Colbert Nation

By Sean Carroll | February 11, 2010 8:43 am

Every scientist who writes a popular-level book harbors a secret (or maybe not-so-secret) ambition: to be invited on the Colbert Report. Not only because Stephen Colbert is a funny guy, and it’s a good way to sell books — although there is that. The truth is that Colbert (and the Daily Show) love talking to scientists. The sad part of that truth is that more people are exposed to real scientists doing cutting-edge research by watching Comedy Central than by watching, shall we say, certain channels you might have thought more appropriate venues for such conversations. But the happy part is that Colbert and Jon Stewart help bring some fun to science, and expose it to an audience it might not otherwise reach.

So, mark your calendars: I’m going to be on Colbert on Wednesday, March 3. (Scheduled to be, anyway — updates as events warrant.) I have a book to sell, not that I would have turned down the opportunity otherwise.

The precedents are pretty formidable — below the fold I’ve put some of Colbert’s recent interviews with some famous physics/astronomy types. Two things seem immediately obvious: (1) for scientists, these folks are very good at doing entertaining interviews, and (2) Stephen Colbert is an amazingly good interviewer, managing to mix topical jokes and his usual schtick with some really good questions, and more than a bit of real background knowledge. I think this is going to take some preparation.

Anyone want to venture some guesses as to what questions he might ask? Every little bit of anticipation helps.

(Note on above link to the Onion: “Punkin Chunkin,” “Manhunter,” and “Heavy Metal Taskforce” are all real Science Channel shows. “Extreme Gravity” is, as far as I can tell, not.)

Brian Greene

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Brian Greene
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Economy

Janna Levin

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Janna Levin
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Economy

Mark Devlin

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Mark Devlin
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Economy

Lisa Randall

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Lisa Randall
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Economy

Brian Cox

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Brian Cox
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Economy

George Johnson

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
George Johnson
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Economy

Neil deGrasse Tyson

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Neil deGrasse Tyson
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Economy
CATEGORIZED UNDER: Personal, Science and the Media
  • Clifford

    Wow! You’ve made it!

  • Joseph Smidt

    Congratulations! I’ll be watching.

    PS. Sean, you need to throw him something to catch him off guard, you know, like what he does to his guests. (A curve ball he wasn’t expecting.)

  • Julian

    I appreciate how he delves like he does. He makes it funny but always manages to ask “Why should I care?” I don’t think everyone sees how well he presents multiple sides to his audience. Also, grats! I hope he doesn’t ask anything too pointed :)

  • Dave

    When Colbert says that God created time, hit him with some Sagan: “It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”

    Of course, he’ll say that you’re delusional if you don’t believe in Jesus (so watch out for his rebuttals to your rebuttals!).

  • Brian G

    “You’re known as the Bad Astronomer. Why are you so bad at it?” He’ll definitely do something along those lines so prepare for that. Congratz on (finally) getting on his show. I thought he’d have loved to have you on when DFtS came out because of the subject of the book.

  • Dan

    Ask him why his zeppelin hasn’t come to visit us at USA TODAY, if you need a curve ball. We are feelin pretty snubbed after he promised to visit us last year.

    Although, I’m told he usually punishes folks who try to out-funny him. I think George Johnson did a good job by bringing him a prop to play with and distract his character.

    And congrats, go get ‘im.

  • Pingback: Cosmology? Human Cell Cultures? The Colbert Report, Of Course | The Loom | Discover Magazine()

  • CW

    Congrats Sean! You may want to anticipate giving short answers, 3-4 sentences at a time – before he cuts you off with a joke or changes the subject real fast. I’ll be watching.

  • SU(N) is FU(N)

    Try not to start a sentence with “Einstein told us that…”. Everyone does it 😛

    And it would be sooo cool if you sneak in an hightliy non obviouse physics reference.

  • Chad J. Cuddihy

    Congratulations. Have you also mentioned to your readers (I didn’t see it anywhere, although I am fallible) that you will be on the Guardian science podcast? My favorite blogger on my favorite podcast. Can’t wait.

  • Oded

    Brian G … wrong blog? :) We’re still waiting for Phil to get his Colbert interview!

    Congrats Sean! I’m looking forward to it

  • NewEnglandBob

    Congratulations. You will be there on my birthday, so an added present for me.

  • UchicagoMan

    Congrats! That is incredibly awesome!

    Colbert is a wonderful guy.

    Just have fun!

    I highly recommend watching his Charlie Rose interview before meeting with him to get an idea what makes him, him.
    It is a touching and inspiring interview, IHMO.

  • Sophia

    Can’t wait!

    I’d say don’t over-prepare.. and when the interview is over and they go to ads don’t get up to leave, it always strikes me how people who are used to TV (reporters, politicians, etc) stay around to chat (for the camera? ), while non-TV people like authors/scientists just get up and are ready to leave–at which point they are pulled back by the interviewer.

  • Johan

    Sorry, living outside the US, this is the first time I heard of Colbertnation, and tho it certainly is entertaining, I’m afraid it is little else. I only watched the Randall clip (OK, the one element sample of what is already a non random sample doesn’t tell much), but really, … I admire the way dr Randall managed to cramp a lot of information in a few terse sentences, but I’m afraid it was all lost in this incredible amount of “entertaining noise”. Just my $0.02 worth.

  • hackenkaus

    Einstein’s phrase “puny demigods on stilts” comes to mind after seeing that list of speakers, especially the last one.

  • ChicagoMolly


    What you need to know about Colbert is that he’s doing a satirical sendup of politically right-wing blowhard commentators who aren’t nearly as smart as they think they are. But he’s really on our side. When he talks to scientists, he’s actually setting himself up for the fall by asking all the wrong questions. Well, exceptio probat reglum, he had Michael Behe on the show once, and he got Behe to take the fall by playing the part of a true believer in ID creationism who was thrilled to talk to someone who was against all that evolution stuff. Then Behe started in on his Irreducible Complexity spiel and Colbert just took his argument apart, right down to the mousetrap!

  • Eugene


  • Richard

    Maybe you can describe warped space-time in terms of the “Colbert Bump”… he’ll love the flattery and then you’ll probably get a chance to throw in some more science!

    Good luck!

  • Adam Solomon

    Wait, those WEREN’T satire? Oh dear God….. I thought Punkin Chunkin HAD to be a joke. This is the first time the Onion has been truthful since:

    Congratulations Sean!

  • Angus McPresley

    OMG, I wouldn’t be able to sleep the night before. Yes, Colbert interrupts a lot – after every sentence, I think, not after every 3 or 4 like an earlier commenter suggested – but that’s his shtick, and part of the reason he has so many viewers, so there’s no point in ever thinking bad of it.

    There’s a line you’ll have to walk – the guests who don’t come off that well are on two ends of a scale. On one end are the ones who are so focused on what they’re trying to say that they grimace every time he interrupts and then try to continue on with what they’re saying. These people come off as too serious. On the other end are those that try to out-humor him, which never works because he’s a very, very funny man. Just be relaxed, play off of him when you can, and (like an earlier commenter said) through him a curveball or two, and you’ll sell lots of books :-)

  • Allyson

    I keep saying this and hoping it doesn’t sound at all condescending, but I am so crazy proud of you.


  • spyder

    You could always break and egg and ask him why he, and Jesus, can’t put it together again. Also remember you are there to sell books, not just be on the Colbert Report. The more he talks about your book, the more the book becomes the centerpiece. And it is a very good book.

  • Glorious Ruler of All Spacetime

    First of all congrats.

    Second, note that they (Colbert staff) are very tech savvy. Thus they are either reading this blog regularly, or will read every bit of it beforehand. So, review your blog entries for any potential
    problems. Are there any left-wing, anti-American, anti-religion posts? Well, I guess that is the bulk.
    They probably will bring those up. Though they are on the same side as you (for the most part),
    they will paint you as a left-wing, elitist, secular, etc. etc.

    Just don’t try to out-fox or out-humor him, unless you feel you have the chops. You might wanna try some open-mic improv in LA first. That’ll tell you where you lie.
    However, if you get in a pickle, tell him that you’re dating Charlene and that she is magnificent.
    If Colbert can take apart a (now former, thank god) president -in his face- he can easily take you apart.

    I would say, sell the book, not the ideas. You don’t have time in that forum to discuss the contents.
    Or come up with a joke about the `free hand of the market’ and its relation to the evolution of the universe
    (‘free hand of entropy’?). Wait the walls have ears…never mind all that, nothing going on here.

  • Zaphod

    I’m stoked you’ll be on Colbert!

    I’ve watched so many good people do bad interviews with Colbert. I really want yours to go well, so here are some thoughts.

    Avoid the following mental/emotional states:
    – the guest who laughs at all Stephen’s jokes (“I really GET you, Stephen!”)
    – the guest who responds to every little comment Stephen makes (“This is YOUR show, Mr. Colbert, and I’ll let you steer it wherever you and your writers want… even if you’re clearly trying to let me take the wheel”)
    – the guest who mistakes Colbert’s faux-conservatism rhetoric for direct conversation (“Somehow I’ve come on this show without knowing that the whole premise is to lampoon the right-wing dialog by turning up the contrast. I’m so offended that you’re attacking me, Stephen! Geez! How ’bout a taste of yer own medicine?)
    – the guest who suddenly realizes that all this pageantry and fake hoopla belittles the message and is generally pissed off at having to wrangle with stupid questions, and wants Stephen to “get real” and take off his show mask (“As you and I both know, Stephen, this issue is really blah blah blah.” Stephen says, “What I know is that you’re wrong and I’m right!” [crowd knowingly cheers] Guest, “Well, maybe that’s cuz yer a big doodyhead!” [awkward beat and/or crowd boos as Stephen quiets the mob and turns up the fake posturing just to get thru the rest of the interview.]

    I really hope the interview goes well. Good luck with it, and with the book!

  • Bee

    Congratulations :-) I don’t think he’s funny admittedly, he’s just silly. I have nothing useful to say except don’t speak too fast. I’ve noticed that many times that scientists, once there’s a camera pointing at their face, try to get as many sentences as possible out as they can. Something different: did Janna Levin just say that there’s “a smaller camp of people that’s growing” who think that the universe has curvature? (Min 3:50). Did I misunderstand that, or did I miss something?

  • Teramut

    Please, if Colbert asks you why there is something rather than nothing, NAIL HIM. I’m sure you have a good answer for that.

  • Jim

    From all I’ve seen of Colbert, the best interviews are the ones with no agenda and with the people who can roll with him. Sean, I’d say you aren’t selling your book on that show, you’re selling your personality, and that will sell the book.

  • Martin

    “Your book is called From Eternity to Here. What’s the road like? Why can’t we stay at eternity? Why do we want to be here?”

    He’ll play the funny idiot on you, so be prepared! I love that you’re on Colbert – it’s one of my favorite shows!

  • Johan

    Thanks for putting the show in the right context :)

  • JC From Brazil

    Steven Colbert plays a crazy right wing guy, but he’s really a science guy. Listen to Neil deGrasse Tyson interview him for the StarTalk Radio show episode 10 Science in Society on podcast from itunes.

  • Joerg

    The truth is that Colbert (and the Daily Show) love talking to scientists. The sad part of that truth is that more people are exposed to real scientists doing cutting-edge research by watching Comedy Central than by watching, shall we say, certain channels you might have thought more appropriate venues for such conversations.

    I don’t think it’s sad. I think it’s nice that science communication worls much better if you have a laugh about it. Bugger the “serious channels”, if they aren’t able to do it, we go and have a laugh.

  • Mandeep

    Sean — huge congrats on this – i know you’ve been making the rounds (heard your interview on Science Friday, great job there!) but — indeed, you *have* made it if you’re going on Colbert.

    For bright progressive types in this day and age, there’s not much beyond him and Jon Stewart (which really count as a joint program, though i tend to watch Stewart clips more — but of course, we just choose our on-demand clips by interest these days, so i’ll def. be watching yours!).

    You’ve gotten a lot of excellent advice above already, not so much to add here, but i would def. *not* be annoyed at all the interruptions, just let him do his (very smart and funny) thing, and get some books sold — and def. mention this blog!! i think getting a URL out there will get you more hits in the days following the airing than you guys may have *ever* had, i’m just wagering. not that the most popular physics and astronomy blog in the world needs that so much, but since you’re doing the book club and all that here, bringing eyeballs here will likely get you even more books sold.

    (And btw, for ease of the audience remembering and typing in, i would mention it in the shortest form possible, just “CosmicVariance.Com” since that redirects right here to the Discover hosting site, and i assume will do so permanently.. hm, come to think of it, on a separate note, i think it might behoove y’all to put some “About” link very prominently at the top or on the right where you already describe the blog explaining the term ‘cosmic variance’ and it was picked for the blog name, just so non-experts don’t feel so left out..? i’m sure this is written up somewhere, i just couldn’t find an easy link to it anywhere easily on the front page.)

    A question to ask him during some interruption.. hm, maybe something about irreversibility of some bodily process of his, like sneezing (to be safe).. just thinking.

    Alright — good luck, and rock on!!!


  • Marsh

    Trying to anticipate a question from Colbert I believe is the very defintion of dark energy … just relax, be yourself, have fun and enjoy the ride. You will be great!!

  • Tod R. Lauer

    No jargon. Lot’s of visual imagery. Physics and astronomers exist to answer the questions that everyone else has and has always wanted to know…

  • locke

    Am I alone in thinking that possibly little good can come of this? I’m prejudiced because a) I don’t find Colbert and Stewart particularly funny and b) think that it’s definitely a sign of the coming apocalypse that so many americans get their views on science AND politics from these guys. And watcha got against punkin’ chunkin? you don’t like rednecks doing experimental mechanics? (and yes, I GET the premise of Colbett, just don’t find it entertaining, much as I’ve never found most of David Letterman’s frat-boy humor (now just dirty old man humor) entertaining. ) Follow Tod’s advice and hope for the best; it MAY put some money in your pocket.

  • Claire

    Congratulations and good luck!!

  • Evan Harper

    I second the recommendation to listen to Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s interview of Steven Colbert: It is at .

  • One Hoopy Frood

    locke quoth: “Am I alone in thinking that possibly little good can come of this? I’m prejudiced because a) I don’t find Colbert and Stewart particularly funny and b) think that it’s definitely a sign of the coming apocalypse that so many americans get their views on science AND politics from these guys.”

    Many of us would like to see real science covered by the “science” channels, and of course politics from the network and cable news channels.

    My guess is there are many people who don’t care for science or politics as much as they desire a narrative that confirms their worldview.

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  • Brian137

    Congratulations, Sean, I hope you enjoy yourself. I look forward to watching the show and to hearing about your experiences with Colbert and his TV crew.

  • query_squidier

    Thank for posting all these scientist Colbert vids! I love Stephen and wish you a great guest appearance on his show!

  • A.H

    Congrats on making the show. Colbert is very important – one of the few things occasionally worth watching on television.

    You will probably be coached by him & the staff in far more useful terms than our little pieces of advice here, but here’s mine: Colbert is Catholic. It is an immensely difficult thing to balance into the equation of how you want to deal with him given the pretext of the entire show, but it’s still something to keep in mind. Yes, he is out to get the extreme American Right, but this whole ‘our side of the fence’ thing that comments above have reiterated is nonsensical in the grand scheme of things.

    You may notice (Dawkins interview was an example) that he will slip in questions that he is taking seriously, not for mockery, even though he will make it sound like he’s still playing along. Some fairly intelligent bits at that. I say don’t labor on them and just get your own ideas out in an entertaining way. It is, in the end, a comedy show.

  • joulesm

    Good luck and have fun!! I can’t wait to see the show :)

  • Brian Too

    I used to dislike Colbert but he’s definitely grown on me. His skill as a comedian is amazing–he successfully makes serious points without detracting from the comedy bits.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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