And Nothing but the Truthiness

The Rise (and Further Rise) of Stephen Colbert

by Lisa Rogak

22 November 2011


An Everyman In a Brooks Brothers Suit

Unlike many other comedians and celebrities, Stephen Colbert is a genuinely—perhaps shockingly—good person. Time and again during my research, friends, colleagues, as well as complete strangers have told of his generosity when it comes to his time, spirit, and money. Above all, he’s never been shy about proclaiming his love for his mother, both on camera and off. “She’s bright, not just intelligent but bright,” said Colbert. “She shines. She’s hopeful, indefatigable, and has great faith. And she’s tough: she raised eleven kids, and she raised me after my father and two of my brothers died. And she’s Irish, so Irish.”

Despite his quickness to announce his love of family, Colbert guards his personal views closely, and if you watch the show carefully you’ll see subtle digs at everyone across the political map. “I’m not entirely a commie,” he says. “I don’t mind putting things in that might be perceived as conservative that I actually believe, but I don’t know if the audience needs to know which of them I believe.”

At the same time, he cheerfully admits that he’s biased. “I don’t have to pretend to be impartial. I’m partial. I’ll make fun of anybody. We’re all about falling down and going boom on camera,” he said. “I’m not someone with a particular political ax to grind. I’m a comedian. I love hypocrisy.”

In the fall of 2010, he testified before a congressional subcommittee to offer his views on migrant farm workers, where, by staying in character, he was able to show his thoughts on the subject: “Generally speaking, if you slap me across the face at 3 a.m. and say ‘What are you?’ I’d say I’m a liberal.” Some of the congressmen in attendance got the joke, while others frowned and viewed Colbert’s appearance as little more than a publicity stunt.

But after reading his prepared statement, Colbert turned serious, breaking character in response to a question about why he chose to testify on this particular issue. “I like talking about people who don’t have any power, and it seems like one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work but don’t have any rights themselves,” he said. “Migrant workers suffer and have no rights.”

“Stephen is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met,” says Allison Silverman, the former executive producer and head writer at The Colbert Report. “He’s brilliant.” In fact, he’s eager to share his knowledge with anyone who wanders into range.

Indeed, members of the studio audience have been treated to Colbert’s warming them up by reciting poetry, singing a Gilbert and Sullivan tune, and spouting Latin epithets. His breadth of knowledge is prodigious. In a conversation with his family and in-laws, his mother mentioned that their father spent time in Beirut with the army while another sibling corrected her to say, No it was Bayreuth, a town in Germany, not Beirut. Stephen asked, “Isn’t that where the big Wagner festival is, Bayreuth?”

Unlike his more acerbic comedic counterparts, Colbert is a happy family man who completely embraces the mundane routine of suburban life. He’s not hurtling down the path of swift self-destruction like other Second City alums Chris Farley or John Belushi. On the contrary, he’s Everyman in a Brooks Brothers suit.

“His basic decency can’t be hidden,” said Jon Stewart.

“I have a boring baritone. I have boring hair. Every decision that I’ve made in my life is the middle decision,” Colbert told Morley Safer in a 60 Minutes interview.

“I have a wife who loves me, and I am oddly normative,” he said. “I live in a bubble. I go to work and then go home, and I don’t get together with people in groups that often.”

Plus, he’s probably the first hugely popular comedian who makes no secret of his deep commitment to Catholicism. “I love my Church,” he said. “I’m a Catholic who was raised by intellectuals, who were very devout. I was raised to believe that you could question the Church and still be a Catholic. What is worthy of satire is the misuse of religion for destructive or political gains. That’s totally different from the Word, the blood, the body, and the Christ. His kingdom is not of this earth.”

He even teaches Sunday school, and it’s clear that he draws some inspiration from his charges. “They immediately ask questions that you thought were so deep in college, like ‘What’s beyond time?’ ‘What came before God?’ ”

“Stephen is a happy man,” said Ben Karlin, who served as executive producer on The Colbert Report. “He goes home to a lovely wife in New Jersey, a dog, and three beautiful children, and he knows his way around the kitchen.”

“His own family is very, very important to him,” said childhood friend Chip Hill. “The typical story is a guy gets famous and loses perspective on his life. He works very hard to stay grounded.”

Fans are not the only ones who adore him. By and large, the media not only follow him but thoroughly respect him as well, even given his status as a fake newsman. “Colbert is more than an entertainer, he’s a force of nature,” said Julio Diaz, entertainment editor for the Pensacola News Journal. “He’s influenced the way we look at the news and even the way we speak. Whenever a major news story breaks, one of my first thoughts is what’s Colbert’s spin on the story.”

As a biographer, Colbert’s constantly shifting chameleon persona— both in character and in real life— created a challenge, because he even does many of his media interviews in character. “I like preserving the mask,” he said. “Stepping out from behind it doesn’t do me any good.”

“There couldn’t be a huger difference between the character Stephen and the real Stephen,” said Richard Dahm, a head writer at The Colbert Report. “The real Stephen is an amazing guy. The character Stephen—well, I wouldn’t want to be working for him.”

“He always said he was going to major in mass communications and start his own cult,” said Chip Hill.

“I drive myself home at night,” adds Colbert, who lives on a cul-de-sac in suburban Montclair, New Jersey. “The network would happily send me home in a car— after all, they don’t want me running off the road. But I’d work the entire way home, and I need more than the 30 seconds from the car to the front door to become a dad and a husband again. So I drive home and I crank my tunes. And by the time I get there, I’m normal again.”

Photo by Medora Hebert

Photo by Medora Hebert

Lisa Rogak is the author of more than forty books. She is the author of the Edgar- and Anthony-nominated Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King and editor of the New York Times-bestselling Barack Obama in His Own Words.

© Lisa Rogak

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