The family tragedy behind Stephen Colbert’s career in comedy.

Video via CBS

Alongside Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Myers and Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert is the funny man on TV.

He’s been cracking jokes on The Late Show since taking over from David Letterman in 2015, and before that on the satirical Comedy Central program The Colbert Report for almost 10 years and The Daily Show before that.

But there are a few things you might not know about the nine-time Emmy winner.


That the 53 year old is a Sunday School teacher and ordained minister. That he’s had both a spider and a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream flavour named after him. And that the whole reason he got into comedy was due to a truly tragic event that happened before he’d even reached his teens.

Colbert grew up in South Carolina surrounded by a big Catholic family of 13. His father, James William Colbert Jr., was an immunologist and medical school dean, while his mother Lorna Elizabeth Colbert looked after their 11 children – James, Edward, Mary, William, Margo, Thomas, Jay, Elizabeth, Paul, Peter and the youngest, Stephen.

On September 11, 1974, Colbert Jr, Peter and Paul were flying to Connecticut to enroll the two boys at a new school. Their Eastern Air Lines Flight 212 crashed while it was attempting to land in Charlotte, North Carolina, killing all three. Colbert was just 10 years old.

The family was left devastated and his mother, broken.


“It’s built into me the way like, the marble is built into the shape of a statue. It’s kind of, at a certain age, what I was made of,” he told radio host Howard Stern in a 2015 interview.

#tbt #LSSC

A post shared by Late Show with Stephen Colbert (@colbertlateshow) on

The crash eventually led to the creation of the “sterile cockpit rule” in 1981 which requires pilots to “refrain from non-essential activities during critical phases of flight”, normally below 10,000 feet.

With most of his elder siblings at school or living their own lives by then, it was just him and his mum left at home. In order to try and cheer her up, Colbert would tell her jokes – a precursor to his comedy career.

“I think there’s no doubt that I do what I do because I wanted to make her happy. No doubt,” Colbert said.

Lorna relocated the family to Charleston, a move Colbert said he found difficult, refusing to really work at school.

#tbt of our main man @stephenathome

A post shared by Late Show with Stephen Colbert (@colbertlateshow) on

“There was no way to threaten me. It was like, ‘What? What’s that? Oh, okay, I might get a bad grade? Oh no. Wouldn’t want that.’ ” he told GQ in 2015.

In the confines of his bedroom though, he read voraciously – just not anything prescribed by a teacher. After graduating high school – barely – he followed a friend to Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia to study philosophy, before later transferring to Northwestern University’s theatre program to focus on drama. Then he met legendary improv teacher Del Close.

“I went, ‘I don’t know what this is, but I have to do it,’I have to get up onstage and perform extemporaneously with other people,” he told the magazine.

Despite his terrible loss, Colbert says he’s not angry with the world or his treatment.

“I’m not angry. I’m not. I’m mystified, I’ll tell you that. But I’m not angry. And the world, it’s so…lovely. I’m very grateful to be alive, even though I know a lot of dead people.”

We know it’s not Thursday but we couldn’t resist sharing this throwback of @stephenathome for #NationalBowtieDay ✨

A post shared by Late Show with Stephen Colbert (@colbertlateshow) on

While it’s not entirely led by his faith alone, he says he has always felt grateful to be alive and a purpose to serve God, a Catholic purpose passed on to him from his mother, father and siblings.

However it took him until he was 35 years old to come to terms with the fact that he could hate that the crash ever happened but also be grateful that it did and thus led him to where he is now.

The turning point? A quote from writer J.R.R Tolkien, “What punishments of God are not gifts?”

Image: CBS

“[It] stopped me dead. I went, ‘Oh, I’m grateful. Oh, I feel terrible.’ I felt so guilty to be grateful. But I knew it was true,” he told GQ.

“It’s not the same thing as wanting it to have happened,. But you can’t change everything about the world. You certainly can’t change things that have already happened.”

The 2015 profile was the first time in a while Colbert had spoken so candidly about his father's accident, but there was another chat that attracted attention for its emotion - his interview on The Late Show with then-Vice President Joe Biden in September 2015, his first week of hosting the show.

Image: CBS

Both had tragedies that had occurred just two years apart - Biden's first wife and daughter had been killed in a 1972 car accident. He had also lost his son Beau to brain cancer just a few months before the interview.

The pair spoke about loss and faith, with few jokes. Many regard the 20 minute interview as one of Colbert's best.

"Faith sees best in the dark," Biden said, quoting philosopher Kierkegaard. "I marvel, I marvel, at the ability of people to absorb hurt and just get back up."

For more stories of dealing with loss and grief, head here.

For something a little lighter, try here.

For more from Brittany Stewart, find her here.


More articles