The untold truth of Stephen Colbert

Over the last two decades, Stephen Colbert has provided a unique voice in the ever-competitive world of late-night television. From The Daily Show and The Colbert Report to his new gig as host of The Late Show, the talk show icon has become famous for his caricatured sociopolitical parody, clever wit, and playful flair for the nonsensical. Following a ratings surge—dubbed the "Trump bump" by CNN—audiences are wondering if Colbert is the "new king of late night."

But how well do fans really know the real Colbert? Here are some interesting facts that may surprise you.

Tragedy changed his life at age 10

Colbert's family experienced a heartbreaking loss on Sept. 11, 1974, when his father, James, and two brothers, Peter and Paul, died in a plane crash in Charlotte, N.C.

Because his other siblings were either working or in college, Colbert—who is the youngest of 11—was left alone with his mother, Lorna. "The shades were down, and she wore a lot of black, and it was very quiet," he told Parade in 2007. "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."

The tragedy weighed heavily on Colbert. As the comedian revealed on Oprah's Next Chapter, he didn't fully grieve the loss of his father and brothers until his freshman year of college. "I was in bad shape," he said, noting that he lost 50 pounds that year. "I got very sad about it."

It took a long time for Colbert to accept what had happened, but as he told GQ in 2015, "I'm not angry, I'm not. I learned to love…the thing that I most wish had not happened."

He's deaf in his right ear

When Colbert was a child, he had a botched operation on a severely perforated eardrum that left him deaf in his right ear. A"I had this weird tumor as a kid, and they scooped it out with a melon baller," he told The New Yorker

That procedure derailed a childhood dream. "I always wanted to be a marine biologist…but then I had this ear problem. I have no ear drum," he told The Post and Courier. "So I had this operation at the Medical University when I was a kid. Now I can't get my head wet. I mean, I can, but I can't really scuba dive or anything like that. So that killed my marine biology hopes."

Colbert takes his hearing impairment in stride and even enjoys performing a related trick: he can tuck his right ear, which sticks out a bit, inside out and pop it back in place when he winks. Want to see this cool trick in action? Colbert showed it off to David Letterman years ago on The Late Show, joking that his ear "is just a prop."

Meeting his wife was love at first site

In 1990, Colbert reportedly returned home to contemplate his future after receiving a "fish or cut bait" ultimatum from his then-girlfriend. According to The Post and Courier, he told his mom about the decision, and she offered up some wise advice:"If you don't know, it's not right."

The same night he talked with his mother, Colbert attended a musical premiere at the Spoleto Festival and unexpectedly met the woman who'd become his bride. "I'll never forget it," he told the paper. "I walk in and I see this woman across the lobby and I thought, 'That one. Right there.' At that moment, I thought, 'That's crazy. You're crazy, Colbert.' And it turned out I was right." He and Evelyn McGee-Colbert have been married more than two decades.

Colbert's mom remembers that fateful night too. "He spent the whole evening talking to her. I didn't see him again," she said.

He's a family man

Colbert lives in Montclair, N.J. with Evelyn, who is President of the Montclair Film Festival's Board of Trustees. They have three children: Madeline, Peter, and John, 15. 

Despite decades worth of fame, Colbert's personal life seems fairly normal. "Stephen and his family are very happily entrenched. You can always see him with his family. Family and community have always been important to him," a neighbor told People.

"I have a wife who loves me, and I am oddly normative," Colbert told The New York Times in 2005. "I read to the children most nights…I am big on hugging. We are very silly."

This sense of normalcy is important to the comic. "I don't see anything wrong with that. I think a lot of people who perform have a fear of being ordinary," he told Parade. "They confuse ordinary with common."

He's a devout Catholic

Colbert is reportedly a devout Irish Catholic who attends church every Sunday with his family. According to Parade, he's even been known to teach Sunday school when he finds the time. 

"Most Sundays the Colberts are at church, usually sitting right up front," a neighbor told People. "When the kids were younger, he taught Confraternity of Christian Doctorine classes there."

Colbert told The Telegraph that one of the perks of teaching Sunday school is that the children are too young to recognize him. "I get to actually talk to someone who will take me seriously when I talk about religion. Albeit I have to find somebody who's seven to take me seriously."

Colbert revealed on Oprah's Next Chapter that he keeps a card on his desk that says, "Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God." It was given to him by a good friend, who also happens to be a priest.

He's a J.R.R. Tolkien junkie

Colbert is absolutely obsessed with writer J.R.R. Tolkien. The comedian's fantasy fascination developed in the wake of his father and brothers' untimely deaths. "I escaped my teen years and all that grief in books," he told The Post and Courier.

According to CBC News, Colbert is fluent in the fictional language Quenya, which is spoken by the elves in Tolkien's books. In 2012, while visiting the set of The Hobbit in Wellington, New Zealand, Colbert infamously beat one of the film's producers—noted Tolkien expert Philippa Boyens—in a Tolkien quiz. The following year, he submitted an insanely specific fan question to director Peter Jackson, who later admitted that Colbert's "encyclopedic knowledge" of Tolkien is "spectacular." Jackson added, "I have never met a bigger Tolkien geek in my life," which is really saying something.

Colbert even got to live the ultimate fanboy dream when he and his adorable family made cameo appearances in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013).

His persona was based on conservative pundits

In the early days of The Daily Show, Colbert based his on-air alter-ego's straight delivery and sense of gravitas on that of Dateline NBC's Stone Phillips. Madeleine Smithberg, one of the show's early executive producers, told The Daily Show (The Book) that "Stone Phillips deserves a 'created by' credit."

In the lead-up to his own show's 2005 premiere, Colbert told The New York Times that his character, whom he described as "a well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot," had evolved into conglomeration of personas, including former Fox News correspondent Bill O'Reilly and Joe Scarborough and Dan Abrams of MSNBC. Colbert told Parade that his caricature of personality-driven conservative news anchors on The Colbert Report underscored "the cult of personality." In other words, "I can talk about anything, and it is news because I say so," he quipped.

Nowhere was this idea more evident than in his coined aesthetic, "Truthiness." During the show's premiere, Colbert said, "I know some of you may not trust your gut, yet. But, with my help, you will. The truthiness is, anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you."

He was the first Daily Show correspondent to get sued

Although Colbert's run on The Daily Show was highly successful, he did run into a few hiccups along the way—like, you know, the time he became the first correspondent on the show to get sued. 

The comedian recalled the infamous sketch at PaleyFest in 2008. The segment was about "a retirement community [in California] that wanted to become a town… They were an unincorporated section of the country, and the towns around them were afraid that they were gonna be absorbed. We decided that, 'Okay, they're Germany 1936, and the people around them are the Sudetenland and Poland, and they're gonna be absorbed,'" Colbert quipped. Part of the clip involved the retirees' supposed "charismatic leader," whom Colbert repeatedly tricked into doing the Nazi salute. "For some reason," Colbert joked, "[he] got offended that we compared him to Hitler."

As it turns out, that charismatic leader just so happened to be a retired lawyer. "If you make a man comedically look like Hitler and it turns out that he is a retired lawyer with a lot of time on his hands, you're going to get sued. That's the lesson for today, children," Colbert told Chris Smith's The Daily Show (The Book).

He's a really good singer

Colbert often shows off his singing chops on his show, but did you know that he's a Grammy winner and Broadway performer too?

According to The New York Times, Colbert won a Grammy Award in 2009 for A Colbert Christmas. During the musical Christmas special, he apparently proves himself to be a true song and dance man. The triple threat even got his pal Stewart in on the action, singing a duet on the instant classic, "Can I Interest You in Hanukkah?"

Colbert played Harry in a 2011 production of Stephen Sondheim's Company, which starred Neil Patrick Harris and featured the New York Philharmonic. According to an interview with NPR, it was Sondheim himself to asked Colbert to join the production. "[He said that] against his instincts, he had a good time on my show and would I consider playing Harry in Company? And he ended the letter with the sentence 'You have a perfect voice for musical theater.'"

Hey, if Sondheim says you can sing—you can sing.

He almost quit Comedy Central in 2012

We nearly lost The Colbert Report three years before its 2015 series finale.

According to The Daily Show (The Book), Colbert and Stewart joined forces in 2012 to negotiate new contracts with Comedy Central after Viacom Chairman Phillippe Dauman refused to honor their core demands—namely, paying Colbert the big bucks and allowing Stewart time off to direct Rosewater. Stewart actually quit, albeit for one weekend, and Colbert was fully prepared to join him. Luckily, Dauman caved, but with one exception.

"It was head-scratchy to me," Colbert said in the book. "We went in and I said, 'Okay, I'm ready to sign up for another four years. I'm willing to do the same terms. I'll guarantee through the 2016 election.' They said, 'No, just two.' Jon and I looked at each other, privately, like, 'What is going on?'" Colbert later said, "Thank God they said no to four years. If they had taken our offer, I would not have been available to cover for Dave [Letterman]" on The Late Show in 2015.

Interestingly, the domino effect of this tense round of contract negotiations helped shape the current landscape of late-night television. As Nicki Swift previously reported, if Stewart hadn't directed Rosewater, John Oliver would never have been tapped to serve as The Daily Show host during the summer of 2013 and probably would not have landed his own show, Last Week Tonight.

Who knew so much comedy gold hung in the balance back then?

His advice is gospel among Daily Show reporters

Colbert has been a strong influence on The Daily Show's team of fake news pundits. Aasif Mandvi told the Tampa Bay Times that when he started in August 2006, he decided he "was going to do [his] best Stephen Colbert impression," before finding his own voice and niche. Similarly, as Ed Helms told The Daily Show (The Book) that Colbert's wisdom "really trickled through a lot of us." Rob Corddry, Steve Carell, and Helms all shared a chestnut of wisdom passed down from Colbert: "Check your soul at the door."

"Just for the life of your soul, take it off before you go [out into the field], and then when you come back to New York put your soul back." Colbert said. "When you're in the field you're in a character of a correspondent who has no interest other than getting what he needs out of the person he's interviewing. Your relationship with the people you're going to be talking to is purely parasitic."

"That behavior has to be cold-blooded," Colbert said. "What you're doing might get on you—the badness of what you are doing—and you don't want to get it on your soul."

James Corden was rumored to be taking over his spot

When Colbert's ratings lagged behind Jimmy Fallon's in his early days on The Late Show, rumors began to circulate that James Corden was going to take over his timeslot.

A source told Page Six in December 2016, "There's talk they will move The Late Show to LA—and replace Colbert with James Corden… They have been talking about this for a long time, but there's no chance it could happen before next fall. The talk is that CBS would offer Colbert the chance to do an edgier show at 12:30 a.m., which he is actually more suited to." 

Corden, Colbert, and CBS all adamantly denied the claim—and Colbert admitted that the whispers were hurtful. "The implication…is that the show isn't good enough in its present position," Colbert told The Hollywood Reporter. "So of course that makes you feel bad. But it doesn't jibe with what I know about our show, so you recover."

The Late Show ratings struggled before Trump's election

Early in his tenure on The Late Show, Colbert struggled to keep up with Fallon's Tonight Show ratings, and his numbers sunk below the 2 million viewers mark. However, according to Variety, when Trump took office, Colbert's ratings soared, topping Fallon for weeks at a time.

Katz Television Group's Bill Carroll explained that the ratings rebound was in part because of Trump's infamy and in part because of Colbert's approach, telling Variety, "Fallon has had a lack of pointed humor, whereas Colbert has gone full to the wall on Trump."

His election night special was the 'hardest thing' in his life

Though Trump has been good for Colbert's ratings, the host certainly wasn't happy with the 2016 election results.

"That show was the hardest thing I've ever done in my entire life," Colbert said of his election night live special (via Ad Week). "The audience was sobbing openly… We had gone over every possible eventuality. We had so many guests, we had so many pretaped pieces, all based on a different eventuality. And then there was the last show, the show we did, Donald Trump is going to win and we know he's going to win. And then execs and my writers were like, 'You don't want to write something for that?' And I was like, 'No!'… Over my guests' shoulders, people kept putting up signs: Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Nebraska. We only did about 20 minutes of material before we went, f**k it, it's going to be him, let's just talk for another hour. We have two and a half whole shows that you will never ever see of material that we had to kill that night."

Colbert added, "The next person who says, 'You must be happy [Trump won] on a certain level,' is going to have their eyes carved out. It's not fun. I'm all for give him a chance, but don't give him an inch. Because I remember everything he said and it's horrifying."

He revolutionized late-night TV

As The Atlantic noted, Stephen Colbert is at his best when his humor is politicized, and The Late Show's political turn has emerged as an important vehicle in late-night television, paving the way for other programs to navigate today's polarizing sociopolitical climate. That said, even Colbert's unique brand of biting, mocking, and nuanced sociopolitical commentary occasionally gets him in trouble.

He famously refused to apologize for remarks made during his May 1, 2017 monologue—his most scathing critique of President Trump yet—which prompted an FCC investigation into whether a controversial joke about Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin was "obscene."

Trump called Colbert a "no-talent guy" in TIME. "There's nothing funny about what he says. And what he says is filthy." 

Most people would cower if the leader of the free world insulted them, but that same evening, the late-night host was beside himself with glee. "The President of the United States has personally come after me and my show," he said. "And there's only one thing to say: Yayyy!"

No doubt encouraged by the overwhelming response to 2016 election coverage, Colbert told NPR, "I have no qualms about being sharp and satirical and highly opinionated. It's much more enjoyable…and it's more honest." He later told The Hollywood Reporter that making comedy out of politics is "a privilege," adding, "I think I've got the best job in America."

He refuses to make jokes about Barron Trump

Though Colbert isn't a fan of Donald Trump, he refuses to mock the president's youngest son, Barron.

"I don't want to make jokes about Barron," Colbert told The Hollywood Reporter. "We had some joke about how Jared Kushner's got to save the Middle East and [deal with] Mexico, and I said [in the writers room]: 'This is a lot. Can we give one of these jobs to Barron?' And we went, 'Ahhh, make it Tiffany.' It's not a joke at Barron's expense, but it's not even worth getting into that. Like, please, he's just a kid. But Trump is the president, there is nothing about him that's off-limits. What could possibly be off-limits?"

He used to be a micromanager

Colbert admitted that early in his The Late Show stint, he tried to exert way too much control over the show. That had worked for him with the smaller-scale Colbert Report—He didn't want a showrunner for the CBS staple and preferred to handle everything himself, from props to graphics to junior staff meetings. But The Late Show is a different animal and had many more elements than Colbert was used to. As a result, his on-air performance suffered.

"It was like going from go-kart to NASCAR in terms of the speed at which everything had to happen," Colbert told The Hollywood Reporter.

Former colleague Jon Stewart concurred: "My biggest concern was, he was doing too much and being on the front lines of decisions that I think were not a healthy place to be for the person who also has to go and perform."

Colbert explained, "[Hosting The Late Show] requires a level of ease and enjoyment and in some ways a level of energy and trust that cannot be achieved by someone who has just been doing calculus right up until the last moment. Like, who pays attention to the syntax of things will never wholly kiss you, wholly to be a fool while spring is in the world, my blood approves. You've got to wholly kiss the audience, and you can't be doing syntax all day long."

He had to polish his interviewing skills

Colbert admitted that when he started at The Late Show, his interviewing skills were somewhat lackluster because he was so used to playing a character on The Colbert Report

"I thought I could do it, I thought it would be a natural transition to make," he told The Hollywood Reporter, referring to interacting with guests, "But that was a real revelation to go like, 'No, if I want to do the show that I want to do and enjoy it at the same time, I have to have somebody else come in here.'" He added, "Some people are willing to share themselves. On that old show, we had a very specific criteria for what was a good guest for me. Do they represent an idea, are they there to advocate an idea or do they represent an idea in my character's mind? I didn't want to advocate all the time."

A show insider told Vulture, "He found his voice again, and with authority. And you know what else? He began to relax. His interviewing became better. He became a better listener. He became a new guy."

Unfortunately, even Colbert's newfound interviewing savvy couldn't help with some guests: Casey Affleck and Oliver Stone's appearances on The Late Show were nightmares, though through no fault of the beloved bespectacled host.

The #CancelColbert campaign backfired

In 2014, activist Suey Park started the "#CancelColbert" campaign after a joke from The Colbert Report used mocked the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, a charity led by the owner of the Washington Redskins football team. The Colbert Report's official Twitter account posted a since-deleted tweet of part of the show's joke, writing, "I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever."

Park responded with an online campaign to cancel the show. Her efforts not only failed, but they also made her the target of doxxing attacks, threats, and other harassment. "Well-intentioned racial humor doesn't actually do anything to end racism or the Redskins mascot," Park told The New Yorker. "That sort of racial humor just makes people who hide under the title of progressivism more comfortable… The response [to the campaign] shows the totality of white privilege. They say, 'Suey is trying to take away a show we enjoy, so we're going to start a petition to take away her First Amendment rights and make rape threats.' All this happens because they were worried that a show they enjoyed might be taken away."

Scaramucci screwed him over

In August 2017, Colbert announced on his show that he had nabbed an exclusive interview with former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci for Aug. 14, 2017. "Everybody wants this fella, right? Everybody wants him. Nobody got him—but us," Colbert said (via  Page Six) "I can't believe it. We got the Mooch."

However, ABC News correspondent George Stephanopoulos also had Scaramucci slated for an interview the day prior to Colbert. So much for an exclusive. 

Sources told Page Six that Scaramucci's team "wasn't on the same page" when booking "exclusives." A rep for the Mooch said, "We think [Colbert and Stephanopoulos] are both great journalists… They're very different and we think they complement each other well."

He almost got Kelly Ripa's son in trouble at school

Colbert almost got talk show host Kelly Ripa's son in trouble at school because he gave a copy of his illustrated "children's" book I Am a Pole (And So Can You!) to the daytime diva. In the story, a pole tries to discover what kind of pole it is. The quest includes said pole interning as a stripper pole, but it "couldn't stand the grind." Get the idea? On an episode of The Late Show, Ripa shared an embarrassing story about the book. 

"My son, when he was 9 years old, he's dyslexic so he goes to a school where the primary focus of the education is really learning how to read. And if you master so many books, you can bring in a book of your choice and the teacher will read the book out loud to the class." she said. Ripa's son took Colbert's book to school. 

Ripa said his teacher sent a note home: "'Dear Mrs. Consuelos, I'm not sure if you had read this first…It's a really funny book, I really tried to stick with it, but at a certain point, certain things aren't appropriate for a 9-year-old.'"