LOS ANGELES — Stephen Colbert, whose deadpan punditry on Comedy Central has become a force of nature, has an honest appreciation for speed skating. No joke. He is not, he insists, enamored of big-thighed men whose muscles bulge through body-hugging suits. OK, that was going for a laugh.
But he is truly intrigued by curling too. He throws out words like shuffleboard stone, lunging, scrubbing and hog line as if he means it.
Meet your newest NBC reporter for the Vancouver Olympics.
At nearly every Winter Olympics, balls-and-bats sportswriters take pleasure in mocking what they don't know. So do comedians.
The iconoclast athletes who shoot and ski in the biathlon because, well, you know, who doesn't slap on a pair of skis and grab a rifle? The daredevil crazies on the luge who grab onto a piece of steel and throw themselves down an icy tube, kind of like Formula 1 drivers, only with less protection?
So maybe it wasn't surprising when American speed-skating star Shani Davis said "he's a jerk," even after the dry-witted host of "The Colbert Report," in character but in all seriousness, began a campaign late last year to raise money for the U.S. speed-skating team.
A major sponsor, the Dutch bank DSB, had a four-year agreement worth $300,000 a year to the team but had dropped out."Go figure," Colbert explained the other day. "A bank went bankrupt."
Your average comedian does not hear about a speed-skating sponsor going under and think, "Aha, I'll use my rapier wit and come to the rescue." Your average comedian couldn't name a speed skater or identify the sport or know what a clap skate is or name Shani Davis and Chad Hedrick as U.S. stars.
But Colbert isn't your average comedian.
"Eric Heiden, 1980, the 'Miracle on Ice' year," Colbert said. "Hockey and Heiden were the big stories, and I got fascinated by Heiden pulling down five gold medals. After that, for some reason, I always wanted to watch the speedskaters.
"Joey Cheek? Love him. Did you know Shani Davis pushes 42 miles an hour? Do you know how fast that is?"
When Colbert heard U.S. Speed skating had lost a major sponsor, Colbert turned to his viewers or, as he calls them, Colbert Nation.
On his show he made this plea: "We've got to step up and make sure it is America's 38-inch thighs on that medal platform!"Colbert also put his mouth where his money is. He had little-known Katherine Reutter, a short-track medal prospect, on his show. Colbert opened his interview with Reutter by suggesting, "Let's trash talk the Summer Games for just a second." Reutter got immediately into the spirit. "Let's do it," she said.
His shtick isn't mean-spirited. It's a little bit corny and totally enthusiastic.
And thanks to an on-air invitation from Dick Ebersol, the head of NBC Sports, Colbert will be reporting for the network and will be spending, as he puts it, "hours and hours" at the speed-skating oval. The Canadians have named him ombudsman of the arena, and U.S. Speed skating has given him the title of team psychologist, proving that $300,000, which is what Colbert Nation has raised so far, does get you something.
"A credential," he quipped. This idea of adopting the team wasn't planned, of course.
"A Dutch bank went ashcan," Colbert said. "My fans are the Colbert Nation, and as a nation we should have our own team. Who needs the bank when you have Colbert Nation?"
Davis, a prickly loner who has trained with Canadian speed skaters, had been offended when Colbert gently mocked Canadians for shutting down access for non-Canadians who wanted to get a sample of the Olympic ice.
It was a natural reaction, Colbert said of being called a jerk. "God bless my fans, though," he said. "They are excited, they are a little bit patriotic and I think they kind of fed off my genuine enthusiasm."
Colbert said his athletic career was limited to baseball and soccer when he was growing up in South Carolina. "On my first date with my wife-to-be, God bless her, she asked if I did any sports. I told her I played Hacky Sack. She still agreed to go on a second date with me."
This fascination with speed skating and curling, Colbert said, is evidence of his abiding love of the Winter Games. "Maybe because you can comprehend the scope of the Winter Games," he said. "The summer is so enormous but in the winter you have a pretty good shot of following everything."
And Davis doesn't think Colbert is a jerk any more.
The 2006 gold medalist was part of a taped segment with Colbert at the Olympic oval in Salt Lake City in December in which Colbert deadpanned how similar his life and Davis' life have been. Colbert noted how, in 2006, Davis was the first black American to win a Winter Olympic gold medal while Colbert watched those Games with chicken Parmesan balanced on his belly.
"Destiny comes to the frozen oval in Utah," Colbert said.
And it will also be in Vancouver, dressed as a team psychologist and being very serious about his love of the ice. And the big thighs.