So you want to write a profile of your favorite celebrity? Good for you, there’s nothing easier! All you need to do is get the star to agree to do an interview with you, ask them some questions, and write something fawning and opaque.
But what if your famous quarry doesn’t want to be interviewed?
If you publicly ambush them after they repeatedly refuse to talk to you, can you call your abrupt and baffling interrogation an “interview?”
The best person to ask would be comedian Stephen Colbert. Unfortunately, his persistent reluctance to be interviewed, as blogger Gaby Dunn learned, is what sparked this puzzler.
Formerly employed by BuzzFeed and currently a popular YouTuber, Dunn first gained prominence on the internet in 2010 when she launched her Tumblr-based blog, 100interviews.com.
Over the course of a year, Dunn set out to interview 100 people, a project she chronicled in an ever-expanding series of profile posts. She spoke with an impressive array of individuals with intriguing jobs, lifestyles, or experiences, including a psychic, a ballerina, a teen mother, and a person who believed the moon landing was faked. She also interviewed a few celebrities, the most notable of which was Stephen Colbert.
The idea of Colbert granting an interview to an unknown 22-year-old for her Tumblr blog certainly raises eyebrows. Digging deeper, this “interview” was not exactly conventional in either its execution or its journalistic ethics.
As Dunn tells it, her efforts to set up a meeting with Colbert via traditional press channels went nowhere. Eventually, “I’d exhausted all my Colbert avenues. I’d met and somewhat befriended a writer for the show at a party,” she writes. “Friends connected to Second City had tried to reach out to his old stage buddies. Connections at comedy magazines, at the Daily Show, ex-Colbert Report employees, friends who share a vocal coach with him, who attend his church, his personal publicist, the publicist for the show, the show’s main office, Comedy Central’s public relations people.”
Dunn went so far as to crash a $2,000 gala in an effort to sweet-talk Colbert into agreeing to an interview. Even this plucky but impractical maneuver bore no fruit.
At length, in a blog post reminiscent of Gay Talese’s famous profile of a equally elusive subject, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” Dunn describes how she “ambushed a taping of The Colbert Report to ‘interview’ Mr. Stephen Colbert.”
In Dunn’s description of the encounter, she acknowledges that upon her arrival at the taping, she told a staffer about her plan to “interview” Colbert during his pre-show Q&A session with the audience—and she was immediately informed that she must go through the publicity department rather than use the host’s informal chat as fodder for her profile piece. Dunn ignored this piece of advice and plunged ahead with her questions when she was called upon by Colbert.
Strictly speaking, was this a legitimate “get” engineered by a plucky young writer, or a slippery circumvention of the rules of consent?
To her credit, Dunn did identify herself and her blog to Colbert during the Q&A. And Colbert voluntarily answered the brief questions she posed in front of the rest of the studio audience. However, it is clear that Colbert—or at least, the show’s publicity department—did not consider the Q&A to be a formal interview.
“At one point during the Q&A, I took out a notebook to jot down two things I wanted to remember and a security guard was on me immediately to put it away,” Dunn writes.
Soon after the taping, a staffer pulled Dunn aside and emphasized that Colbert may have willingly answered her questions, but he had not consented to an interview for publication.
Was Dunn’s “interview” fair to Colbert? The other Q&A participants posed innocuous and essentially performative questions, such as if he was able to demonstrate his long-suppressed Southern accent, and whether he’d be willing to sing “Happy Birthday” in honor of a fan. Colbert was not necessarily in a position to pull the plug on Dunn’s unanticipated interview-in-progress, which ostensibly began the moment he called on her during his “get ‘em laughing” warm-up routine.
If perfunctorily identifying yourself to an unsuspecting person in a situation they are unable to leave and peppering them with questions counts as an interview, I have some very impressive interviews to my credit. My 10 greatest hits thus far:
- My cat
- Numerous babies in supermarkets
- A recalcitrant lawnmower
- My own id
- Some guy dressed as a medieval werewolf at a Renaissance fair
- The late Kurt Cobain (via Ouija board)
- Everyone on Twitter
- The president of Finland
- God (to date non-responsive, not unlike Colbert’s publicity department)
In the end, Dunn, like filmmaker Michael Moore, successfully snatched, then exhibited, a fleeting glimpse of a recalcitrant public figure. But was it truly an interview? I’d like to ask Stephen Colbert himself.
I wonder if he would answer me?