There is more out-of-character Stephen Colbert at the real-time taping of The Colbert Report than one might imagine. At the beginning of the show, before the cameras roll, he emerges–post openly hostile and profane warm-up comic–and takes questions from the audience. You are warned about this in advance: “He will not be in character. You all know it’s a character, right?” Like most people who’ve achieved his level of fame, Colbert has a kind of palpable, physical charisma that he brings to whatever room he happens to be in–this leads inevitably to slightly messianic questions such as, “When you’re feeling down, what to do you do to fight through it?”
The answer he gives is music. “Like tonight’s guest, the Mountain Goats,” Colbert says, citing “This Year” as a song that has gotten him through all sorts of real-life hard times. And indeed, as the taping rolls and the commercial breaks interrupt, Colbert keeps his energy level up by listening to, among other things, Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Holland, 1945”–we know this because it plays loudly, throughout the studio. Two girls in the seats in front of me start singing along and–as they start sort of swaying–Colbert spots them and starts pointing rhythmically in their direction, all the while faithfully mouthing the lyrics. Let’s just say this is a sight that you are likely very unprepared for.
Later, Colbert’s genuine love for the Mountain Goats will provide a rare moment of harmony between the man and the character he plays: “I’m not going to hide the fact that I’m a fan,” he tells John Darnille, by way of starting their on-camera interview. And–after rattling off some lyrics from “Sax Rohmer #1,” seemingly ad-libbing a fantastic description of what the Mountain Goats are all about (“so you named your band after an animal that has suicidal pride?”), and generally allowing Darnielle to win an interview most guests lose–Colbert can be seen waiting out the commercial break between the conversation and the band’s performance of “Psalms 40:2,” frantically studying a sheet of paper, the contents of which he’s clearly trying to memorize.
This turns out be preparation not for a joke or a bit but for “This Year.” What he’s doing during the commercial break and even during some of “Psalms” is trying to nail down the lyrics. Because, it emerges, he’s convinced the band–or vice versa, who knows–to allow him to guest on the song. And thus we are treated to the world’s first and likely only collaboration between Stephen Colbert and the Mountain Goats, live, in front of 100 or so people, Colbert and Darnielle alternating bars, harmonizing on the chorus, and generally living out in real time a kind of mutual rock fantasy camp dream. Some lyrics are flubbed, and in the aftermath Colbert looks like a guy who would desperately like to get a second try-out, but he’s got to move: he directs some anguished looks at his watch and then, a few minutes later, at a car idling outside, before getting in and leaving. The cameras were rolling, but it doesn’t look like Comedy Central broadcast it–maybe cause the take wasn’t perfect, or maybe because this one was for the personal scrapbook and for whoever else happened to be in the room. We’ll just go ahead and pretend like we’re sad that the rest of you weren’t.