Critical Mass

From the Archives: Stephen Colbert Doesn’t Read Books (She Does it For Him)

By Jane Ciabattari

In honor of the fifth anniversary of the founding of Critical Mass in April 2006, we'll be posting some of the most popular entries from our archives. Here's a post that was read by thousands after Andrew Sullivan linked to it. It was originally published September 17, 2007. Five years is long in digital time. Update: Stephen Colbert is still on the air, and Emily Lazar is still producing his show. Andrew Sullivan recently shifted from The Atlantic to The Daily Beast. And Jonathan Alter just left Newsweek.

During her appearance on the September 2007 NBCC panel “Grub Street 2.0,” Emily Lazar, producer of The Colbert Report, made it clear that Stephen Colbert needs books, but he doesn't really read them. That's her job. “Stephen doesn't read books. [His character doesn't read books.] Most of the ideas we discuss on the show start in books. Book reviews are hugely important to me. I get sixty books a day, and it would be impossible to read all of them. Book reviews quickly gve me the idea behind the book and how the idea fits into the context of other books on the subject, whether the book goes over old ground or advances ideas. We don't usually allow novelists on the show, because you can't usually understand their ideas off the bat. We're not about storytelling. We're about entertainment. We had Garrison Keillor on the show because he's an iconic figure. He represents folksiness, banjo playing public television folksiness, something Stephen could easily make fun of. Salman Rushdie was on the show not for a specific novel but for an idea. [Rushdie appeared in support of the NBCC Campaign to Save Book Reviewing]

“It's my job to figure out who will be a good foil for his character and figure out a way in. If it were up to me, I'd have bumped Garrison Keillor. But Stephen said, 'I'm going to outfolksy him.' He likes nothing more than the challenge of a situation when it seems he has nothing to say to this person. The hardest person to interview is the one he likes to interview the most.”

Lazar also commented on the tone of some reviews. “I'm the wife of a writer,” she said. (Her husband is Newsweek's Jonathan Alter.) “Have any of you reviewers written a book? I read all the reviews of my husband's book when it came out. Some of them were so petty, trying to find minor factual errors to discredit the book. A real problem with book reviews is some reviewers feel pressed to feel superior to the book.”