Stephen Colbert

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16 mins read

Stephen Tyrone Colbert was born May 13, 1964 and is an American comedian, writer, producer, political commentator, actor, and television host. He is best known for hosting the satirical Comedy Central program The Colbert Report from 2005 to 2014 and the CBS talk program The Late Show with Stephen Colbert beginning in September 2015.

Colbert originally studied to be a dramatic actor, but became interested in improvisational theatre while attending Northwestern University. Colbert first performed professionally as an understudy for Steve Carell at Second City Chicago, where his troupe mates included Paul Dinello and Amy Sedaris, comedians with whom he developed the sketch comedy series, Exit 57. He wrote and performed on the short-lived Dana Carvey Show before collaborating with Sedaris and Dinello again on the cult television series Strangers with Candy. He gained attention for his role on the latter as closeted gay history teacher Chuck Noblet.

Colbert’s work as a correspondent on Comedy Central’s news-parody series The Daily Show gained him wide recognition. In 2005, he left The Daily Show to host The Colbert Report. Following The Daily Show‘s news-parody concept, The Colbert Report was a parody of personality-driven political opinion shows including The O’Reilly Factor, in which he portrayed a caricatured version of conservative political pundits. The series became one of Comedy Central’s highest-rated series, earning Colbert an invitation to perform as featured entertainer at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in 2006. After ending The Colbert Report, he was hired in 2015 to succeed retiring David Letterman as host of the Late Show on CBS. He hosted the 69th Primetime Emmy Awards in September 2017.

Colbert was born in Washington, D.C., the youngest of 11 children in a Catholic family. He spent his early years in Bethesda, Maryland.

He grew up on James Island, South Carolina. Colbert and his siblings, in descending order by age, are James III, Edward, Mary, William, Margo, Thomas, Jay, Elizabeth, Paul, Peter, and Stephen. His father, James William Colbert Jr., was an immunologist and medical school dean at Yale University, Saint Louis University, and finally at the Medical University of South Carolina, where he served as vice president for academic affairs. Stephen’s mother, Lorna Elizabeth Colbert (née Tuck), was a homemaker.

In interviews, Colbert has described his parents as devout people who also strongly valued intellectualism and taught their children that it was possible to question the church and still be Catholic.

As a child, he observed that Southerners were often depicted as being less intelligent than other characters on scripted television; to avoid that stereotype, he taught himself to imitate the speech of American news anchors.

While Colbert sometimes comedically claims his surname is French, he is of 15/16ths Irish ancestry; one of his paternal great-great-grandmothers was of German and English descent. Many of his ancestors emigrated from Ireland to North America in the 19th century before and during the Great Famine.

Originally, his surname was pronounced /ˈkoʊlbərt/ KOHL-bərt in English; Stephen Colbert’s father, James, wanted to pronounce the name /koʊlˈbɛər/ kohl-BAIR, but maintained the /ˈkoʊlbərt/ pronunciation out of respect for his own father. He offered his children the option to pronounce the name whichever way they preferred. Stephen started using /koʊlˈbɛər/ later in life when he transferred to Northwestern University, taking advantage of the opportunity to reinvent himself in a new place where no one knew him. Stephen’s brother Edward, an intellectual property attorney, retained /ˈkoʊlbərt/; this was shown in a February 12, 2009, appearance on The Colbert Report, when his youngest brother asked him, “/ˈkoʊlbərt/ or /koʊlˈbɛər/?” Ed responded “/ˈkoʊlbərt/“, to which Stephen jokingly replied, “See you in Hell”.

On September 11, 1974, when Colbert was ten years old, his father and two closest brothers (by age), Peter and Paul, died in the crash of Eastern Air Lines Flight 212 while it was attempting to land in Charlotte, North Carolina. They were en route to enroll the two boys at Canterbury School in New Milford, Connecticut. Lorna Colbert relocated the family downtown to the more urban environment of East Bay Street in Charleston. Colbert found the transition difficult and did not easily make friends in his new neighborhood. Colbert later described himself during this time as detached, lacking a sense of importance regarding the things with which other children concerned themselves.

He developed a love of science fiction and fantasy novels, especially the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, of which he remains an avid fan. During his adolescence, he also developed an intense interest in fantasy role-playing games, especially Dungeons & Dragons, a pastime which he later characterized as an early experience in acting and improvisation.

Colbert attended Charleston’s Episcopal Porter-Gaud School, where he participated in several school plays and contributed to the school newspaper but was not highly motivated academically. During his adolescence, he briefly fronted A Shot in the Dark, a Rolling Stones cover band. When he was younger, he had hoped to study marine biology, but surgery intended to repair a severely perforated eardrum caused him inner ear damage. The damage was severe enough that he was unable to pursue a career that would involve scuba diving. The damage also left him deaf in his right ear.

For a while, he was uncertain whether he would attend college, but ultimately he applied and was accepted to Hampden–Sydney College in Virginia, where a friend had also enrolled. Arriving in 1982, he majored in philosophy and continued to participate in plays. He found the curriculum rigorous, but was more focused than he had been in high school and was able to apply himself to his studies. Despite the lack of a significant theater community at Hampden–Sydney, Colbert’s interest in acting escalated during this time. After two years, he transferred in 1984 to Northwestern University as a theater major to study performance, emboldened by the realization that he loved performing, even when no one was coming to shows. He graduated from Northwestern’s School of Communication in 1986.

While at Northwestern, Colbert studied with the intent of becoming a dramatic actor; mostly he performed in experimental plays and was uninterested in comedy. He began performing improvisation while in college, both in the campus improv team No Fun Mud Piranhas and at the Annoyance Theatre in Chicago as a part of Del Close’s ImprovOlympic at a time when the project was focused on competitive, long-form improvisation, rather than improvisational comedy. After Colbert graduated in 1986, however, he was in need of a job. A friend who was employed at Second City’s box office offered him work answering phones and selling souvenirs. Colbert accepted and discovered that Second City employees were entitled to take classes at their training center for free. Despite his earlier aversion to the comedy group, he signed up for improvisation classes and enjoyed the experience greatly.

Shortly thereafter, he was hired to perform with Second City’s touring company, initially as an understudy for Steve Carell. It was there he met Amy Sedaris and Paul Dinello, with whom he often collaborated later in his career. By their retelling, the three comedians did not get along at first–Dinello thought Colbert was uptight, pretentious and cold, while Colbert thought of Dinello as “an illiterate thug”–but the trio became close friends while touring together, discovering that they shared a similar comic sensibility.

Colbert then worked briefly as a freelance writer for Saturday Night Live with Robert Smigel. Smigel brought his animated sketch, The Ambiguously Gay Duo, to SNL from The Dana Carvey Show; Colbert provided the voice of Ace on both series, opposite Steve Carell as Gary. Needing money, he also worked as a script consultant for VH1 and MTV, before taking a job filming humorous correspondent segments for Good Morning America. Only two of the segments he proposed were ever produced and only one aired, but the job led his agent to refer him to The Daily Show’s producer, Madeline Smithberg, who hired Colbert on a trial basis in 1997.

Although, by his own account, he was not particularly political before joining the cast of The Daily Show, Colbert has described himself as a Democrat according to a 2004 interview. In an interview at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard Institute of Politics, he stated that he has “no problems with Republicans, just Republican policies”. Colbert is a practicing Roman Catholic and used to teach Sunday school. He is an ordained minister with the Universal Life Church Monastery.

Colbert has been married to Evelyn “Evie” McGee-Colbert since 1993. She is the daughter of prominent Charleston civil litigator Joseph McGee, of the firm Buist Moore Smythe McGee. They met at the world premiere of Hydrogen Jukebox at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston. Colbert later described the first moment he met Evie as being a love at first sight encounter; however, moments after they met, they both realized they had grown up together in Charleston and had many mutual friends.

The couple have three children, Madeleine (born 1995), Peter (1998), and John (2002). They live in Montclair, New Jersey.

During his college and Second City years, Colbert suffered from bouts of depression and anxiety, for which he had to be medicated.

Colbert’s mother died at the age of 92 on June 12, 2013, after a period of ill health.

In February 2007, Ben & Jerry’s unveiled a new ice cream flavor in honor of Colbert, named Stephen Colbert’s AmeriCone Dream. Colbert donated all proceeds to charity through the new Stephen Colbert AmeriCone Dream Fund, which distributes the money to various causes.

In 2009, NASA engineered a new treadmill for the International Space Station. It was brought to the ISS by the Space Shuttle Discovery during the STS-128 mission in August 2009. The complex machine is now used eight hours daily by astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the space station in order to maintain their muscle mass and bone density while spending long periods of time in a zero-gravity environment. While engineers at NASA were constructing this treadmill, it was simply called T-2 for more than two years. However, on April 14, 2009, NASA renamed it the “Combined Operational Load-Bearing External Resistance Treadmill”, or COLBERT. NASA named the treadmill after Colbert, who took an interest during the Node 3 naming census for the ISS module, Tranquility.

Colbert urged his followers to post the name “Colbert”, which upon completion of the census received the most entries totaling 230,539, some 40,000 votes more than the second-place choice, Serenity. The COLBERT is expected to last the life of the ISS and will have seen about 38,000 miles of running when the Space Station is retired in 2020 but was also built with 150,000-mile lifespan if needed till 2028 or longer. Colbert realized he was the recipient of an extremely rare honor when astronaut Suni Williams came on The Colbert Report to announce that NASA had named the treadmill after him. Despite being a backronym, the COLBERT is the only piece of NASA-engineered equipment in space that is named after a living human being.