Stephen Colbert Steps Out of Character

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.”


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  1. He was most interesting, I thought, as most people are, when he was talking about what he did and how he worked. For instance, he said that the most important thing each morning was taking the trouble to explain “passionately” to his writers what he thought worked about each particular idea. Also the way he conceived of his character in relation to the people he interviewed–if I’m an idiot, and I can relate to what they’re saying, then they’re idiots too, or something to that effect (but much better said), etc.

    He alluded to (didn’t dwell on) being in his mid 30s and wondering what the hell he was going to do with his life, having no skills but acting, which society didn’t seem to be valuing at that moment. That really endeared him to me. Maybe that’s where he gets his humility, though I suspect it’s also just not in his personality to read his own press releases, so to speak.

    It was a nice evening, I have to admit, though I had my doubts when I saw the two comfy chairs and realized that the entire evening was going to be a fireside chat. Alter was a good straight man and a real pro, did a great job getting Colbert to talk and then getting out of the way.

  2. As much as I enjoyed this event, and it was a great look inside the process of being funny, I would pay money to see a parallel conversation between the wives — though between Evie Colbert and Emily Lazar (Colbert’s booker), I’m not sure who is the interviewer and who the subject.

  3. I thought it was interesting, up to a point. Sitting in the upper balcony, it was basically like watching a TV interview on an iPod from 10ft away. Could barely see anything, and the PA system was so low I had trouble hearing over the popcorn eating of the person next to me. I’m glad the money went to a good place, though. We left when they started the raffle drawing.

    The emcee, Steve Adubatto I think his name was? Was a total momentum killer. After the video everyone started cheering real loudly thinking it was Colbert walking out on to the stage, but it was this dude and he said “are you ready for Stephen Colbert?” and myself and the people around me were like “umm, yeah, get off the stage, dude!”

    An interesting note – the people next to me paid $180 per ticket on StubHub. For the upper balcony. That’s a lot of $ for a fireside chat from half a mile away.

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