Stephen Colbert became the eleventh child of an Irish Catholic family on May 13, 1964. He was raised in South Carolina, educated at Northwestern, and trained at Second City, where he honed the playful, fearless improv sensibility that led to his big break as a conservative correspondent on The Daily Show.
When that conservative correspondent was given his own show, The Colbert Report was born and Colbert went from up-and-comer to national treasure. The host of the Colbert Report (not to be confused with Stephen Colbert the comedian) was a bombastic conservative pundit who reported the news as if he were the news. Colbert the comedian played the role so well that, in a survey conducted by Ohio State University, both conservative and liberal respondents said they enjoyed the show and were sure the pundit Stephen Colbert was "on their side." In our ever-more partisan country, this bi-lingualism reveals the heart of Colbert's satire: he expects everyone to cling to something that transcends the personal.
From The Colbert Report, which ran for more than nine years, to his current gig as the host of CBS's The Late Show, Colbert's appeal lies in his combination of principles and humor. There is a deep humanity and even spirituality that motivates his absurdist send-ups of those in power: his aim is to hold the powerful responsible but to never do so without producing joy in the process. Colbert's ability to see clearly and to "punch up" with fists of silliness has made him a hero to the people and a gadfly to the powerful.
Colbert's sense of ethics is grounded in his religious beliefs, and he is one of only a few contemporary public figures to highlight these beliefs as central to who he is. With his guests on The Late Show as well as in interviews he gives, he is candid about how his Catholic faith motivates his work. When a reporter from Rolling Stone quipped that imagining your life being watched as a reality TV show keeps people honest, Colbert quipped back, "God does that too."
Here are some ways to integrate the highly successful habits of Stephen Colbert into your own daily life.
To Name This Day:
Combine Joy and Work: At The Colbert Report, Stephen filled his office with written reminders. One piece of paper said, "Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God." Another piece just said " 'Work,' because nothing ever gets better unless you work. So I have 'work' here and 'joy' over there, and I try to put the two together somehow."
This combination may seem more natural for a comedy writer than it does for you in your daily work. But today, be aware of opportunities to inject joy into your routine or task. Do or say something silly, incongruous, or unexpected. Take the time to listen beyond words to colleagues' stories about their cat or their kid, and borrow their joy for yourself.
Manifest Gratefulness: Stephen recalled what it was like to bring The Colbert Report to the troops in Iraq in 2009: "I like being grateful — I really do. The people in Iraq were so grateful that we came, but the feeling of gratitude we had in return was enormous. It was a physical thing in the air during the shows. It was almost as if I didn't see the audience — I only saw the grateful space between us. It was as beautiful and awesome as a night sky."
As you go through your day today, keep this idea of gratefulness as a "physical thing" in the fore of your mind. What sense makes you most aware of your gratefulness to others — sight, smell, hearing, touch, taste? What does "grateful space" look/smell/sound/feel/taste like to you?
Discovering Fearlessness: Colbert's controversial performance at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2006 provides one example of his fearless comedy and moral force. He showed a skit in which he auditions to be George Bush's White House Communications Director; after he is questioned by a reporter about the real reason for invading Iraq, he flees the room, and she stalks him with her pad and pencil, threatening him with truth-finding.
Think of a truth that is vitally important to you, one that others may be uncomfortable hearing. Allow the force of that truth to release your fearlessness. Write a script of what you need to say or just clarify your goal and improvise in the moment.