Excerpted from the Introduction from And Nothing but the Truthiness: The Rise (and Further Rise) of Stephen Colbert by Lisa Rogak. Copyright © 2011 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, LLC. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.
I used to make up stuff in my bio all the time, that I used to be a professional iceskater and stuff like that. I found it so inspirational. Why not make myself cooler than I am? I once told an interviewer that I’d been arrested for assaulting someone with a flashlight. And I said that I drove a Shelby Cobra. They totally swallowed it, and I felt bad. Then I thought, it doesn’t matter. It’ll make a better story.
—Vanity Fair, October 2007
I’m a super straight guy. I grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, and I am perfectly comfortable in blue blazers, khaki pants, Brooks Brothers suits, and regimental striped ties. It’s just genetic. I love a cocktail party with completely vacuous conversation, because I grew up in it.
—Campus Progress, October 2005
Will the real Stephen Colbert please stand up?
Colbert has been messing with the truth for years now, both in and out of character. This hugely popular comedian with a biting wit and rapid-fire skill for calling up obscure figures and events in everything from Greek history to light opera has largely built his career on messing with people’s minds. And most of the time, they don’t even know when he’s doing it.
No other comedian has so blurred the line between his real character and his onscreen character.
“My name is Stephen Colbert, but I actually play someone on television named Stephen Colbert, who looks like me and talks like me, but who says things with a straight face he doesn’t mean,” he said in his commencement address at Knox College in 2006. “I’m not sure which one of us you invited to speak here today. So with your indulgence, I’m just going to talk and let you figure it out.”
Good luck with that. Even his own mother knows that’s an impossible task: “I can never nail him down as to exactly what he is,” said Lorna Tuck Colbert when her son was well into his forties.
Stephen Colbert grew up in a large tight-knit Catholic family, essentially as part of a tribe where he was the youngest of eleven children. “His humor is an accumulation of the eccentricities, mannerisms, and jokes of his ten older brothers and sisters, a medley that trickled down,” said one Colbert staffer.
The constant bantering endemic to his family often assumed a slapstick quality, as evidenced in a 2009 interview with Stephen, his mother, and several of his siblings when asked about their name’s pronunciation:
Elizabeth Colbert-Busch: What did I say my last name was?
Margo Colbert Keegan: Coal-bear.
Elizabeth: I did? No, that’s not my name.
Margo: Yes, you did. You said Coal-bear Busch.
Elizabeth: That’s not my name.
Margo: You said Coal-bear Busch.
Elizabeth: Roll that back. That’s not my name. My name’s Elizabeth Coal-bert Busch, and I’m not telling y’all how old I am.
Lorna: Oh, I have no idea what my name is.
John A. Colbert: You’re Mom.
Lorna: Well, I don’t know.
Elizabeth: You have a vague inkling, okay?
Margo: You’re Coal- bert or Coal-bear?
John: You’re Coal- bert.
Stephen: You’re Coal-bear, you’re Coal-bear. Come on.
Elizabeth: Well, I was Coal-bear until I was twenty-three. It followed me all the way through college. I finally gave up. I was intimidated.
Margo: Tom claims he was the first to go Coal-bear, is that true?
Lorna: Who was?
Margo: Tom. He was the first to go Coal-bear, he claims.
Lorna: Oh, I don’t know.
John: He might have been.
Elizabeth: I think it would be Dad.
Margo: Yeah, but it didn’t stick.
Stephen: [To interviewer] Have you any questions?
Margo: Oh, yes, Brooke.
John: [To interviewer] See, this is what happens…
Obviously, the rapier-sharp wit that Colbert demonstrates regularly on The Colbert Report had its roots early on.
Like virtually all comedians, his humor developed in the face of tragedy, and Colbert’s great tragedy is that his father and two older brothers were killed in a plane crash when Colbert was just ten years old. His tribe was smashed apart, and he’s spent his life trying to recreate it. At first, he found it in high school, then at Second City with his friends Paul Dinello and Amy Sedaris, and again with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. But try as he might, he has never been able to exactly replicate it. He has admitted that he has never completely dealt with their deaths, and he’s said that he sometimes expects the three to walk right back through the door.