The comedian talked to radio host Howard Stern on Tuesday about the plane crash that took his father and two brothers

By Aurelie Corinthios
Updated August 18, 2015 03:45 PM
Credit: Getty

Stephen Colbert was 10 years old when his father and two brothers were tragically killed in a plane crash.

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

When Stern asked if that made him fearful of the outside world, Colbert responded, “I think it was disassociated. Like, completely cut off. The world didn’t make any sense. And so it was easy to remove yourself from the world.”

Colbert’s father James and two of his brothers, 18-year-old Peter and 15-year-old Paul (the two closest to him in age), were on Eastern Airlines Flight 212, which crashed in a North Carolina cornfield in 1974 due to pilot error.

Colbert, 51, who opened up about coping with the tragedy in a recent GQ profile, said he believes his loss “helped with being a performer or being a comedian.”

Colbert was the youngest of 11 kids, and his elder siblings were all out of the house by the time of the accident, leaving Colbert to spend a lot of time with his mother, Lorna, in their Charleston, South Carolina, home.

“I was there with my mom, she was there for me, and I sort of kept her going,” said Colbert. “Mom and I used to joke that I raised my mom, because at a certain point it had changed her completely and it changed me completely.”

“Was she able to have a strong face in front of you or did she break down a lot?” asked Stern, 61.

“Both,” replied Colbert. “A little mix of everything. There’s no clean description of what life was like.”

When Stern asked if it’s difficult for Colbert to be around a crying woman, Colbert said: “That’s a very deep question. Not difficult, but I think there’s no doubt that I do what I do because I wanted to make her happy.”

“I think it’s also important to remember that it’s my father but also my two brothers. That is in some way – there is a chance you’re going to lose your husband, but it’s just not in the cards when you go into life that you’re going to lose two of your kids as well, and on the same day. I can’t imagine,” continued Colbert, who admitted to having a “strong urge to cheer up a sad woman.”

Colbert said he would cry “privately. I’d go off by myself someplace. Very rarely, I don’t know, once a year or something like that. It would take me by surprise and I would just go be by myself for a long time.”

The comedian also told the story of how his interest in the profession first came about.

While on a visit to the cemetery where his father, mother and two brothers are buried, Colbert recalled one of his sisters, Mary, making another of his sisters, Margo, laugh so hard “she fell on the floor of the limo and snorted laughing, even in the midst of how we were feeling at that moment.”

“I remember thinking, ‘I want that. I want to be able to make that connection,'” said Colbert. “That was important to me.”

While his serious desire to be a comedian “came later,” Colbert remembered secretly thinking “I want to be a comedian” throughout high school: “I have no idea what that meant, but I listened to comedy albums every night going to bed.”

Colbert, who taught Sunday school for three years and was the catechist for his three children’s Holy Communion, also discussed his upbringing in a Catholic family of “daily communicants” that went to mass every day and lived near a convent.

“It definitely got my mom through,” said Colbert of how faith helped the family cope. “I was raised a Catholic, and I am a Catholic. Devout is a word I don’t entirely understand anymore. I mean, the Church is flawed. Boy, that’s an understatement. The Church is greatly flawed, but it was a beautiful gift to my family and my mother and me to have faith.”

And what does he think of the tricky way faith often interacts with the world of comedy?

“I know quite a few comedians who are Catholics – and that’s cool – and a bunch who aren’t,” said Colbert. “I don’t think that what I believe is prescriptive to everybody – it works for me, and so I don’t mind being mocked about it. If you can come up with a good joke about the Catholic Church, I might just steal it.”

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