jokingly adding, “it hasn’t haunted me.”
“I have to say honestly — and I think it’s great what you’ve done with your life and everything — but it completely changed my life,” Louis-Dreyfus said, teasing.
Turns out, joining the troupe was life-changing in that she discovered her creative point of view and made a lot of important relationships, including most importantly, meeting the man she would ultimately marry, Brad Hall.
When the chance to work at Saturday Night Live came at age 21, Louis-Dreyfus jumped at the opportunity, leaving Northwestern early. She stayed at SNL for three years, but the environment did not live up to the dream.
She was able to work with Hall, who was also hired out of school, and joined the cast at a time when it featured Billy Crystal, Eddie Murphy, Christopher Guest, Martin Short and Mary Gross, just to name a few.
However, it was not the ensemble work she had expected.
“At that moment in time, there were plenty of people on the show who were incredibly funny, but I was unbelievably naive and I didn’t really understand how the dynamics of the place worked. It was very sexist, very sexist. People were doing crazy drugs at the time. I was oblivious. I just thought, ‘oh wow, he’s got a lot of energy,'” she recalls.
Nonetheless, Louis-Dreyfus says the experience taught her something very important.
“I just thought — I don’t have to do this. I don’t have to walk and crawl through this kind of nasty glass if it’s not ultimately going to be fulfilling. And that’s how I sort of moved forward from that moment. I sort of applied the fun-meter to every job I’ve had since and that has been very helpful.
The fun-meter went off the charts when Louis-Dreyfus landed what would be one of her most iconic roles — Elaine Benes on Seinfeld.
“I got this call that Larry [David] has written these shows for a guy named Jerry Seinfeld called ‘The Seinfeld Chronicles,'” Louis-Dreyfus says.
She remembers reading the episodes and thinking how the show didn’t resemble anything else on television at that time.
Colbert asked what her favorite episode of Seinfeld was, but Louis-Dreyfus couldn’t choose.
“I don’t have a favorite, I have favorite moments. We loved that show more than the people who were watching it loved that show. We got a huge kick out of it,” she said, adding how you can tell because “Jerry’s laughing the whole time.”
“I mean he [Seinfeld] can’t act at all. He’ll tell you. And so he’s got this huge smile on his face when anyone is saying anything. And if I looked at him and saw him doing that, then I would go off. Anyway, it took a long time to shoot those things because I was ruining all the takes. So that was my favorite thing, sort of the making of it.”
When it came to the Veep part of her career, Colbert said he kind of wished Selina Meyer was president.
“And I’ll tell you why. It’s because no one, of any party, would defend her actions. It is so transparent, that there’s no defending what she did. I love the honesty of her mendacity and her selfishness. I just like it all laid out there, in a very human way. She’s understandable,” Colbert said.
Louis-Dreyfus concurred. “She’s an understandably, highly unlikeable person.”
Following their conversation, Colbert invited audience members to ask Louis-Dreyfus some questions.
One of the most moving was when an audience member, who was also a breast cancer survivor, asked Louis-Dreyfus about her own battle, any advice she would give and what was the funniest thing that happened to her during treatment.
“It was a very difficult time,” she said, her voice starting to crack with the words. “You must have someone with you all the time to be your advocate.”
She added that had she not been doing ‘Veep’ at the time, she might not have come out publicly about her treatment.
“I had to because I had 200 people waiting to go back to work in, like, three weeks and I get this diagnosis. I knew we had to shut down, and I had no choice,” she recalls. “So I needed to manage that and make it public.”
“I had chemotherapy, I had a double mastectomy, and I had reconstruction. The funniest thing was when the surgeon came in, and of course they take pictures of you, and so he had pictures of me before the surgery. And I looked at my tits and I looked at him and I said ‘You know what doctor, this is the first time I’m really happy I’ve got cancer.’ I was joking, of course I’m joking, but I nursed two boys for a really long time.”
Both Colbert and Louis-Dreyfus were asked what they hoped real politicians might take from their work as political entertainers.
“I would love for people to start to embrace — or for there to be a trend — I think it’s okay to say you made a mistake,” Louis-Dreyfus said. “That is gone from our discourse. How could you not make a mistake? And people seem to be running in fear from that idea and I think there’s common ground there because we all do of course. So that would be my little nugget.”
Colbert’s answer was simple: Don’t lie.
“Because we can tell. We can tell when you lie and if we’re on your side, we’ll forgive you for the lie. So don’t mislead us. Tell the truth because we’ll follow you if we’ve picked your side of the team.”