Stephen Colbert is one of the most popular comedians and satirical political commentators of our modern era. Over the last couple of decades, Colbert has been making people laugh and cringe on a nightly basis. There is no one that has quite the same comedic mind as he does. He’s got that razor-sharp wit coupled with his intellectual book-smarts and know-how. But what sets him apart the most isn’t exactly just his uncanny ability to trigger belly laughs on cue, rather, Colbert’s relatable humanity and deep sense of empathy are the traits that keep many of his viewers tuning in night after night. But those two qualities were in part formed within him as a direct result of an early tragedy that he endured.
Colbert spent much of his youth in Maryland before his family relocated to Charleston, South Carolina after his father Dr. James Colbert Jr. was offered a job at the Medical University of South Carolina. Stephen came from a very large family. He was the youngest child of 10. He was very close to his brothers and sisters but he was shaken to his core when a horrific headline-making accident shattered the only little world he ever knew.
A Plane Crash That Killed 72
September 11th is a particularly difficult day for Stephen Colbert to think about – and no, not because of what happened in 2001. On that day in 1974, Stephen’s father and two of his brothers, Paul and Peter, were both passengers on an early morning flight from Charleston to Charlotte, North Carolina.
82 people were on board the small DC-9 plane when tragedy suddenly struck. Initially, everything about Eastern Air Lines Flight 212’s path seemed routine, but it never made it to its destination. Just three miles away from Douglas Municipal Airport, the plane went down.
The cause of the accident was two-fold. Not only was it a particularly foggy morning which resulted in the flight crew losing track of the plane’s altitude, but according to a report filed after the crash’s investigation, the pilot and co-pilot weren’t abiding by prescribed procedure and lacked the appropriate awareness during crucial points of the final approach. In short, the crash was a result of negligence on both of the pilot’s part.
Only 13 out of ht 82 individuals on board the aircraft survived – including Stephen’s father and brothers.
Colbert Struggled For Years After The Accident
Little Stephen was just 10 years old when his father and brothers passed away. Colbert interviewed with CNN’s Anderson Cooper in 2019 where he touched on the painful nature of that incident and how it affected him for years to come. He pointed out that everything before the crash takes on this odd, ghostly tone in his memories.
He was devastated, and seeing as his other surviving siblings were significantly older than he was and had already moved out his family home suddenly became a very quiet and solemn place. He had his mother to take care of and she likewise had him. In a way, that gave them both a sense of purpose, but Stephen’s sense of innocence was permanently gone. He no longer had the ordinary concerns that kids of his age typically have. The tragedy forced him to grow up faster than he would have otherwise.
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And make sure you stick around to watch the rest of the video Find out how Colbert was able to channel his inner-turmoil and trauma into his passion for comedy and acting. If his story isn’t inspiring then we don’t know what is.
He Had A Tumor As A Child
Eagle-eyed observers might point out that Colbert’s right ear extends out at a peculiar angle. He’s actually deaf in that ear. He has been since he was a kid. Colbert had to undergo surgery to remove a benign tumor that perforated his eardrum. He told the New Yorker back in 2005, that they “scooped it right out with a melon baller”.
Up until that point, Colbert had dreamed of growing up to be a marine biologist but after the procedure, he was no longer able to scuba dive. Seeing as that was one of the major reasons why he wanted to pursue that career path in the first place, he resigned to the fact that maybe he was meant to be something else, although at the time he still didn’t have a clue as to what that might be. To be fair, what high school kid does?
Even though Colbert is very clearly a very intelligent individual, he was a pretty awful student when he was still young and dealing with the freshly inflicted wounds of his familial tragedy. He would much rather spend his time playing Dungeons and Dragons or reading Tolkien novels. He was kind of a nerd back then but in a way that was his own way of rebelling against a cruel cold world that had taken a significant piece of his heart away from him.
To this day, Colbert is a huge fan of Tolkien and Lord Of The Rings. Colbert is familiar with hobbits and dragons like some people known their own phone number. He’s actually fluent in Quenya, the fictional language spoken by the elves in the Tolkien novels. He and fellow Tolkien fan and actor James Franco have thrown down on some Tolkien trivia on the air on two occasions. Both times Colbert blew Franco out of the water.. Take that Franco!
Anyway, Colbert grew up Catholic so he attempted to turn to his religion to help explain why such a senseless and painful thing might happen to his family. Granted, he never exactly found a complete sense of peace of mind about the tragedy, but he did learn the value of acceptance – which he defines as not allowing yourself to be fully defeated by the suffering that life deals you.
Colbert has maintained his Catholic faith for his entire career. In fact, he teaches Sunday school every week at his parish in New Jersey. He has a deep reverence for the divine and refuses to do jokes that disrespect the sacrament.
After struggling to achieve passing grades in high school he ran into a bit of a brick wall when he enrolled at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. He still was dealing with a great deal of inner turmoil at the time and found it especially difficult to feel a sense of purpose while he was in college. In fact, he really didn’t even fully feel the magnitude of the loss until after moving out of his mother’s home and venturing out on his own. He simply wasn’t prepared for the feelings were flooding in.
Then He Found His Passion
Colbert really wasn’t able to start working through his tangled web of feelings until he found his passion. After two years of studying and struggling in Virginia, he transferred to Northwestern University in Chicago to focus on theater. It was there that he discovered his love for improv comedy at the world-renowned Second City Theater. That’s was where Colbert met future comedic partner Amy Sedaris whom he would later co-create and star in the cult comedy show Strangers With Candy.
When Amy first met Colbert, he had a full beard and was fully intending on becoming a serious actor. Sedaris described him as being intolerable at the time but after an appropriate amount of nudging, she was able to convince him to abandon his goal and join Second City instead to focus on comedy. It wasn’t long after that that they developed their show together.
After that series wrapped up, he briefly served as a correspondent on Good Morning America before he was invited to join the cast of The Daily Show. That was the moment that his career really started picking up steam. Before long, he was a house-hold name and was dishing out his signature blend of biting yet jovial humor for all to enjoy.
Before landing The Colbert Report, Colbert was actually the longest-running correspondent on The Daily Show. He even beat out Jon Stewart seeing as he was with the show back in the Craig Kilborn years. It was around this same time that Colbert also got the opportunity to work on shows like Saturday Night Live – you might remember him as one half of the Ambiguously Gay Duo alongside Steve Carrel – and short-lived, yet insanely hilarious sketch comedy series The Dana Carvey Show.
Colbert is by far one of the most entertaining and engaging interviewers on TV. He is remarkably respectful to all of his guests and gives them the space and opportunity to open up, get honest, and get vulnerable if they so desire. He also is known to let his own guard down every now and then. It’s that openness and empathy that he possesses, which largely is the result of enduring such a heartbreaking tragedy, that makes him such a likable and relatable public figure.
In that same candid interview with Anderson Cooper, Colbert was asked what he gets from loss. Colbert replied that you gain a sense of awareness from other people’s loss. It allows you to connect with that person in a way that you wouldn’t be able to without that shared experience of heartache and pain. As a result, you’re able to love and understand others more deeply. Part of what makes us so intrinsically human is our suffering. It can be a unifying force if you don’t let it defeat you.
Colbert is an inspiring figure. You might not really understand that if you’re not familiar with his story, but once you’ve come to an understanding of the hardships and struggles that he has gone through and has been able to triumphantly overcome you gain a whole new appreciation for who he is. He isn’t merely a comedian or a talk show host.
Far from it. His values permeate every bit of his being, and he’s not afraid to stand up for what he believes in.
Anyway that’s about all the Colbert facts we have for you today. We’d love to hear from you though! Who do you think is a better Late Show host, David Letterman or Stephen Colbert? Drop your opinion in the comments section below.
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