Colbert, comedy and the cross

Stephen Colbert may not be the most mainstream source for news, but religion news and interviews make a pretty regular appearance on the Colbert Report, more than your average late-night show.

In a segment late last year, he said, "Everyone knows I am the most famous Catholic on television. I am basically the Pope of basic cable." And, of course, he has a chaplain. A new profile from the New York Times magazine makes you think it might explore this side of Colbert from the way it introduces the comedian.

There used to be just two Stephen Colberts, and they were hard enough to distinguish. The main difference was that one thought the other was an idiot. The idiot Colbert was the one who made a nice paycheck by appearing four times a week on “The Colbert Report” (pronounced in the French fashion, with both t’s silent), the extremely popular fake news show on Comedy Central. The other Colbert, the non-idiot, was the 47-year-old South Carolinian, a practicing Catholic, who lives with his wife and three children in suburban Montclair, N.J., where, according to one of his neighbors, he is “extremely normal.” One of the pleasures of attending a live taping of “The Colbert Report” is watching this Colbert transform himself into a Republican superhero.

The mention that Colbert is a practicing Catholic piqued my interest to continue to read the lengthy profile, thinking the writer might tell us more about the comedian's faith and how it plays out on his show. It wasn't until about 3,000 words in or so that reading the piece became worth my time.

In 1974, when Colbert was 10, his father, a doctor, and his brothers Peter and Paul, the two closest to him in age, died in a plane crash while flying to a prep school in New England. “There’s a common explanation that profound sadness leads to someone’s becoming a comedian, but I’m not sure that’s a proven equation in my case,” he told me. “I’m not bitter about what happened to me as a child, and my mother was instrumental in keeping me from being so.” He added, in a tone so humble and sincere that his character would never have used it: “She taught me to be grateful for my life regardless of what that entailed, and that’s directly related to the image of Christ on the cross and the example of sacrifice that he gave us. What she taught me is that the deliverance God offers you from pain is not no pain — it’s that the pain is actually a gift. What’s the option? God doesn’t really give you another choice.”

Of course, the Times isn't the first to explore Colbert's faith. But it could still use a few details here and there. As the piece notes, Colbert he testified before Congress about the problem of illegal-immigrant farmworkers, but what the piece doesn't note is how he cited Matthew 25. What is striking about the above passage in the piece is Colbert's explicit connection between the tragedy and his faith. The rest of the piece, however, is fairly disappointing on the faith front.

Colbert, who is good at compartmentalization, manages in spite of this exhausting schedule to make time for his family. For some of the writers, the job is more all-consuming. One of them, Opus Moreschi, told me that he solves the problem of how to balance the job and a life by forgoing the life. “Basically, I’ve never had a life except for comedy, so it isn’t that much of a problem,” he said. Yet for all the demands that Colbert puts on his staff members, he is apparently beloved by them. “There are a lot of unhappy people in comedy,” Purcell said, “and sometimes you get a very radioactive vibe. But Stephen has an excellent way of treating people. You should never underestimate the power of good manners.”

So Colbert's mannerisms can be simply attributed to his polite nature, apparently. Perhaps they are, or perhaps there's something beneath the manners that compels Colbert to act the way he does. A congresswoman thought to ask Colbert for his motivations on why he takes an interest in immigration issues. Couldn't a journalist do something similar?

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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