The actor who created late night's most lovable conservative turns 50 today. To celebrate, here's some wit and wisdom from the man himself.
1. ON HIS EARLY CAREER:
"I mostly just said yes to any opportunity to get on stage. Pay or no pay. Equity, amateur, comedy, avant garde, and improv especially. ... As for true doubt, it got under my skin deeply only once. I was newly-married and I was offered a part I would have loved, but no pay. I had worked for six years doing anything, but had made a deal with myself that if I ever was to have family I could support, I would have to insist on pay. A small rule, right? But hard for a young actor to keep. Mostly you don't really get paid. I said no to the part and immediately (I mean within minutes) went into a spiral of panic that lasted for months. I was sure I had made the wrong decision (I hadn't) and would never get a part like it again. But the worst feeling was that I knew I truly wanted to be an actor and there was no turning back now. I was too old to do anything else. This was a feeling I wouldn't wish on anyone. Importantly, I was wrong on all counts. Just keep working as long as you can't think of anything else you could happily do. Keep saying yes."
From a Reddit AMA.
2. ON HIS CHARACTER:
"I think of him as a well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot."
From an interview with 60 Minutes.
3. ON BEING A PERFECTIONIST:
"I don't mind failing so much, but I am a perfectionist. ... If you're a perfectionist and you know you're about to do something at which you cannot be perfect ... then that is daunting because you know what your heart is like and the way you approach your work."
From an interview with NPR about starring in a theatrical production of Stephen Sondheim's musical Company.
4. ON LAUGHTER:
"I would say laughter is the best medicine. But it's more than that. It's an entire regime of antibiotics and steroids. Laughter brings the swelling down on our national psyche, and then applies an antibiotic cream. You gotta keep it away from your eyes... Obviously, it's a challenge to make light of the darkness but, um, it's better than crying about it."
From an interview with Entertainment Weekly.
5. ON TRUTHINESS:
"Truthiness is tearing apart our country, and I don't mean the argument over who came up with the word. I don't know whether it's a new thing, but it's certainly a current thing, in that it doesn't seem to matter what facts are. It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that's not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It's certainty. ... I really feel a dichotomy in the American populace. What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true?"
From a 2006 interview with The AV Club.
6. ON DREAMS:
"You have been told to follow your dreams, but what if it’s a stupid dream? For instance, Stephen Colbert of 25 years ago lived at 2015 North Ridge with two men and three women in what I now know was a brothel. He dreamed of living alone—well, alone with his beard—in a large barren loft apartment, with lots of blonde wood, wearing a kimono, with a futon on the floor and a Samovar of tea constantly bubbling in the background, doing Shakespeare in the street for homeless people. Today, I am a beardless suburban dad who lives in a house, wears no-iron khakis and makes Anthony Weiner jokes for a living, and I love it because, thankfully, dreams can change. If we’d all stuck with our first dream, the world would be overrun with cowboys and princesses."
From the 2011 commencement speech at Northwestern.
7. ON JOY AND HAPPINESS:
"I have a friend, Father Jim Martin. He gave me this card, and it said 'Joy is the surest evidence of the presence of God.' I'm paraphrasing that. Joy can be hard. Joy's not the same thing as happiness. I think happiness is overrated. Happiness can be really facile. ... To be with my wife and children, would be the deepest joy."
From an interview with Oprah Winfrey.
8. ON THE ADVICE HE GIVES PEOPLE:
"I always recommend people get in trouble. Commit yourself to an open mike night or write something and say you're going to read it in public, but get in trouble. You're never going to learn until you fail. ... You have to go out there and figure out what you can do and can't do."
From an interview with Larry King.
9. ON YOUTH, CYNICISM, AND SAYING "YES":
"Don't be afraid to be a fool. Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don't learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying 'yes' begins things. Saying 'yes' is how things grow. Saying 'yes' leads to knowledge. 'Yes' is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say 'yes.'"
From his 2006 Knox College Commencement Address.
10. ON FAN MAIL:
"The letters that say 'I'm getting the messages you're sending me through the television screen' are not great. But those are few and far between, thank God. I get wonderful letters, and people send me artwork. I've had all the art people send me digitized ... I have this fantastic set of armor, leather Roman armor, made for me by a fan. It's my size and everything, with my crest in bronze on the front. It's gorgeous. I've got maps of the United States and license plates that say 'Colbert Nation.' I've got masks of me and paintings of me and puzzles of me and triptychs of collages of my life. They're unbelievable, truly heartfelt works of art, and I'm very grateful and I try to write thank you notes when I can."
From an interview with Rolling Stone.
11. HOW IMPROV IS LIKE LIFE:
"There are very few rules to improv, but one of the things I was taught early on is that you are not the most important person on the scene. Everybody else is, and if everybody else is more important than you are, you will naturally pay attention to them and serve them. But the good news is, you’re in the scene too. So hopefully to them you’re the most important person and they will serve you. No one is leading. You’re all following the follower, serving the servant. You cannot win improv, and life is an improvisation. You have no idea what is going to happen next and you are mostly just yanking ideas out of your ass as you go along. And like improv, you cannot win your life."
From his 2011 commencement speech at Northwestern.
12. ON COMEDY AND FEAR:
"Not living in fear is a great gift, because certainly these days we do it so much. And do you know what I like about comedy? You can't laugh and be afraid at the same time—of anything. If you're laughing, I defy you to be afraid."
From an interview with Parade Magazine.
All images courtesy of Getty Images unless otherwise stated.