As far as I am concerned, there was journalism about comedian Stephen Colbert before the GQ cover story by Joel Lovell -- "The Late, Great Stephen Colbert" -- and then there is journalism on this subject after that piece.
It's not that this was some kind of stunning investigation into Colbert's career, his finances, his alleged politics, etc., etc. It's not even that this story covered totally new material about Colbert's faith and family history.
Trust me. I've had a research folder open on Colbert and Catholicism since 2005 or thereabouts and I've read most of the crucial speeches and interviews in which he talks about his beliefs. I have a pretty big collection of iTunes selections and Comedy Central URLs that feature revealing quips and comments. I've written some columns on this guy and led seminar sessions focusing on the debates about his work.
What made this interview special was the depth of the comments and the way in which they linked the wounds in Colbert's past to the strengths of his comic sensibility today. It was really quite stunning, even for people (I've heard from some) who didn't take Colbert all that seriously in the past.
After that interview, why would journalists for a major news organization -- The New York Times leaps to mind -- fail to explore the God questions (and answers) that haunt this guy? In a major magazine feature before his arrival last night on CBS, this is what the Times team offered while trying to talk about the "humanity" that Colbert has hidden in the past:
As a Roman Catholic raised in Charleston, S.C., and a graduate of Northwestern University’s School of Communication, Mr. Colbert did not always mingle easily with other Second City performers.
Wait, there is more.
Mr. Colbert is well aware that he represents what he called “the most manila version of America,” as someone who is “a white Christian male, right-handed, brown-eyed.”
“I look, absolutely, like I’m going to sell you insurance,” he said.
Now, let's contrast this with the crucial passage -- it is long -- in the GQ piece. Here is some set-up material from my Universal column this past week ("From John Henry Newman to Stephen Colbert: Ancient truths on suffering and death"):
The comedian -- youngest of 11 children in a devout Catholic family in Charleston, S.C. -- has frequently discussed the deaths of his father, a former Yale Medical School dean, and two of his brothers in a 1974 plane crash. ...
During his work with Chicago's Second City troupe, Colbert was taught to risk failure, to push comedy to the point of transforming pain. A mentor told him: "You gotta learn to love the bomb."
Ultimately, Colbert learned to link that concept to the 1974 crash.
So that is the background for the game changing quote. This is long, but essential.
“I was left alone a lot after Dad and the boys died.... And it was just me and Mom for a long time,” he said. “And by her example am I not bitter. By her example. She was not. Broken, yes. Bitter, no.” Maybe, he said, she had to be that for him. He has said this before—that even in those days of unremitting grief, she drew on her faith that the only way to not be swallowed by sorrow, to in fact recognize that our sorrow is inseparable from our joy, is to always understand our suffering, ourselves, in the light of eternity. What is this in the light of eternity? Imagine being a parent so filled with your own pain, and yet still being able to pass that on to your son.
“It was a very healthy reciprocal acceptance of suffering,” he said. “Which does not mean being defeated by suffering. Acceptance is not defeat. Acceptance is just awareness.” He smiled in anticipation of the callback: “ ‘You gotta learn to love the bomb,’ ” he said. “Boy, did I have a bomb when I was 10. That was quite an explosion. And I learned to love it. So that's why. Maybe, I don't know. That might be why you don't see me as someone angry and working out my demons onstage. It's that I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.”
I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.
I asked him if he could help me understand that better, and he described a letter from Tolkien in response to a priest who had questioned whether Tolkien's mythos was sufficiently doctrinaire, since it treated death not as a punishment for the sin of the fall but as a gift. “Tolkien says, in a letter back: ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” Colbert knocked his knuckles on the table. “ ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” he said again. His eyes were filled with tears. “So it would be ungrateful not to take everythingwith gratitude. It doesn't mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.”
Is that simply too complex, too deep for mainstream news? I mean, that is an actual discussion of theodicy -- even though the term was not used. Readers: How would you compare that with the New York Times profile?
UPDATE: The progressive Catholic columnist David Gibson of Religion News Service has a feature online pointing to an interesting Salt and Light video (up top) featuring Colbert on faith and comedy. Oh, and apparently the funny man is moving heaven and earth to get a few minutes with Pope Francis. And it isn't even sweeps yet.