Stephen Colbert Was Late Night’s Most Passionate Book-Nerd

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Photo: Maya Robinson and Photos by Getty

“It was the most warped author interview on television,” says Jonathan Karp, the publisher of Simon & Schuster’s flagship imprint. “The more stupid the question was, the more intelligent the conversation became.”

The Colbert Report ends its run today, but yesterday was its last “ordinary” show, and its last guest was, of all people, a fiction writer (Phil Klay, an Iraq veteran whose story collection, Redeployment, won this year’s National Book Award). It was a reminder, as Stephen Colbert prepared to slough off his idiot character for good, of his strange, honorable service to literature. In addition to everything else the show has accomplished since launching in 2005, it might have been TV’s most effective servant of books.

For nine years, Colbert enlisted roughly two writers a week into a bizarre form of theater, the Dick Cavett shadow-play today’s America deserves. It was intellectual combat repeated as farce — and a Trojan horse for the promotion of good books. Everyone in publishing prays that it survives Colbert’s move to CBS.

Not since Oprah’s Book Club has any one personality been able to sell copies in six-figure increments, and, well, Colbert didn’t come close, either. An especially good Report interview might have as strong a sales impact as an appearance on The Daily Show, but Colbert wasn’t a “tentpole asset” on Stewart’s level, per one head of publicity. (Either could easily mean a 5,000-copy spike but not too much more.) Yet Colbert had more actual writers on than his mentor — not just politicians flogging books. “Stewart gets the head of state,” says Little, Brown editor Reagan Arthur. “Colbert goes more for the person who’s writing about the head of state.”

He also punched far above his weight. Network shows have much higher ratings, but the authors they feature — from early morning to late night — barely make a Bookscan blip. “The caliber of author that will even get onto Letterman or Fallon is going to be a best-seller anyway,” says another publicity head, “and these days, even the morning shows don’t do what they once did.” The Colbert Bump, on the other hand, is real, if not always spectacular. “What’s extraordinary is that even interviews that are completely absurd and barely touch on the books have this spike to them,” says Riverhead publicist Jynne Martin, who handles repeat Colbert guests Junot Díaz and Steven Johnson. She can’t say that about Good Morning America. “There’s an unbelievable trust in his instincts — $26.95 worth of trust. Hardcover books cost a lot of money.”

But for many authors and editors, it wasn’t just about money. Colbert producer Emily Lazar, who booked the writers, had a long producing career with CNN, CBS News, and Charlie Rose (and is married to political writer Jonathan Alter); her taste drove the author interviews. “In a culture that has reduced literature down to a market or celebrity function, Colbert provided one of the few public spaces of deliberation for writers on mainstream television,” says Junot Díaz. “It was a comedy show that was deadly serious about putting writers in front of its audience, deadly serious about reminding people that literary culture is at the center of both a healthy democracy and a healthy public discourse.”

That discourse was often well disguised, sometimes at the expense of writers more accustomed to the bookish pace of Leonard Lopate or Terry Gross. “It’s the quickest four or five minutes of their life,” says Penguin Press publicist Elisabeth Calamari. “Some are better at it than others.” Avid Colbert fans are by now familiar with his backstage admonitions to guests, some variation on: Think of that character I play as your drunk idiot uncle. Your job is to dissuade me, earnestly, of my idiotic assumptions. That isn’t always an easy thing to do.

“I was struck with terror at the idea of going on Colbert,” says Billy Collins, the popular and TV-friendly two-time U.S. Poet Laureate. “He’s a very slippery character.  A number of people told me, 'Just be yourself,' and my response was, 'Well, he’s not being himself!'” Collins prepared by watching other Colbert interviews. “A lot of guests come out with a defensive posture,” and that didn’t seem to work. “I just gave him a lot of room to do his shtick,” he says. It went far better than expected; they even read a poem together on the air. “I had a spinal tap once, and it’s actually completely painless, but the anticipation of it is nerve-racking.”

Three-timer George Saunders calls the Colbert pulpit “a terrifying privilege. It shines a light on who you are — the weaknesses in your way of thinking, the little conversational feints you hide behind, the things you are counting on no one ever calling you out on. In the end, I felt like the best approach was just to trust Stephen. If he wanted to take down a guest, he could do it easily, but he never does that. My sense was that his audience loved it when the gloves came off and both Stephen and his guest were really going for it and having fun.”

No one has been more game than historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, a four-time guest and the butt of a running gag: Colbert makes a bizarre sexual reference, followed by, “Once again, my apologies to Doris Kearns Goodwin.” She’s still regularly stopped on the street by strangers sharing the latest dirty joke — “which has only added to the fun for me.” As for the appearances, “The first time, I kept telling myself I was doing this for my kids, who were thrilled, and that it would soon be over no matter what. But midway through the first interview, I began to realize I was actually having fun.” It helped, she says, to sit back “instead of waiting anxiously to put in some line of my own.”

Colbert is most beloved among book folks for taking a stance this year in the dispute between Amazon and his own publisher, Hachette, which caused his and other books to be all but blacklisted from Amazon’s website. Sherman Alexie, who was active in the cause on social media, had already been talking to Hachette CEO Michael Pietsch (who declined to comment for this story) about finding a debut novelist whom he could help to overcome Amazon’s potentially career-crippling delays. Of the half-dozen Pietsch sent him, Edan Lepucki’s California stood out. “I was just gonna do it on my own,” says Alexie. “Edan would have sold 40 more copies.” Instead, he plugged it on the Report, and California, with an initial 12,000-copy print run, hit No. 3 on the Times best-seller list. There are now 65,000 copies in print.

When Colbert had Lepucki herself on, she had no problem following the producer’s instructions: “Don’t be glib, just be sincere and grateful.” Determined to put Lepucki on the Times list, producers asked Alexie and at least one other publisher for advice. Alexie suggested focusing on Powell’s, the large Portland independent, so Lepucki traveled there and signed 10,000 copies. The crusade didn’t just benefit her (or Stephan Eirik Clark, whom Lepucki recommended in turn). Like Colbert’s 2011 Super PAC stunt, it dragged corporate tricks out from under the news cycle and into the light of day. “The skit reached millions of people in a way that our measured response did not,” says Authors United’s Douglas Preston, adding that it led more writers to sign on with him against Amazon.

Book people are split, but hopeful, on whether Colbert can bring the same publicity to writers on a network show. Emily Lazar refused to comment, via Comedy Central, on whether she’ll follow Colbert to CBS, but a couple of her friends in publishing said it was highly likely. Even if Colbert keeps the number of guests constant, they might be on past midnight, speaking to a watered-down, less literate audience and a host who’s given up the magnetic persona Alexie calls “Dick Cavett and George Carlin with a couple teaspoons of Barry Goldwater.” Alexie adds, “I’m certainly worried about it. Based on the authors that have been on late-night TV, for Colbert to bring on writers like he has would be revolutionary.”

Saunders is more optimistic. “My hunch is that he’ll be just as funny out of character,” he says. “I think he won’t be afraid to go deep either, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he pioneered a new, more expansive kind of TV-book interview. His intelligence is so acute and adaptive, I think the new format will bring out sides of him we haven’t seen before.”