Wordplay

Stephen Colbert Vs. ‘Schmidthead’: Google Chairman Faces Off With Comic Nemesis

At New York’s 92nd Street Y, the comedian and Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt waged a waspish battle over ‘evil Amazon’ and much else.

Joyce Culver

“We’ve got 42 shows left. Something like that. That’s it,” Stephen Colbert said.

“That’s terrible,” Eric Schmidt replied.

“That’s lovely,” Colbert corrected. “Forty-two shows and then we’ll do something else. I’m not dying.”

The proceedings Tuesday night at the 92nd Street Y were supposedly about Google executive chairman Schmidt and Google executive Jonathan Rosenberg—coauthors of How Google Works, a book-length treatise on the secrets of innovation and success at the technology behemoth, which they’ve been promoting on every conceivable media platform over the past few days.

But these two billionaire masters of the universe were absolutely dominated by their ostensible interrogator, who at one point, when Schmidt interrupted to make some comment or other, sternly admonished: “I’m talking, Eric.”

Colbert also introduced the term “Schmidthead” into the conversation. And he certainly wasn’t dying.

The Comedy Central star’s lightning wit, which is likely to serve him well when he takes over the CBS Late Show from David Letterman next year, was very much on display, to the packed crowd’s obvious delight. It was a textbook you-had-to-be-there situation, and it’s probably a fool’s errand to try to replicate the merriment in written words, but here goes:

Colbert: “Is everything controlled by engineers at Google?” Rosenberg (indicating Schmidt): “He’s an engineer.” Colbert (to Schmidt): “What’s your background?”Schmidt: “Computer scientist.”Colbert: “Computer engineer.”Schmidt: “Computer scientist.”Colbert (scolding): “He says you’re an engineer.”Schmidt: “And Jonathan is an economist.”Colbert: “That’s…exciting!

During another exchange, Schmidt was explaining how every prospective Google employee is required to undergo five job interviews, “no more and no less,” before being hired. This magic number was arrived at after one candidate was interviewed separately by 18 different people—and then rejected.

“You made somebody go through 18 interviews,” Colbert demanded incredulously, “and then you rejected him?”

“That’s why we have the Five Rule,” said Schmidt, who recounted that when Google founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin recruited him for the job of chief executive officer in 2001, when Google had a mere 150 employees (as opposed to 50,000 in 40 countries today), he declined to go skiing or surfing with them—until that moment, a key element of the Page-Brin indoctrination regime.

“What were you supposed to do?” Colbert asked. “Sky-dive or bungee jump?”

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“We all went to Burning Man together,” Schmidt replied. “There’s a rule at Burning Man. No pictures.”

Colbert: “You should tell that to Google Images.” (Indeed, the married Schmidt’s goofy-looking visits to the art and self-expression festival in the Nevada desert are generously documented on Google Images, notably including a 2007 sojourn with an alleged ex-mistress.)

At another moment, Colbert recounted highlights of his deposition under oath in the seven-years-running copyright infringement lawsuit that Comedy Central’s parent company, Viacom, filed against the Google subsidiary, YouTube.

“They kept asking me questions about things I said on my show,” Colbert said, “because when YouTube started Jon Stewart and I were like 25 percent of all clips on YouTube.”

When a Google attorney demanded that he justify a snarky remark made about the lawsuit on The Colbert Report—and used the second-person singular “you”—Colbert had to clarify, “My character said that, not me.”

“What’s the difference?” the lawyer asked.

“He hasn’t been sworn in.”

The lawsuit was settled in March of this year, under undisclosed terms. Onstage at the 92nd Street Y, Schmidt boasted: “At the end of the day, we won.”

“Congratulations,” Colbert retorted, in a tone that made clear that he meant the opposite.

During an exploration of Schmidt and Rosenberg’s corporate mantras—such as “Exile knaves, but fight for divas,” which Colbert noted “sounds like something from Game of Thrones”—the discussion turned to the Googley epigram, “Consensus requires dissension.”

“How is that possible?” Colbert wanted to know.

Schmidt and Rosenberg explained that in the company’s decision-making process, little can be accomplished unless an issue is hashed out in a vigorous argument accounting for every disagreement and resolving itself in a plan of action by a certain time.

“If you do nothing beyond that, you have a university,” Schmidt quipped. Rosenberg, meanwhile, described a phenomenon he called “The Bobblehead,” in which everybody around a conference table nods at an executive pronouncement and then never follows through.

“You have to have a deadline,” Rosenberg said. “That’s called ‘Know when to ring the bell.’”

“That,” Colbert pointed out, “sounds Pavlovian. ‘If you make a decision by tomorrow, I will give you a pellet.’”

Another Google maxim touted by the pair is: Always ask the hardest questions.

So Colbert asked: “How much does Canada weigh?”

He noted that in their book, Schmidt and Rosenberg approvingly quote Nietzsche’s maxim, “You must be proud of your enemy: then the success of your enemy shall be your success too,” and asked which business rival they’re most proud of.

“I’m proud of Amazon’s ruthless efficiency,” Rosenberg replied, “because that forces us to be on our toes…Anyone can go to Amazon and they can have this book in their house tomorrow.”

Which prompted Colbert—who, like Schmidt and Rosenberg, is a Hachette author—to resume his jihad against the Internet marketing colossus for its harsh tactics against the French-based publisher in a pricing dispute, delaying delivery of some Hachette books and halting delivery of others.

Citing Google’s corporate motto—“Don’t be evil”—Colbert asked Rosenberg, “Aren’t they [Amazon] doing evil?”

Rosenberg dodged, saying he wished their book would have been available on Amazon earlier for pre-orders.

“That’s a very economical thing to say,” Colbert commented.

The trio also tackled serious issues, of course: Google’s investment of “billion-ish dollars,” as Schmidt put it, in wind energy technology; the Chinese government’s cyber-attacks on the company, which, along with stringent censorship, have caused Google major heartburn in the planet’s most populous country; the destruction of personal privacy that the technology makes possible if not inevitable; and the importance of having women prominently at the table when decisions are being made.

Addressing that point, Schmidt cited studies that show that whereas men constantly interrupt each other and tend to declare their conclusions with a certitude frequently unjustified by facts and reasoned analysis, “when you call on the woman, you’ll get a more thoughtful and more likely correct answer if you let her speak.”

In other words, Colbert elaborated, “men will say, ‘I’ve got this,’ and give the answer when they’re 60 percent there,” and women will have taken every relevant fact into account before speaking.

“That’s not only correct,” Schmidt agreed, “but it’s also scientifically correct.”

“I’m not sure what the difference is,” Colbert shot back, and then turned to the audience with exaggerated bonhomie: “It’s great being talked…down…to.”

Yet Schmidt gave as good as he got. When Colbert pulled out his factory-fresh iPhone 6 and showed it off to the crowd, the Google exec commented dryly, “That looks like the Samsung phone of last year.”