Stephen Colbert, the character, is a “well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-class idiot” who leads “a very unexamined life.” That’s according to Stephen Colbert, the person. Both were present at last night’s fundraiser at the Wellmont. But it was the the presence of the well-spoken, thoughtful, erudite and out-of-character Colbert that made the evening such a success.
The event, a fundraiser for the Montclair International Film Festival, was designed as a chat, and Colbert talked for about an hour with newsman Jon Alter before a sold-out house of 1,700. He also took questions from the audience, including two young women who were having birthdays. He sang Happy Birthday in Latin to one.
Colbert lost his father and two brothers in a plane crash when he was 10, and it was during the ride home from the funeral that he says he began to gravitate toward a career in comedy. “My sister Mary got my sister Margo to laugh so hard she fell on the floor of the limo. I thought: I want that,” he said. “My family is a humorocracy. The funniest person in the room is king.”
Unlike colleague Jon Stewart, who came up through stand-up, Colbert’s roots were in improv, and he talked quite a bit about it. To one aspiring improv actor in the audience, he gave some performance advice. “Do something, feel something — and then talk,” he said. To an aspiring television producer, he advised working for free to get experience. “But if you can think of anything you can do besides show business, do that.”
It took Colbert a long time to achieve success in show business, and after he came to New York to work on the Dana Carvey show, it was cancelled eight shows later. He said he spent many years “underemployed” and one year, as a young father, unemployed.
During the course of the interview, Colbert revealed some charming quirks: an email friendship with Dick Cavett, a near reverence for J.R.R.Tolkien, and the fact that he decided to pronounce his last name Col-BARE during a conversation with an astronaut on a flight to Chicago as he headed to Northwestern University for the first time.
But the conversation returned again and again to the fact that he plays a character named Stephen Colbert. He said he warns guests that he does his interviews in character, and tells them that the character is an idiot. But that doesn’t always prepare them.
“Any theologian can understand martyrdom, but only the martyr goes into the fire,” Colbert said. “I’m the fire.”