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Great Charlestonian? ... Or the greatest Charlestonian?
By Bryce Donovan
The Post and Courier
NEW YORK - It's quiet in the Comedy Central studios on West 54th Street. No camera rolls, no spotlight shines and no audience cheers.
But three hours from now, this place will be electric with the energy of hundreds of people who have waited for as long as two months to see firsthand what is arguably the smartest and funniest show on television.
Two floors up, Stephen Colbert sits at his desk eating a bowl of asparagus soup while making the kind of face one would when, well, eating a bowl of asparagus soup. This is the same face he'll make later in the evening when interviewing John Kasich of Fox News' "The Heartland." Kasich is the very type of person his show, "The Colbert Report" (pronounced col-BEAR re-POR), lampoons on a nightly basis. But right now, more pressing things face him, such as showing off some of his prized possessions.
"I just love 'The Lord of the Rings,' " Colbert says in between sips. "As you can see, I have all the figures given out by Burger King."
His assistant constantly reminds him that he should be getting dressed and ready for taping, but he continues to talk about the things that matter most to him: science-fiction books, his family and his fondness for his hometown of Charleston.
The path to humor
Colbert might have finally made it big with his own hit TV show, but that doesn't mean he's unfamiliar with sharing the spotlight. That's because the 41-year-old is the youngest of 11 brothers and sisters.
He grew up along a small dirt road on James Island. Like most kids in the Lowcountry, he spent most of his waking hours riding bikes, fishing and playing with his friends, you know, normal kid stuff. That is, until everything changed one day in 1974.
It's been said that all great comedians are damaged in some way. Colbert was just 10 years old when his father and two of his brothers were killed, along with 69 others, in a plane crash in Charlotte.
"Nothing made any sense after my father and my brothers died. I kind of just shut off," he says.
Not long after the tragedy, his mother moved the family downtown to East Bay Street. Now adding to the loss of his father and brothers was the loss of his boyhood friends and neighbors.
"I was not from downtown, I did not know the kids there. I love Charleston, I love the Lowcountry, but it's very insular. Or pen-insular. I just wasn't accepted by the kids."
To fill his emptiness, Colbert turned to things such as playing "Dungeons & Dragons" and reading. The day of his father and brothers' funeral, he picked up a science-fiction book and read one a day for the next eight years.
"That's what I did. I escaped my teen years and all that grief in books," he says.
High school was an unhappy time for Colbert. But rather than mope around all day, he dealt with his pain by making people laugh.
"That's when people said, 'Oh, Colbert's funny.' Then a year later, I was voted wittiest at my high school. And that's when I thought maybe I should be a comedian," Colbert says.
His sister, Elizabeth Colbert-Busch, agrees: "He had this way of taking something that everybody was so serious about and saying, 'Look, here's a funny side to this.' "
'Fish or cut bait'
After graduating from Porter-Gaud, Colbert attended Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia for two years and then transferred to Northwestern in Chicago for theater school, where he graduated in 1986.
Like most kids fresh out of college, Colbert couldn't make his mind up as to what he wanted to do for a living. For a while, he tried straight theater. Then experimental theater. ("You know, the kind of stuff where there were like eight people in the
audience," he explains.)
Finally, he came back to his roots: making people laugh. And a lot of that had to do with finally finding something to laugh about in his own life, something that made him truly happy.
They say love can be a funny thing. That was never more true than when Colbert met his wife, Evelyn McGee. It was 1990 and Colbert's girlfriend at the time gave him the ultimatum to, in Colbert's Lowcountry parlance, "Fish or cut bait." So he went back to Charleston, a place where he has always felt more himself than anywhere else, to think about the biggest decision in his life. That night, his mother, Lorna Colbert took him to see a Spoleto show and gave him some advice.
"I told him if you don't know, it's not right," she says.
Something else happened that night to make Colbert's decision easier.
"I'll never forget it. I walk in and I see this woman across the lobby and I thought, 'That one. Right there.' At that moment, I thought, 'That's crazy. You're crazy, Colbert.' And it turned out I was right."
"He spent the whole evening talking to her. I didn't see him again," his mother explains.
And while love at first sight is amazing enough, what makes Colbert and McGee's first-ever meeting all the more amazing was they grew up just two blocks apart.
A 'Daily' ritual
Early in his career, Colbert cut his teeth performing with The Second City, the prestigious improvisational comedic theater group in Chicago that churned out names such as Dan Aykroyd, Chris Farley, Bill Murray and Steve Carell, just to name a few.
Following that were several short-lived TV shows that he co-wrote and starred in, including "Exit 57" and "Strangers With Candy." After that, he tried writing for VH1, MTV, "Saturday Night Live" and "The Dana Carvey Show." None of it lasted.
"I was doing everything and anything at the time. I had a wife and kids," he says.
While working as a correspondent for "Good Morning America," a job he admitted was terrible for him, he got a call from his agent asking him to audition for a new show called "The Daily Show."
"I really didn't want to do (it) because I hated 'Good Morning America,' and I figured it was going to be the same type thing," he says.
As it turned out, not only was "The Daily Show" a job he would love dearly, it was one that would make him a star. For the next five years, he made a name for himself by portraying what he calls "a well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-class idiot."
For more than six years, Colbert helped "The Daily Show" win numerous Emmy and Peabody awards. In 2005, his hilarious writing ability coupled with his incredibly quick wit finally earned him the chance at his own show.
"The Report," as he affectionately refers to it, has provided him with the platform to give his take on the issues of the day while explaining to everyone else that they're just plain wrong. His schtick involves blindly siding with the president no matter what. Essentially, he acts a lot like Bill O'Reilly - the only difference being that Colbert is joking.
"The character is sort of a mask. But the intensity is on a sliding scale. And I hope it's clear when it's turned up high," Colbert explains. "But the Super Captain Catholic aspect of it certainly has a seed of truth in me."
And while using the likes of O'Reilly as a template might sound like a recipe for disaster, it has been nothing short of a brilliant move. In just his first few months, he's developed a cult following. That following starts just where you'd expect: with his family.
"You sit there and you watch your little brother and you're like, 'My God, you're funny. You have absolutely no reverence for anything. And it's hysterical,' " Colbert-Busch says.
His mother's proud, too: "I stay up every night for it. And then I watch it the next day if I have time."
But now the secret is out, and it's not just family and fans who understand what a good thing he has going. In the past few months, Colbert has been on the cover of Newsweek, has been profiled by CNN and "60 Minutes" (which will air Sunday at 7 p.m. on WCSC-TV) and has been a guest on "The Late Show With David Letterman." Tonight he'll host the White House Correspondents' Association dinner (which will be televised live on C-SPAN at 8 p.m.), and May 23 he'll be the keynote speaker at the World Trade luncheon at the S.C. International Trade Conference.
It's show time
Colbert puts the now-empty container of asparagus soup on his desk and stands up. He's given in to his assistant's constant reminders that it's show time. He grabs his black wingtips off the chair next to his desk, and, just like that, he's gone.
Back in the studio, things are starting to heat up. A buzz fills the air as hundreds of people excitedly take their seats, knowing that in just a few moments the lights will dim and the announcer will ask them if they're ready to have some fun.
Finally, they will get their first glimpse of the man they came to see. And if they look hard enough - past the perfectly combed hair, the fine Italian suit and the big, confident smile - they just might be able to see that little kid who grew up on a dirt road playing "Dungeons & Dragons."
RESIDES: New York.
TV SHOW: "The Colbert Report" airs on Comedy Central Monday-Thursday at 11:30 p.m. (and repeats the next day at 8:30 p.m.).
FAMILY: Wife, Evelyn McGee Colbert, and three children. Most of his family lives in Washington, D.C., but he has a brother in Los Angeles. A sister, brother and his mother live in Charleston.
NAME: Originally, his name was pronounced COL-bert. "But my dad always wanted to be Col-BEAR ... so (he) said to us, 'You can be anything you want.' And so we made a choice, and it's about half and half. The girls for the most part are like, 'Get over it, you're Colbert,' but I was so young when this choice was given to us, I think that if somebody woke me up in the middle of the night and slapped me across the face I'd still say Stephen Col-BEAR. But if people don't like what I do on this show, I say, 'That's Stephen Col-BEAR, I'm Stephen Colbert.' "
PASSION: Fishing. "I just want to get on the water."
funny-looking ear: "I always wanted to be a marine biologist ... but then I had this ear problem. I have no ear drum. (Flicks his ear.) So I had this operation at the Medical University when I was a kid. Now I can't get my head wet. I mean, I can, but I can't really scuba dive or anything like that. So that killed my marine biology hopes."
QUICK WIT: "My family is a humorocracy and the funny person is king. But if you ask my family, they'll tell you they're funnier."
LOVE OF "THE LORD OF THE RINGS": To say he likes the tales by J.R.R. Tolkien is an understatement. "Last night, I was drinking bourbon out of a Gandolf goblet."
Catch Stephen Colbert this weekend during one of these televised events.
WHAT: Colbert hosts White House Correspondents' Association dinner
INFO: Last year Cedric the Entertainer hosted the yearly event that is essentially a roast of the president.
WHEN: Tonight, 8
CHANNEL: C-SPAN (live)
WHAT: Colbert on "60 Minutes"
INFO: "60 Minutes" correspondents have been insulted, threatened and asked to leave the premises by interview subjects over the years - but "Shut up, Safer!" was a new one for Morley Safer. Colbert says just that in a profile on "60 Minutes."
WHEN: Sunday, 7 p.m.
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