#OnlyatGW: Students React to President Obama and Colbert

Top moments from Monday’s event as GW students met Colbert, attended the taping and even helped backstage.

December 8, 2014

Colbert Obama on stage at Colbert Show set
For many George Washington University students lucky enough to score a ticket to the taping of Stephen Colbert’s interview with President Barack Obama, the pairing was a heavenly match. The rock-star president for whom some in the audience had cast their first votes for was onstage on their campus with Mr. Colbert, by many measures the king of late night news talk of the millennial generation.
Thirty-eight degree weather didn’t make it easy for students huddling next to each other in puffy North Face jackets, coffee cups glued to their red, chapped hands. They talked through chattering teeth—and it was hard to tell whether their shivers had more to do with frosty weather or the excitement of seeing a live taping of “The Colbert Report” featuring President Obama.  
Mr. Colbert announced Thursday evening that President Obama would take a seat next him in a special episode of the “Colbert Report” shot at Lisner Auditorium on Monday. George Washington University students vied for tickets by entering a lottery system. A line started winding across H Street Northwest more than four hours before the doors opened at 2 p.m. Many Obama enthusiasts arrived, lured by the opportunity to see the politician who’d won their attention in campaigns built around youth and hope. Supporters wondered aloud whether or not President Obama would discuss his recent executive action on immigration reform or his successful climate change negotiations with China. 

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Comedy lovers went to hear Mr. Colbert turn his sardonic humor on the charismatic commander-in-chief. At a university known as the most politically active in the country, Mr. Colbert’s show has a significant following. A legion of loyal viewers wanted to catch an episode of the satirical talk show before Mr. Colbert takes David Letterman’s spot as the host of Late Night on CBS next year.
“We’re completely lucky because he only has a few shows left, and he chose GW to film one of them,” sophomore Dante Fernandes said. 
Four students even got the opportunity to help backstage at the show. Students Jeffrey Pawling, Julie Alderman, Raphael Burne, and Asha Parker served as production interns for “The Colbert Report.”
A visit from President Obama isn’t new to GW’s upperclassmen who were on campus when he’d discussed fiscal policy at Foggy Bottom in April 2011 and honored World Aids Day at Jack Morton Auditorium in November 2011. But the moment was completely unique for freshmen, including Catie Jennetta and Erica Monical. The two students arrived at Lisner at 10 a.m.—almost five hours before the taping started.
“We just wanted to make sure we had the best seats possible,” Ms. Jennetta explained. 
The wait paid off. When Lisner ushers began letting slow streams of people through the doors, the girls snagged seats in the fifth row just yards away from Mr. Colbert’s desk.
Students found Lisner Auditorium completely revamped. Red, white and blue lights glimmered from the ceiling, beaming over massive portraits that seemed to portray famous U.S. presidents. A closer look revealed that the subject of each image was actually Mr. Colbert in costume. In one picture, he’d twisted his smile into the lopsided smirk of President George W. Bush. In another, he wore a wig and stared reverently into space like the nation’s founding father and GW’s namesake.
Second-year medical students Artin Galoosian and John Awad visited Lisner Auditorium for the School of Medicine and Health Sciences’ White Coat Ceremony last year. Soaking under the chromatic lights from the stage, they hardly recognized the space.
“Right now, this literally looks exactly like ‘The Colbert Report’ on TV—it doesn’t seem like this is the university’s auditorium at all. They totally transformed it into a studio,” Mr. Galoosian said. 
The auditorium started to quiet down in the hour before cameras started to roll. Luckily, that’s what Paul Mercurio is for. He’s a comedian who doubles as a hype man for the “Colbert Report,” and his acerbic shtick is like a voltaic charge that boosts energy throughout crowds. He burst into the aisles and urged students to test their lung capacity in a roaring chant of “Ste-phen! Ste-phen!” 
When one student’s zeal didn’t meet his requirements, Mr. Mercurio pulled him onstage and declared, “You seem to be dead inside.” The audience was in hysterics by the time Mr. Colbert walked onstage. He quickly morphed into his stony-faced alter ego and kicked off the show with a segment called “Getting to Know America.” He traced history back to 1776, when, according to him, “America happened.”
Then he got to what everyone in the audience was anticipating. He introduced President Obama, quipping, “He’s like both guys in ‘Lethal Weapon’: the crazy renegade with nothing to lose and a black guy who’s this close to retiring.”
Mr. Obama’s silhouette emerged, initially undetected by most people in the audience. The room erupted into cheers of genuine surprise as soon as he stepped into the glaring limelight and jaunted over to Mr. Colbert’s desk to take over Mr. Colbert’s popular opening segment “The Word.” The segment involves messages on a screen that undercut what the host is saying. Mr. Obama poked fun at a few hiccups throughout his term, joking that his health care rollout inspired Disney’s “Frozen.” (“Let it loooad,” a screen next to him read.)
After discussing the complexities of the Keystone Pipeline and immigration, President Obama took a couple of questions about the legacy he hopes to leave when his term ends in 2016. His answers painted the leader as the relatable, down-to-earth politician that many of the students in the auditorium helped re-elect two years ago. When Mr. Colbert asked if he leaves his socks on the floor, the president laughed that he does.
Following the taping, “only at GW” was a common refrain among students—many of whom left the auditorium still in awe. 
“It’s completely surreal,” Ms. Jennetta said. “I’ve never been prouder of being a Colonial.”