By GWEN OREL
For Montclair Local
Ready for a return to live-ness?
So is Stephen Colbert.
It’s hard to be funny without that sound the audience makes. For that matter, it’s hard to know if you’re funny.
“I feel like I’m shouting my show into an empty Altoid tin and throwing it off an overpass,” the Montclair resident and host of The Late Show on CBS (rebranded “a” Late Show during COVID) told Montclair Film’s executive director, Tom Hall.
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Colbert and wife Evelyn McGee Colbert, president of the Montclair Film Board of Trustees, spoke to Hall in a prerecorded fundraiser presented Friday, May 7 — the 10th annual Colbert live conversation to raise funds for the Montclair Film Festival since it launched (It would have been the 11th, but there was no fundraiser in 2020 due to the pandemic).
The first Montclair Film Festival benefit, in 2011, was at the Wellmont Theater, with Montclairian, author and TV pundit Jonathan Alter interviewing Stephen Colbert.
Since then, Stephen Colbert has interviewed others for the benefit, including John Stewart, J.J. Abrams, Meryl Streep and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
This week’s interview was a kind of return to the roots of the hometown film festival, drawing on hometown celebrity. The festival always intended to celebrate Montclair. Founder and Chairman Bob Feinberg was inspired to launch the festival after a 2009 visit to the Sundance Film Festival, hoping to bring that kind of excitement and economic impact to Montclair. Evelyn McGee Colbert — usually called Evie — was one of the first people he called, Feinberg said in an introduction to an introduction to this week’s interview.
Hall and the Colberts pointed out during the interview that Montclair Film Festival is very different from Sundance — as it was never intended to be marketplace for films. It’s not an event for which residents leave and rent their homes for exorbitant prices for the week, but a celebration of filmmakers with the people who live in the community.
“It’s all about the artists,” Stephen Colbert said.
This year’s festival is slated for Oct. 21 through 30.
‘THAT MAN LOVES HIS MOTHER’
Evie and Stephen Colbert met before they “met,” the husband and wife told Hall. They’d both been at the same fraternity party — Stephen Colbert said he “wormed” over to her, demonstrating his dance. And they had grown up quite near one another in South Carolina, but did not know each other.
They then met (and it stuck) at the Spoleto Festival, when Stephen Colbert was already working with the Chicago comedy troupe Second City, and Evie Colbert had finished acting school.
“He walked in with his mother on his arm. I was thinking, ‘That man loves his mother,’” Evie Colbert said. She hadn’t remembered him.
Stephen Colbert said he saw her and wondered, “Who is that?”
He had actually flown home to mull over whether or not to marry his at-the-time girlfriend, who had given him an ultimatum, he recalled. His mother said, “Do you want to marry her?” When Stephen Colbert said he didn’t know, his mother replied, “I don’t know isn’t good enough.”
He thought, “now I have a week to kill,” he said.
And then Stephen Colbert met the woman who’d become his wife.
But, Evie Colbert said, “I want the girls to know I wrote my number down, and sent a postcard.”
They wrote to one another for a while, then eventually got married and moved to New York City.
Jennifer Garner was their babysitter, and when she moved away to Los Angeles, they both felt sorry for her; another dream seemed to be dying.
That’s until they saw Garner’s figure on an 8-foot-tall billboard outside the Lincoln Tunnel for “Alias.”
The Colberts also talked about early days of commuting to New York, when Stephen Colbert was on “The Daily Show” and then “The Colbert Report.”
One reason Stephen Colbert didn’t want press at early Montclair Film Festival benefits was that he never appeared out of character. At the time, his public persona was a caricature of a right-wing blowhard; he more rarely made public appearances or gave interviews in his own voice.
“I didn’t want people to know what part of the show I meant,” he said.
But in 2012, when Stephen Colbert interviewed Jon Stewart for the festival, a story blew up. Someone in the press bought a ticket, and heard Stewart said a few unflattering things about Hugh Grant (specifically, he called Grant a “big pain” to deal with; Grant later apologized for letting his “inner crab” get the better of him with the Daily Show staff). Fortunately, Stewart just shrugged — and it brought the fledgling festival publicity.
People were paying attention to what was happening at a small theater in New Jersey, Stephen Colbert said. He loves the benefit conversations because he gets to have a long talks with celebrities that go far beyond the 15-minute chunks that happen on his own show.
Hall also showed clips from a pillow fight with John Oliver during the 2016 benefit: Stephen Colbert had a pillow on set with the American flag on it, while Oliver’s had the British flag. It was a battle for whose country was worse, in that year’s American election or Brexit.
The name of that benefit had been “Wow, That Was Weird,” a name Hall now finds “prescient.”
“I remember a great sense of trepidation,” Stephen Colbert said. He recalled wondering if he was wrong about America and what it means — and then concluding he wasn’t wrong, that democracy, science and egalitarianism are good things.
“Everybody was afraid, and when you laugh you are not afraid,” he said.
Rather than seeing himself as living in a bubble, he thinks of his world as a lifeboat, an “antibiotic membrane, keeping something poisonous out.”
SATELLITE TRUCKS ON THE LAWN
For the past year, Stephen Colbert has broadcast from his home in Montclair, or from another in South Carolina. The Ed Sullivan Theater, which hosts The Late Show, is on Broadway — and Broadway shut down in March 2020.
Stephen Colbert enlisted his sons and his wife as crew.
At one point, he said with a laugh, both sons came to him and said they were not going to graduate high school or college unless they stopped.
Evie Colbert worked with the crew, who could not be there in person. They would tell her what cords to connect or unplug.
“I learned a great secret: Turn it off and turn it back on again,” she said, laughing. Someone’s Zoom is bad? Unplug and plug back in.
Their skills complement one another, she said.
Hall showed a short video Evie Colbert took of their home “studio,” showing multiple iPads, many cables, cameras on tripods.
Along with working on the show, Evie Colbert has also been working with Gov. Phil Murphy on arts funding, as part of the Restart and Recovery Commission.
She called Montclairan John Schreiber, president and CEO of New Jersey Performing Arts Center, for advice, and they put together a brain trust that meets weekly.
At first, arts funding clearly took a back seat to critical, urgent needs like food security and home security and other immediate, critical needs. But this past autumn she spoke to Murphy about support for the arts through CARES funding.
The arts have value in mitigating our isolation, she said.
“It’s almost like mental health appeal,” Evie Colbert said. “We all have had incredible loss over the past year, and are craving a place to go to share a beautiful experience.”
The crisis, Stephen Colbert said, reveals the basics of self.
“Evie and I are from South Carolina,” he said. “But this year has shown us New Jersey is our home.”