Stephen Tyrone Colbert (/koʊlˈbɛər/, né: /ˈkoʊlbərt/; born May 13, 1964) is an American comedian, writer, producer, actor, media critic, and television host. He currently hosts the late-night television talk show The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on CBS.
Colbert had originally studied to be an actor, but became interested in improvisational theatre when he met Second City director Del Close while attending Northwestern University. He first performed professionally as an understudy for Steve Carell at Second City Chicago; among his troupe mates were comedians Paul Dinello and Amy Sedaris, with whom he developed the sketch comedy series Exit 57.
Colbert also 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 considerable attention for his role on the latter as closeted gay history teacher Chuck Noblet. His work as a correspondent on Comedy Central's news-parody series The Daily Show first introduced him to a wide audience.
In 2005, he left The Daily Show to host a spin-off series, The Colbert Report. Following The Daily Show 's news-parody concept, The Colbert Report was a parody of personality-driven political opinion shows such as The O'Reilly Factor, in which Colbert portrayed a caricatured version of conservative political pundits. The series established itself as 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. Colbert has won nine Primetime Emmy Awards, two Grammy Awards, and two Peabody Awards. He was named one of Time 's 100 most influential people in 2006 and 2012. His book I Am America (And So Can You!) was number one on The New York Times Best Seller list.
Colbert was born in Washington, D.C., the youngest of 11 children in a Catholic family. He grew up on James Island in Charleston, South Carolina. Colbert and his siblings, in order from oldest to youngest, are James, Edward, Mary, William, Margo, Thomas, Jay, Elizabeth, Paul, Peter, and Stephen. His father, James William Colbert, Jr., was a doctor 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. The emphasis his family placed on intelligence and his observation of negative stereotypes of Southerners led Colbert to train himself to suppress his Southern accent while he was still quite young. 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, Ed, 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 of his brothers, Peter and Paul, were killed 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 new 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 Rolling Stones cover band called A Shot in the Dark. 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. There he continued to participate in plays while studying mainly philosophy. 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 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.
Early career in comedy
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. "I wasn't gonna do Second City", Colbert later recalled, "because those Annoyance people looked down on Second City because they thought it wasn't pure improv – there was a slightly snobby, mystical quality to the Annoyance people". 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.
When Sedaris and Dinello were offered the opportunity to create a television series for HBO Downtown Productions, Colbert left The Second City and relocated to New York to work with them on the sketch comedy show Exit 57. The series debuted on Comedy Central in 1995 and aired through 1996. Although it lasted for only 12 episodes, the show received favorable reviews and was nominated for five CableACE Awards in 1995, in categories including best writing, performance, and comedy series.
Following the cancellation of Exit 57, Colbert worked for six months as a cast member and writer on The Dana Carvey Show, alongside former Second City castmate Steve Carell, as well as Robert Smigel, Charlie Kaufman, Louis C.K., and Dino Stamatopoulos, among others. The series, described by one reviewer as "kamikaze satire" in "borderline-questionable taste", had sponsors pull out after its first episode aired and was cancelled after seven episodes. 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 then-producer, Madeline Smithberg, who hired Colbert on a trial basis in 1997.
Strangers with Candy
During the same period, Colbert worked again with Sedaris and Dinello to develop a new comedy series for Comedy Central, Strangers with Candy. Comedy Central picked up the series in 1998 after Colbert had already begun working on The Daily Show. As a result, he accepted a reduced role, filming only around 20 Daily Show segments a year while he worked on the new series.
Strangers with Candy was conceived of as a parody of after school specials, following the life of Jerri Blank, a 46-year-old dropout who returns to finish high school after 32 years of life on the street. Most noted by critics for its use of offensive humor, it concluded each episode by delivering to the audience a skewed, politically incorrect moral lesson. Colbert served as a main writer alongside Sedaris and Dinello, and portrayed Jerri's strict but uninformed history teacher, Chuck Noblet, seen throughout the series dispensing inaccurate information to his classes. Colbert has likened this to the character he played on The Daily Show and later The Colbert Report, claiming that he has a very specific niche in portraying "poorly informed, high-status idiot" characters. Another running joke throughout the series was that Noblet, a closeted homosexual, was having a "secret" affair with fellow teacher Geoffrey Jellineck despite the fact that their relationship was apparent to everyone around them. This obliviousness also appears in Colbert's Daily Show and Colbert Report character.
Thirty episodes of Strangers with Candy were made, which aired on Comedy Central in 1999 and 2000. Though its ratings were not remarkable during its initial run, it has been characterized as a cult show with a small but dedicated audience. Colbert reprised his role for a film adaptation, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005 and had a limited release in 2006. The film received mixed reviews. Colbert also co-wrote the screenplay with Sedaris and Dinello.
The Daily Show
Colbert joined the cast of Comedy Central's parody-news series The Daily Show in 1997, when the show was in its second season. Originally one of four correspondents who filmed segments from remote locations in the style of network news field reporters, Colbert was referred to as "the new guy" on-air for his first two years on the show, during which time Craig Kilborn served as host. When Kilborn left the show prior to the 1999 season, Jon Stewart took over hosting duties, also serving as a writer and co-executive producer. From this point, the series gradually began to take on a more political tone and increase in popularity, particularly in the latter part of the 2000 U.S. presidential election season. The roles of the show's correspondents were expanded to include more in-studio segments, as well as international reports which were almost always done in the studio with the aid of a greenscreen.
Unlike Stewart, who essentially hosted The Daily Show as himself, Colbert developed a correspondent character for his pieces on the series. Colbert has described his correspondent character as "a fool who has spent a lot of his life playing not the fool – one who is able to cover it at least well enough to deal with the subjects that he deals with". Colbert was frequently pitted against knowledgeable interview subjects, or against Stewart in scripted exchanges, with the resultant dialogue demonstrating the character's lack of knowledge of whatever subject he is discussing. Colbert also made generous use of humorous fallacies of logic in explaining his point of view on any topic. Other Daily Show correspondents have adopted a similar style; former correspondent Rob Corddry recalls that when he and Ed Helms first joined the show's cast in 2002, they "just imitated Stephen Colbert for a year or two". Correspondent Aasif Mandvi has stated "I just decided I was going to do my best Stephen Colbert impression".
Colbert appeared in several recurring segments for The Daily Show, including "Even Stevphen" with Steve Carell, in which both characters were expected to debate a selected topic but instead would unleash their anger at one another. Colbert commonly hosted "This Week in God", a report on topics in the news pertaining to religion, presented with the help of the "God Machine". Colbert filed reports from the floor of the Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention as a part of The Daily Show's award-winning coverage of the 2000 and 2004 U.S. Presidential elections; many from the latter were included as part of their The Daily Show: Indecision 2004 DVD release. Other pieces that have been named as his signature segments include "Grouse Hunting in Shropshire", in which he reported on the "gayness" of British aristocracy, his mock lionization of a smoking-rights activist and apparent chain-smoker, and his cameo appearances during his faux campaign for President. In several episodes of The Daily Show, Colbert filled in as anchor in the absence of Jon Stewart, including the full week of March 3, 2002, when Stewart was scheduled to host Saturday Night Live. After Colbert left the show, Rob Corddry took over "This Week in God" segments, although a recorded sample of Colbert's voice is still used as the sound effect for the God Machine. Later episodes of The Daily Show have reused older Colbert segments under the label "Klassic Kolbert". Colbert won three Emmys as a writer of The Daily Show in 2004, 2005, and 2006.
The Colbert Report
Colbert hosted his own television show, The Colbert Report, from October 17, 2005 through December 18, 2014.The Colbert Report was a Daily Show spin-off that parodied the conventions of television news broadcasting, particularly cable-personality political talk shows like The O'Reilly Factor and Glenn Beck. Colbert hosted the show in-character as a blustery right-wing pundit, generally considered to be an extension of his character on The Daily Show. Conceived by co-creators Stewart, Colbert, and Ben Karlin in part as an opportunity to explore "the character-driven news", the series focused less on the day-to-day news style of the Daily Show, instead frequently concentrating on the foibles of the host-character himself.
The concept for The Report was first seen in a series of Daily Show segments which advertised the then-fictional series as a joke. It was later developed by Stewart's Busboy Productions and pitched to Comedy Central, which greenlighted the program; Comedy Central had already been searching for a way to extend the successful Daily Show franchise beyond a half-hour. The series opened to strong ratings, averaging 1.2 million viewers nightly during its first week on the air. Comedy Central signed a long-term contract for The Colbert Report within its first month on the air, when it immediately established itself among the network's highest-rated shows.
Much of Colbert's personal life was reflected in his character on The Colbert Report. With the extended exposure of the character on the show, he often referenced his interest in and knowledge of Catholicism, science fiction, and The Lord of the Rings, as well as using real facts to create his character's history. His alternate persona was also raised in South Carolina, is the youngest of 11 siblings and is married. The actual Colbert's career history in acting and comedy, however, was often downplayed or even denied outright, and he frequently referred to having attended Dartmouth College (which was at the forefront of the conservative campus movement in the 1980s) rather than his actual alma mater, Northwestern. In July 2012, Colbert added two years to his contract with Comedy Central, extending the run of The Colbert Report until the end of 2014.
The final episode on December 18, 2014 featured a rendition of "We'll Meet Again" and appearances from former guests of the show, including Jon Stewart, Randy Newman, Bryan Cranston, Willie Nelson, Yo Yo Ma, Mandy Patinkin, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Tom Brokaw, David Gregory, J.J. Abrams, Big Bird, Gloria Steinem, Ken Burns, James Franco, Barry Manilow, Bob Costas, Jeff Daniels, Sam Waterston, Bill de Blasio, Katie Couric, Patrick Stewart, George Lucas, Henry Kissinger, Cookie Monster, Alan Alda, Eliot Spitzer, Vince Gilligan, Paul Krugman, and a text from Bill Clinton, and appearances of Alex Trebek, U.S. and coalition Afghanistan forces, and further characters (a space station astronaut, Santa, Abraham Lincoln, etc.).
On April 10, 2014, CBS announced in a press release that Colbert "will succeed David Letterman as the host of The Late Show, effective when Mr. Letterman retires from the broadcast." On January 12, 2015, CBS announced that Colbert would premiere as the Late Show host on Tuesday, September 8, 2015.
2006 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner
On Saturday, April 29, 2006, Colbert was the featured entertainer for the 2006 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner. Standing a few yards from U.S. President George W. Bush – in front of an audience the Associated Press called a "Who's Who of power and celebrity" – Colbert delivered a searing routine targeting the president and the media. In his politically conservative character from The Colbert Report, Colbert satirized the George W. Bush Administration and the White House Press Corps with such lines as:
I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message, that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound – with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.
Colbert received a chilly response from the audience. His jokes were often met with silence and muttering, apart from the enthusiastic laughter of a few in the audience. The major media outlets paid little attention to it initially. Washington Post columnist Dan Froomkin and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism professor Todd Gitlin claimed that this was because Colbert's routine was as critical of the media as it was of Bush.Richard Cohen, also writing for The Washington Post, responded that the routine was not funny. The video of Colbert's performance became an internet and media sensation, while, in the week following the speech, ratings for The Colbert Report rose by 37% to average just under 1.5 million total viewers per episode. In Time magazine James Poniewozik called it "the political-cultural touchstone issue of 2006". Writing six months later, New York Times columnist Frank Rich referred to Colbert's speech as a "cultural primary" and called it the "defining moment" of the 2006 midterm elections.