Stephen Colbert, for real
LOOK WHO'S TALKING? He's Stephen Colbert, the new host of "The Late Show," and he's talking this morning to our Mo Rocca:
"I started off as an actor. I really thought, 'Oh, I wonder if I'll ever make it to Broadway?'" said Stephen Colbert. "Well, I made it! Through a fairly circuitous route, but I made it."
Colbert has indeed made it to Broadway, to the restored Ed Sullivan Theater, where he's succeeding David Letterman as host of "The Late Show."
Don't worry: All the ladders and scaffolding will be cleared out by the time he welcomes his first guests on Tuesday night.
Rocca asked, "Will you greet the guests before they come on stage? 'Cause some hosts don't!"
"Yeah, some hosts don't. I got in the habit of doing it at the old show because I wanted to say, 'Hey, the guy you're about to meet is a complete idiot. And, you know, he's well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot.'"
The poorly informed, high-status idiot Stephen Colbert is referring to is the character "Stephen Colbert" he played for 10 years on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" -- a caricature of a blowhard conservative pundit.
There's been plenty of speculation on who exactly will be hosting on Tuesday night.
Rocca recalled a CBS party held after the fall lineup announcement, where he chatted with Colbert: "And when I walked away after the conversation, a CBS executive came up to me and said, 'So, what's he really like?' Is that funny to you, this whole question of who really is Stephen Colbert?"
"It's understandable," Colbert replied. "I mean, I worked really hard to be that other guy for 10 years. ...
"I hope they'll find out pretty quickly that the guy they saw for 10 years was my sense of humor the whole time. It is, I guess, flattering that people thought I was an actual pundit or a newsman, eventually over the years.
"But it's really nice to not have to pretend it anymore!"
So what is his goal for the new show? "The goal is to have fun with my friends," he said. "And, you know, that means sometimes talking about things that you care about. We're going to want to be talking about what's going on in the world."
"But you can be more transparently curious?" Rocca asked.
"Exactly. That's exactly -- a great word. I wanna be publicly curious!"
And if the initial lineup of guests is any indication, his curiosity ranges far and wide, from stars like George Clooney and Amy Schumer, to the CEO of Uber, to a sitting Supreme Court Justice.
How his show will distinguish itself from all the other late night shows remains to be seen.
Rocca asked, "You have to be keeping one eye on what the other shows are doing, right?"
"I watch those shows. I mean, I like 'em. But we're here to compete with ourselves. We're runners competing against our own time."
"So you're not looking at it as real estate like, 'Okay, Lip Sync Battles is already taken. That's Jimmy Fallon's thing. So I'm gonna --'"
"No. No. No. You have to do what you want to do. And those guys, I mean, Conan and Jimmy, Jimmy #1 and Jimmy #2 -- they're both friends, and they both know which one is #1 and #2 to me, I don't have to say it on air! -- I don't think you can do these shows defensively.
"And so you have to go with your instincts about what you like, and trust that there's somebody out there who feels the same way."
The 51-year-old married father of three has always had an audience. The youngest of 11 children ("Jimmy, Eddie, Mary, Billy, Margo, Tammy, Jay, Lulu, Paul, Peter, Stephen"), he was raised in Charleston, South Carolina. His mother, Lorna, was a homemaker. His father, James, was an immunologist. His parents were devout Catholics, as is Stephen today.
Everyone in the family was funny -- the household, as he puts it, a "humorocracy."
"My elder sisters, Mary and Margo, would watch Carson at night, like in late '60s and early '70s. And they would wake me up 'cause they wanted me to watch it with them. Sometimes, like, as a toddler, as the three-year-old, they would put me between them. So some of my earliest memories are watching Carson on the old naugahyde couch between Mary and Margo."
When Colbert was 10 years old, his father and two of his brothers, Peter and Paul, died when their Eastern Airlines flight crashed while attempting to land in bad weather outside of Charlotte, N.C.
At the time, his older siblings were already adults. So, for the next eight years, it was just Stephen and his mother in the once-bustling household.
Rocca asked, "Has it gotten easier to talk about your father and the two brothers you lost?"
"Yeah, as you get older, you know, you have more perspective over what made you who you are," Colbert said. "We lost my mother two years ago. And I didn't mind necessarily talking about dad and the boys. But I was always worried that something I would say would bring up a bad memory for her, or somehow make her sad, or really, more likely, worry about me. 'Cause mom would watch everything that I did, every show, every interview. And nothing is easier without your mother here. But I worry less that I might worry her or make her sad with my own memories."
"Do you think that your personality or the way you see the world would be different if you hadn't lost your father or brothers at that age?"
"Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. It certainly gives you one step back from society or what is considered normality. Because it's a shock to the system to lose your father and your brothers at that age. And school and friends and homework and that value system [suddenly] doesn't mean anything anymore. None of it made sense anymore.
"And I think that really helps if you're doing comedy, or maybe even specifically doing satire, is that what seems normal no longer has status."
What would he have been otherwise? "I would be a lawyer, probably," Colbert said. "Yeah, there're a lot of lawyers in my family! And we joke that the firm name should be Colbert, Colbert, Colbert and Colbert."
Instead, Colbert headed to Northwestern University to study theater, then on to Chicago's Second City for a very different curriculum.
"When I was on Second City, to embarrass myself I used to walk on stage in my underwear," Colbert recalled. "In, like, tighty-whities at Second City to make myself be okay with how I looked in -- and not sexy. Like, high-waisted, you know, Fruit of the Loom!"
"It's like embarrassment boot camp," said Rocca. "Just putting yourself through this."
"Right, right, yeah."
"That's really smart."
"Yelling and singing too loudly in elevators. 'Watch the men that rode you. Switch from sail to steam.' You sing Jimmy Buffett loud in an elevator that's crowded with other people and feel fine with it, whoo, that'll put hair on your chest!"
His first job in network TV comedy was with "The Dana Carvey Show," alongside his old friend, Steve Carell. At Comedy Central, he starred in "Strangers With Candy," and joined the cast of "The Daily Show."
Colbert's blowhard pundit character was born on "The Daily Show," and would soon grow beyond the borders of his own series -- going on real news shows to sound the alarm on the dangers of Super PAC money, even running for president ... and, unironically, throwing his support behind Donors Choose, a non-profit that bankrolls underfunded public school programs.
What Stephen Colbert cares about will be even clearer on the new show. Ah yes, the "new" show. He'll be doing 200 of them each year.
Rocca asked, "You don't get nervous at all, do you?"
"Of course, I do. Of course, I do."
"Not about performance, really?"
"Oh, no, yeah, sure. If I don't get a little bit nervous, then I'm not trying,' Colbert said. "I should be sweating a little bit by the time it's over. And beforehand I should have butterflies a little bit before I go out. Every night."
"How soon once it starts are you totally in it?"
"Seconds. Seconds. Let's say the first joke. How about that? First joke. Yeah, first laugh. First laugh. 'Cause that's the drug right there. Then I could do it all night."
For more info:
- "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" (Official site)
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