Raised in the deep South and the youngest of 11 children, Stephen was never like the other kids. Somewhat of a loner, he escaped into fantasy by reading science fiction and playing Dungeons & Dragons.
His South Carolina upbringing included a strong Catholic faith, which continues today. Watching TV as a child, he realized that Southerners were often depicted as stupid, and he made a concerted effort to not sound Southern by studying speech patterns of national news anchormen.
When he was 10, Stephen’s dad and two of his brothers died in the crash of an Eastern Airlines plane attempting to land in Charlotte, North Carolina.
As a teenager, Stephen dreamed of becoming a marine biologist, but surgery on a perforated eardrum left him deaf in his right ear and unable to pursue a career involving scuba diving.
Instead, he turned his attention elsewhere, enrolling as a theater major at Northwestern University. After graduation, he joined Chicago’s The Second City improv group, and found a measure of success on the TV comedy show “Exit 57.”
One thing led to another, and Stephen joined “The Daily Show” with Craig Kilborn in 1997. Two years later, Jon Stewart took over as host, the show became sharply political, and Stephen’s career began to skyrocket.
In 2005, he hosted “The Colbert Report,” playing a Bill O’Reilly-type blowhard. In 2015, he took over for David Letterman as the host of “The Late Show” on CBS.
Trailing “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon” in the ratings, Stephen Colbert’s show shot to the top soon after Donald Trump was elected president. He attacked Trump’s excesses head on in biting comedic monologues and skits.
Last week, Colbert defended newsman John Dickerson, a CBS colleague belittled and banished by Trump, calling Trump a “presi-dunce.” Colbert also made what some called a homophobic remark.
Now the FCC may step in (you know how sensitive the Trump administration is about slurs), but the comic is unapologetic.
“I have the jokes; he has the launch codes,” said Colbert. “So it’s a fair fight.”
Today, Colbert turns 53. The shy Southern kid has come a long way.
Playwright Mike Vogel blogs at newyorkgritty.net.