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How To Survive A Colbert Interview

Michelle Obama is tonight's guest on The Colbert Report. I've watched enough episodes of the show--and appeared as a guest a year ago January--to have come up with a rough formula for how to survive an appearance across the table for the toughest interviewer in television.

1. Remember that he's the funnyman, not you, so don't try to be too clever or cute. For all the chatter about Chris Matthews' merciless dressing down by John Stewart on The Daily Show last year, often forgotten is how Matthews--who clearly harbors some creepy need to be the center of attention, even on other people's shows--embarrassed himself during a Colbert appearance when he decided to get out of his chair and try to put Colbert in a Full Nelson. Dumb.

(Watch video here.)

2. Don't try to egg on or in any other way exhort the audience. Apparently, former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele thought his Colbert interview was an audience-participation gladiator contest to be won by generating cheers or laughs from the in-studio crowd. A couple of times Steele turned toward the audience, waving his arms up and down in expectation that they would react to him. Dumber.

(Watch video here.)

3. Despite the first two injunctions, don't take yourself too seriously either. The other type of bad Colbert guest is the button-downed expert who tries to give a straight answer to every question, even the patently absurd ones Colbert poses. If you can't laugh at yourself, everyone else will. And it's OK to simply pause a moment to laugh at one of Colbert's ridiculous queries. He will either smile, or turn his head slightly with that wry, self-satisfied look he's mastered. In person, the real Colbert is extraordinarily demure, as you'll learn when you meet him before the show. But Colbert-in-character likes to be stroked, and the best way to do that is to smile or laugh--to simply marvel--when he fires off some genius remark or absurdly funny query. Just because you're on the show doesn't mean you can't enjoy the show.

4. Keep a couple of your answers short--and I mean really short, as in less than a sentence. Because Colbert works from scripted blue note cards, he needs time while you're answering the previous question to check his notes and devise a bridge from your current answer to his forthcoming question. (Viewers at home rarely see him doing this because the edited, televised version shifts to the solo shot of the guest.) If you don't give him that time, it may throw him off balance. Besides, the longer you talk, the more openings you provide for him to execute one of his lethal, mid-sentence extemporaneous eviscerations.

5. Check out the studio before your segment. You've done enough public appearances and television shows to know that being comfortable in your surroundings can't hurt, and will probably relax you a bit. The producers prefer to keep guests in the Green Room until right before their segment, and then bring them out, sit them down in the interviewee's chair, turn on the camera, and unleash Colbert. You wouldn't let Barack go into a nationally-televised debate without a logistics prep, so why would you?

6. Don't eat anything from the cheese and fruit plate they provide before the show. Like the snipping of the bull's nape before the beast is sent into the arena to face the matador, I'm convinced they lace the food with peyote in order to blur your senses and weaken your resistance.

Well, that's about it, except this final piece of advice: If the goodie bag they provide still includes a mail-in coupon for free Clontarf whiskey, promptly send that in. Three large bottles arrived at my door a month after my appearance. If you bomb the interview, you'll need them.

(Watch video here.)

--Thomas F. Schaller