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Stephen Colbert's Most Meaningful Musical Moments

Stephen Colbert (right) performs with Ben Folds on the set of his TV show, <em>The Colbert Report</em>.
Kris Long
Stephen Colbert (right) performs with Ben Folds on the set of his TV show, The Colbert Report.

Stephen Colbert loves music and loves to sing. That's why Fresh Air's Terry Gross asked him to bring a few songs that mean a lot to him and tell her why. For example, as a kid, Colbert discovered his first lesson about character acting through "King Herod's Song" from Jesus Christ Superstar, even though he thought the words were scandalous at first: "Oh, so you are the Christ? You're the great Jesus Christ. Prove to me that you're no fool. Walk across my swimming pool."

"That opened my eyes as a kid — that you could actually be — well, you could be wrong in character," he tells Gross. "You could be blasphemous in character and it doesn't negate how you feel about the subject."

Colbert says he also loves the work of Elvis Costello, who he says tried to write anthemic, Bruce Springsteen-like songs when he was younger, but eventually stopped because he'd end up with wry, sardonic or character-based songs. Colbert says it's an odd parallel with his own artistic evolution and relationship to Jon Stewart, especially because Stewart's favorite artist is Springsteen.

Ben Folds Five is another of Colbert's favorite groups. "The Best Imitation of Myself" spoke directly to him as an entertainer. "When I first heard the song, just a few years ago, I just thought he had written it for me," Colbert says. After listening more, he says he realized the song is "just a beautiful expression of how we are toward each other as people — we don't think that we are sufficient for each other; that no one wants to know the real me or the whole me."

Stephen Colbert is the author of America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren't and I Am a Pole (And So Can You!).

Interview Highlights

On the parallel between Elvis Costello's relationship with Bruce Springsteen and Colbert's relationship with Jon Stewart

"[Elvis Costello] was trying when he was younger to try to write Bruce Springsteen songs — and that he really liked Bruce Springsteen's sound. And he said, but then he eventually stopped doing that because he would try to write these songs like Bruce Springsteen and he would end up writing things that were a little bit wry, sardonic or even character-based. And they didn't have that sort of sincere, anthemic quality that Bruce's songs sometimes have. And that kind of blew me away, because he's describing his relation to Bruce Springsteen kind of like my relationship to Jon Stewart. And Jon's favorite artist is Bruce Springsteen, and my favorite rock artist is probably Elvis Costello. So there's an odd parallel between Elvis' evolution from what he was trying to do like Bruce and my evolution from what I was trying to do when I worked with Jon."

On falling asleep onstage

"I've fallen asleep onstage in a scene literally, and I wanted to do it for years. I felt like, 'I wonder if I could get so comfortable on stage that if I was playing a sleeping person I could fall asleep onstage,' which is a dumb idea because you'd miss every cue, of course. But I did it one day. I had been traveling. We'd done shows in Chicago — this is Second City — and we'd done 10 days of shows in Vienna. And when we came back from Austria — it was the night after I came back — I had such terrible jet lag that I went out onstage. I sat down. I was supposed to be onstage when the lights came up. When the lights came up, I was sound asleep. Somebody had to come up wake me up — well, actually, the man next to me onstage had to wake me up."

On why he likes comedy more than drama

"I did drama and I did comedy. I like comedy more, because if you mess up onstage or if you mess up doing a comedy, there's just incessant mockery of what you did rather than if you mess up in a drama — at least my experience of having done it onstage. There's just a kind of chill of disappointment in the fact that you ruined the scene. There's almost a celebration of the fact that you failed when you fail in comedy."

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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