by Marley Seaman (J04)
Stephen Colbert has held some very unusual jobs. He's been a professor of broadcast media culture, a Washington correspondent and even a presidential gastronomist.
Of course, Colbert (C86) (pronounced cole-BEAR) gets to call himself anything he wants. He was a longtime correspondent for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and his strange titles and stone-cold imitation of a clueless television journalist made him a fan favorite. He sat across the desk from Stewart or went into the field and interviewed people who knew that they and their points of view would be skewered when the show aired.
"People want to be on TV. I would not advise anyone to talk to the media," he says, "unless they've already talked to the media and need to redeem themselves."
Colbert, 41, was born in Washington, D.C., and raised in South Carolina, the youngest of 11 children. To get attention, he needed to develop performing skills, and he soon discovered that he loved the stage.
As a high school student, he became involved with the Footlight Players in Charleston, and soon found himself cast in The Leper, a Gian Carlo Menotti play, as a leper who loves a prince who is also afflicted with the disease.
"I still have the scabs they made for me out of latex," he says. It was an obvious path to comedy if ever there was one.
After deciding to become a theater student, Colbert transferred to Northwestern in 1984 after two years at Virginia's Hampden-Sydney College.
"I was an actor, completely," he remembers. "I wore a lot of black. I had an intermittent beard… 'Please let me share my angst with you.'"
He also worked tirelessly. Colbert completed a three-year acting program in two years. He had little spare time but learned a great deal, praising professors such as Ann Woodworth (C75, GC79), Leland Roloff (GC51), Bud Beyer (C65) and Frank Galati (C65, GC67, 71).
Soon, he found himself working in the box office of Second City, home of the famous improv and sketch comedy revue. He then began taking classes there and in August 1988 was accepted into the group's touring company, where he remained for most of the next two years.
During his years in Chicago, he met future fellow Daily Show cast member Steve Carell at Second City and also developed a long-lasting creative partnership with Paul Dinello and Amy Sedaris that resulted in a move to New York, several TV shows and a feature film based on their Comedy Central series Strangers with Candy.
Colbert debuted on The Daily Show in June 1997. He became a fixture on the show during its acclaimed election coverage, Indecision 2000, by which time he had already developed his trademark persona: "a poorly informed but well-intentioned, high-status idiot." He remembers a 1999 story in which he tried to understand a local tragedy. Hundreds of state employees were accidentally marked "deceased," and Colbert mined laughs out of his failure to understand that no one had actually been killed.
In October Colbert bid farewell to The Daily Show to devote himself to his new show, The Colbert Report, which will satirize pundit shows like The O'Reilly Factor. The show, which airs on Comedy Central, may feature viewer call-ins, and there will be a segment called "Worthy Opponent," in which Colbert debates against himself. Much of the show's content is undetermined, but Colbert, as always, is open to the possibilities.
"There's a lot of ground to cover," he says. "A lot of water to be bridged, a lot of ... metaphors to unravel."
Marley Seaman lives in New York City, where he is a reporter for the Baldwin Herald and the Malverne-West Hempstead Herald. He is also an "attempted novelist."