By James Kaplan
"I like damaged people," says Stephen Colbert. "And I am certainly damaged."
If the comment seems like a joke at first, it's because on his popular—and influential—Comedy Central show, "The Colbert Report," the 43-year-old comedian plays the kind of blustering pundit that's all over television these days. In an era when many people get their news from alternative sources (including satiric TV shows), Colbert may even have an effect on the 2008 Presidential election.
On the day we meet in his Manhattan office, Colbert is literally damaged, having broken his wrist during his in-character, pre-show audience warm-up. He fell while dancing around the studio singing Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me."
"This is a godsend!" he crows, showing me his cast-sheathed left forearm (which has since healed). "The news right now is tragic—Iraq 24/7. So, when something like this happens to me, it's a golden ticket!"
"The Colbert Report," which spun off two years ago from Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show," is "about the cult of personality," Colbert says. "I can talk about anything, and it is news because I say so. My broken wrist is going to be news tonight because"—here his voice deepens just a fraction, and he fixes me with those slightly crazed-looking dark eyes—"if it happens to me, America knows it could happen to them."
Colbert's satire is so bone-dry that his targets often don't realize they're being skewered. As keynote speaker at the White House Correspondents' Dinner last year, Colbert left President Bush—who sat two seats away—thoroughly bemused. The razor-sharp speech was watched by millions online and put America's chattering class into overdrive. It made Colbert a force to reckon with. And his new book, "I Am America (And So Can You!)," should build the buzz even more.
But when Colbert tells me he's "damaged," he's being painfully honest. He grew up as the youngest of 11 children—eight sons, three daughters—of James and Lorna Colbert, a research physician and a homemaker on James Island in Charleston, S.C. It was a big, bustling, Irish-Catholic family—"a humorocracy," Colbert recalls. "Singing around the house highly encouraged."
Then, on a single terrible day—Sept. 11, 1974—everything changed. Dr. Colbert was flying with sons Peter and Paul to enroll the boys in a New England prep school when their commercial flight crashed in Charlotte, N.C. All three were killed.
With his other older brothers and sisters either working or heading back to college that fall, the big household was suddenly diminished to just two: 10-year-old Stephen and his mom. "The shades were down, and she wore a lot of black, and it was very quiet," he remembers. "She was a daily communicant, and many times I was too. It was a constant search for healing. My mother gave that gift to all of us. I am so blessed to have been the child at home with her."
In sixth grade, he switched to a new school. The nerdy newcomer, who had just lost his father and two brothers, had a rough time of it for a while. "I was beaten up on a regular basis," he recalls. Eventually, he started making jokes. "The beginning of my junior year, nobody knew me at school. A year later, I was voted Wittiest, and people were happy when I showed up at parties."
But for a long time, Colbert remained in conflict. His father had been an introvert. His mother, "a very big personality," had wanted to be an actress. Stephen felt pulled in both directions. During two years at Hampden-Sydney College, he studied philosophy. Then he transferred to Northwestern and majored in drama.
Soon after graduation, he was living in Chicago—an earnest young actor with a full beard and a proclivity for dressing in black. He also had lost his faith. "I was very depressed about it," he says. "I wanted the idea that I would see my father and brothers again, and it was heartbreaking to think that that wouldn't happen."
Then, one icy winter day, as Colbert walked down a street in Chicago, a Gideon handed him a Bible. "It was so cold, I had to crack the pages," he recalls. "I flipped it open, and it had a list of things to read about if you were feeling different ways. Under 'Anxiety,' it said 'Matthew V,' the Sermon on the Mount." He paraphrases: "'Who among you by worrying can change a hair on his head?' It spoke to me."
Around the same time, Colbert had another revelation—this one about comedy. While apprenticing with the comedy troupe Second City, he was surprised by a fellow actor with an unexpected onstage stunt. "I burst out laughing," he recalls. "Something burst that night, and I finally let go of the pretension of not wanting to be a fool."
But it was a long time before he could make a living at comedy. In the mid-'90s, now married and with a baby, Colbert came to New York and found himself unemployed. "We were going through our savings, and I was tearing my hair out," he remembers. "I would hide from my wife because I didn't want her to see my crisis of confidence." Then, out of the blue, he got a call for a writing stint at VH1. "You know, that job saved my life," he says. "I am just convinced that an angel whispered my name in their ear."
In 1999, he landed a job writing and performing for "The Daily Show." At first, Colbert had little interest in political humor. But soon, host Jon Stewart "infected me with his spirit of satire," Colbert says. "I learned to talk passionately about things you care about and be fair to a position that you don't agree with. I realized that I had stumbled into a perfect job for me."
Having paid some serious dues, Colbert, who now lives in New Jersey with his wife and their three children, says: "I desire to have what I would consider a normal life. To have a wife and kids, and live in a suburban house, and wear khaki pants, and pick them up from the dry cleaner—I don't see anything wrong with that. I think a lot of people who perform have a fear of being ordinary. They confuse ordinary with common."
This uncommon man even manages, when he can find the time, to teach Sunday school. Colbert remembers the lesson of the Sermon on the Mount: "That's being fearless," he says. "Not living in fear is a great gift, because certainly these days we do it so much. And do you know what I like about comedy? You can't laugh and be afraid at the same time—of anything. If you're laughing, I defy you to be afraid."
For hilarious, exclusive photos of Stephen Colbert, click here.