Behind the Scenes at 'The Colbert Report'

PHOTO: Susan RicePlayKris Long
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It had already been a long day by the time Susan Rice, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, arrived in "The Colbert Show" studio shortly before 7:00 pm yesterday.

Numerous meetings throughout the day on issues like Libya, Syria, and Sudan had chewed up much of the time she hoped to use to prepare for her first appearance on the show. Adding to the pressure, the show planned to feature her in two segments, something it has only done with a handful of guests.

Asked if she's ready for the interview she looked up from her briefing notes and confidently replied "I will be."

Later she would admit she had no time to prepare other than watching some recent episodes. "There's not much time to do a lot of prep on a typical day like today," she told ABC News in the green room after the show.

Stephen Colbert, the host of the Comedy Central show bounded out of his dressing room next door where he was huddling with his team of writers and producers.

"Hello!" he exclaimed, flashing the same mischievous grin that is the hallmark of his on-air alter ego, the faux-right wing commentator. He walked into Rice's room and introduced himself. "Madame Ambassador, hi, Stephen Colbert, great to meet you," he said warmly as the two chatted about the upcoming interview.

Minutes later he was prancing around the set of his show as an audience of 160 fans cheered him on. He did a lap of high fives around the room for good measure, soaking up the sort of cheering messianic welcome his egotistical character relishes. Not entirely in character yet, a more mild-mannered Colbert chatted with the audience before the taping began.

"Any questions to humanize me before I say these horrible things?" he asked. A dozen hands shot up immediately.

The audience had already been waiting in the studio for nearly two hours by the time the Colbert took the stage. Many had been waiting outside for hours longer, weathering a torrential downpour that soaked Manhattan earlier in the afternoon.

What is his favorite Tom Hanks movie, one young man asks? "That's a very… reasonable question," Colbert replied, hesitating for comedic effect. He finally settled on Forrest Gump. And how can a young actor make a living wage in improv, another inquired?

"Bon chance," chuckled Colbert, good luck, despite the fact that he himself is a veteran of the famed Chicago improv group Second City. "Become a writer," he suggested.

Parts of "The Colbert Report's" office on West 54th Street call to mind a college dormitory. There's a kitchen overstocked with all sorts of cereal, though the staff clearly favors the unhealthy varieties. (Chocolate Cheerios, anyone?) On one floor, writers share cramped offices stuffed with couches and posters cover the walls. In one office a staffer strummed an acoustic guitar.

Evidence of Colbert's rabid fan base is found throughout the building. Hundreds of pieces of art mailed in by fans adorn the hallways. Much of it is rather creative; almost all of it adopts his character's whimsical yet pointed satire. A portrait made out of colored rice? Check. Stephen fighting the bears his character fears? There are several of those. His face painted into a Star Wars scene? It hangs prominently over a conference table.

Colbert's cult following has helped his show become one of the hardest tickets to get in all of New York City. An entire week's worth of tickets, over 600 of them, are usually sold out in about 12 minutes after they are made available online two months in advance. Many show up hours before doors open to secure a seat, braving harsh weather in the winter and summer.

His show averages 1.5 million viewers per night.

When Colbert finally appeared in the studio the audience leapt to its feet, the music cranked up, and machines churned out puffs of smoke for dramatic effect.

After about ten minutes of questions with the audience Colbert finally sat down at the anchor desk and, after a quick hairspray and lint brush touchup, launches into his character, the hard-charging ultra-conservative.

The audience laughs are genuine as Colbert rips into the results of last weekend's Ames Straw Poll in Iowa and rants. During the interview with Rice he delivers his one-liners with a trademark straight face, leaving the ambassador and the audience to laugh.

Rice is known as a dead serious diplomat at the United Nations, but the appearance on Colbert's show offered her an opportunity to show her lighter side. Still, she noted afterward, she heeded the advice of others and was careful not to try to be too funny.

"The hard thing about this is to remember that you are not the funny one and that you have to take the opportunities embedded in his weird questions to get the message out," she said.

Referring to Rice's predecessor who had what Colbert called a "walrus-y mustache" he asked her "What is it like to follow John Bolton? Do you still find whiskers in the microphone?"

Expressing his fear about how to stop Iran and North Korea's nuclear program he suggested "I know sternly worded letters are the bread and butter of the UN but maybe we should start typing them all caps to let them know we're really angry."

And poking fun at the Iranian president he asked "Can the UN do anything to make Ahmadinejad wear a tie? Can you get a resolution on that?"

Afterward Rice said she thought the interview went well.

"I think it was fun, I enjoyed it. It was a great audience, they were really into it, and he's as funny in person as he is on the screen," she said.