Stephen Colbert has revealed that the joy he uses in his comedy comes from the darkest place in his life – the tragic deaths of his father and two brothers in a plane crash when he was just 10 years old.
“You’ve got to learn to love the bomb,” Colbert told GQ in a recent profile, quoting longtime Second City director Jeff Michalski. “Boy, did I have a bomb when I was 10.”
“That was quite an explosion,” the comedian, who is the new face of The Late Show, said.
At the time of the accident, Colbert was 10 years old and the youngest of 11 kids living on James Island in Charleston, South Carolina. His father and 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.
His elder siblings were all out of the house by then, either in school or living their lives, so it was just Colbert and his mother at home in the years following. His mother relocated them to downtown Charleston.
That “bomb” made Colbert aimless and rebellious early in life. According to the article, he “barely graduated from high school.” His sophomore year of college, he transferred from Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia to study drama at Northwestern University. As he grew older and came to terms with the tragedy, he began to use it as a source of inspiration.
The comedian said he trained himself to “steer toward fear rather than away from it,” and part of learning to come to terms with the tragedy he’d experienced in his life was what made him the joyful performer he is today.
“I’m not angry. I’m not,” he said. “I’m mystified, I’ll tell you that. But I’m not angry.”
“I learned to love it,” he continued. “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.”
Colbert spoke of the strength his mother Lorna showed in the face of grief.
“By her example I am not bitter. By her example,” he said. “She was not. Broken, yes. Bitter, no. It was a very healthy reciprocal acceptance of suffering. Which does not mean to be defeated by suffering. Acceptance is not defeat. Acceptance is just awareness.”
“‘What punishments of God are not gifts?'” Colbert told the magazine, quoting J. R. R. Tolkien, his eyes filled with tears. “So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn’t mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.”
According to Colbert, that acceptance didn’t come until he was 35: “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.”
“It’s not the same thing as wanting it to have happened,” he continued. “But you can’t change everything about the world. You certainly can’t change things that have already happened.”
Colbert and his wife of 22 years, Evelyn McGee-Colbert, have three children together: Madeline, 19, Peter, 16, and John, 13. The comedian is set to take over The Late Show from previous host David Letterman; The Late Show with Stephen Colbert premieres Sept. 8 on CBS.