Best of 2013 (Behind the Scenes): Stephen Colbert on how he got 'lucky' with his celeb-studded Daft Punk dance video

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Image Credit: Comedy Central

Back in August, French electro-duo Daft Punk bailed last minute on a scheduled Colbert Report performance, citing a contractual obligation to MTV. But instead of scrambling like a headless chicken for a replacement act, Stephen Colbert jumped and danced for joy, literally. He and his writing team took the booking snafu as an opportunity to create an ecstatic music video set to Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” which featured a beaming Colbert dancing with various celebs (Bryan Cranston, Jeff Bridges, Hugh Laurie and others), crashing three other shows (Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, America’s Got Talent and Charlie Rose), and shocking exactly one political dignitary (Henry Kissinger).

“The universe conspired for us to have a show that seemed highly planned, but it was actually a series of extremely happy accidents,” Colbert says. Though the cancellation was a producer’s nightmare, he loved the challenge of figuring out how to fill Daft Punk’s place: “You do 1,300 shows, and anything different is like a holiday.” EW spoke with Stephen Colbert (decidedly out of character) about the logistical hurdle of filming guests in both New York and Washington D.C., as well as how The Big Lebowski and Michael Jackson served as inspiration. As for his thoughts on Daft Punk’s VMA performance? Colbert still hasn’t seen it. “I never watch the VMAs. I think I was probably helping my kids with their homework,” the comedian said. “I got nothing against the Daft Punkers, and they wrote me and said they really liked [the video], and I hope they did. I’d love to have them on.”

Click here for more of EW.com’s Best of 2013 coverage.

As told by: Stephen Colbert

The video itself came about starting three weeks before the show. We had already booked Daft Punk to come on the show, and we were pretty excited because they don’t do TV and they don’t talk. We thought “Oh great, they’ll come on and talk into a [fog] and this’ll be a real coup.” And then they said, “Well, they don’t wanna talk.” So I said, “Oh I can get around them not talking. We can figure out something.” And then the next week they called and said, “Oh, and they also don’t wanna do the song.” [Laughs]

I thought, “So wait, we’re flying them from Paris and they’re not gonna sing and they’re not gonna talk? What are we doin’?” And they said, “Do you want us to cancel?” “No, no, no, this is actually a really interesting challenge.” What could we do that’s interesting, where they don’t do anything, and yet it’s still a Daft Punk appearance? And I looked up at my board, and we don’t do a lot of actors or performers on the show, but for whatever reason, we had more than our normal raft of people. Like that night I had Jeff Bridges, and next week I had Matt Damon, and the next week I had Hugh Laurie, and I thought, “Oh, we got some people up here we can talk to.” And so I said, “What if tonight I just dance with Jeff Bridges?” Because I had the image immediately of Lebowski dancing on the big steps in the dream sequence from [The] Big Lebowski. I said, “Oh, what if we played their song, and it’s me trying to convince Daft Punk that their song is so catchy? Like maybe they forgot just what a deep hook that song has?” That’s the first thing we shot.

And then I said, “I’ll just dance out of the studio, and I’ll end up dancing with other people all over, like, New York and Washington.” And that night was Jeff Bridges and he goes, “Far out. Yeah, I’ll do that, man. I like those guys.” So he danced with us on the steps outside. We shot it in like five minutes. And uh, that’s why the lighting’s so poor on that one shot.

Stephen Colbert and actor Jeff Bridges (Image Credit: Comedy Central)

I said, “There are two things: People can either dance with me, or I can dance through their reality.” Like I can dance through whatever they’re doing, and I’ll just dance in and dance out. And we also knew that [Breaking Bad‘s] Bryan Cranston was coming on, and we loved his scene from Malcolm in the Middle where he roller skates, and I thought, “Oh, [I] wonder if Bryan Cranston would roller skate with me to Daft Punk?” And at the same time, Charlie Rose had said, “Yes, you can dance through my show.” And we said, “By the way… Who’s your guest? I wanna know whom I’m interrupting.” And they said, “Well, it’s gonna be the cast of Breaking Bad.” And I said, “Well, that’s perfect.” So I danced on and took Bryan Cranston with me, and that’s why the piece is in that order.

Stephen Colbert crashes Charlie Rose and the cast of ‘Breaking Bad’ (Image Credit: Comedy Central)

‘Breaking Bad”s Bryan Cranston and Stephen Colbert (Image Credit: Comedy Central)

I wanted some people who were appropriate — who were performers — and I wanted some people who were completely inappropriate, like Henry Kissinger. And I just wanted some places I could interrupt and sort of borrow status from other people’s worlds. It was just so great… Probably the first person who said “Yes” was Jeff [Bridges] that night, and [Jimmy] Fallon said, “Yes,” and then the Rockettes, and then America’s Got Talent, and it just kind of piled up… And then Daft Punk couldn’t show and we said, “Well, okay, we’ll change the meaning of it now. We’ll use the video.”

We were offered Robin Thicke for that show, and I said, “Oh, have him on, too, because Daft Punk will end up not performing but I still need a song of the summer,” and they said, “Oh, he’ll do the song of the summer.” It was all very serendipitous. It worked out to this nice, finely cut show, but it was actually a series of extremely happy accidents and people who were willing to play — including Daft Punk. They were willing to play along with this entire game, it just turned out to be a bump with the VMAs that turned the whole thing into a train wreck. But a beautiful train wreck.

My two favorite moments are dancing with Bryan Cranston on roller skates, and interrupting America’s Got Talent. That was probably the nicest moment of the entire thing. Right before I went on stage, one of my producers, Paul Dinello, turned to me and said, “Put this hat on!” [seen here around 3:45] You’ll look incredibly stupid!” And I said, “Yes, but only if I feel incredibly sexy.” And he goes, “YES!” So I walked out on stage and tried to appear as sexy as I could in that hat and there’s no greater assurance that something will be ridiculous than me attempting to be sexy. Once you put the hat on and you think, “I’m Michael Jackson from ‘Smooth Criminal.'” [Laughs] That’s who I was.

When I went over to shoot with [Henry Kissinger], he wanted to talk to me first, and I thought he was gonna cancel, and it turned out he just wanted to talk about how much his grandkids like the show. I said, “Well, while I’ve got you here, let me ask you about your trip to China in 1971,” and he told me all these great stories about going to China. It was fascinating.

Once we started putting pieces together, about four or five days before the show, [we knew] that we had a piece here… And I was also very confident that Daft Punk was gonna come. And so were they. And they actually came to New York. We flew them in. It wasn’t until 1 p.m. the day of that show that we knew for sure that they weren’t coming [to the show].

From my point of view, I’m thrilled how it turned out. It was, you know, frustrating from a producer’s point of view having to scrap everything at the last minute. But from a creator’s point of view, or a writer’s point of view, and the comedian’s point of view, it’s only fueled the joy of having to do something right away… As soon as we knew what my character’s emotional state was, we knew exactly what the first act would be and how to do it. And it just poured out of us in this sort of quick fugue. By “quick,” I mean like two hours. If you don’t know what you’re doing at 1 p.m. in the afternoon, and you’ve got a show that you have to rehearse at 5 p.m., that’s pretty tight. Generally speaking, we’ve started work on scripts at 9 a.m., and part of the show has been written the day before. So it was a lot to do in a single day.

It tends to be the more ambitious you get, the more the opportunities get given to you. We do our show in a little bubble. Generally speaking, I don’t know how people react to the show, because I do the show and I go home. But the more we interact with the world, it’s exciting to find out that there are people out there who wanna play along with us. And we have found that that has generally been the case. We try to make them have a good time, and for it to be a fun experience for them and different than doing another show — just because you’re having to deal with a character, and there’s usually some sort of narrative, and it’s almost like doing a scene as opposed to appearing on the show. And so it turned out that there were a lot of people who were excited to play that game with us, and that was really gratifying. When we reach outside the show, we’re always so surprised and thrilled that people want to play.

I love a challenge. I’m so proud that my staff was so nimble to pull something new together in such a short period of time on top of doing this ambitious video. Everybody in the building pulled together to make it happen.

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