Back to basics

By Features Editor

When CBS tweeted, “Stephen Colbert to be next host of ‘The Late Show’” in April, it was a bittersweet moment for fans.

The wry comedic powerhouse will shift to CBS from his long-time home on Comedy Central in 2015, but something will be lost in the process: Stephen Colbert, the character. The bombastic, conservative pundit who started as a correspondent on “The Daily Show” in 1997 and hosted the Emmy Award-winning “The Colbert Report” since 2005 will be replaced with the real Stephen Colbert, a married father of three who lives in Montclair, New Jersey, and is a 1986 Northwestern University graduate.

This is the Colbert his old classmates know: the well-mannered and well-dressed genteel Southerner from a nice family.

“He was the boy who always knew what blazer to wear,” said Anne Libera, director of the comedy studies program at Columbia. “He has tremendous great manners, but he has a love for the dramatic and a love for the grand gesture.”

Libera said she became great friends with Colbert when the two met at Northwestern in 1984. They became roommates in 1986. A junior transfer student from Hampton-Sydney College in Virginia, he was placed in a sophomore-level acting class with a number of Libera’s friends.

Initially a philosophy major, Colbert aspired to be a dramatic actor and did not discover sketch comedy until a year later. Libera said the first time she saw him perform, he was deliv- ering a dramatic monologue as Aragorn II Elessar, a character from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” series.

“I remember thinking that he was good but that he was also very controlled and uptight,” Libera said. “Then the second time [I saw him] I was going to a party he was giving for his then-girlfriend Ayun Halliday, and [I] was blown away. He did a whole Winnie-the-Pooh present thing including a giant balloon that filled up an entire room.”

Chris Pfaff said he introduced Colbert to Chicago’s sketch comedy and improv scene. Pfaff founded the Northwestern improv troupe, the “No Fun Mud Piranhas,” in 1985 and was a classmate who also worked with Colbert in the university library. Pfaff, now CEO of the technology media consulting firm Chris Pfaff Tech Media, also lives in Montclair and occasionally runs into Colbert. Pfaff said he grew up watching Second City TV and, like many college students in Chicago, was interested in getting involved in the improv scene.

Pfaff said the scene was undergoing change in 1985 at Second City and iO [ImprovOlympic], which had no theater of its own at the time. Founded by comedy luminaries Charna Halpern and Del Close in 1981, iO helped popularize Close’s long-form, narrative improvisational method—the Harold.

In 1994, the pair co-authored “Truth In Comedy,” a book that remains the definitive text on improvisational comedy. Comics such as Colbert, Tina Fey, Chris Farley, Cecily Strong, Mike Myers and fellow late-night television host Seth Meyers cut their teeth at the theater, which left its long-time Wrigleyville location in July for a theater in Lincoln Park, at 1501 N. Kingsbury St.

“Del liked me enough, and Charna’s real interest as a rather tireless promoter was to grow the business through college competition,” Pfaff said. “I said to [Colbert] one day, ‘I’ve been doing this improv stuff down at [iO]. I’m putting together a Northwestern [team], and I think you’d be perfect, so why don’t you come on down and see a show?’ It pretty much blew his mind.”

With Halliday’s help, Colbert and Pfaff slowly assembled a team of Northwestern theatre majors, including David Schwimmer of “Friends” fame. After a few rehearsals, the team headed to iO. On the first night, the “No Fun Mud Piranhas” were slaughtered by the competition, Pfaff said.

“[They said,] ‘Here are these snooty kids from Evanston, lets throw ‘em to the lions,’” Pfaff said. “It was a pretty raucous crowd that was obviously looking for us to fail, and the theme was ‘tongs’—that’s just brutal.”

Pfaff said Colbert was the only member of the group who made it out of the first competition with his pride intact.

“We’re going through, and we’re just struggling with the whole situation, [and] of course Stephen comes out and pretends that there’s a mic center stage and pretends he’s auditioning for an open mic and clears his voice and starts singing, ‘Ting, Ting-a-Tong,’ which brings down the house,” Pfaff said.

By Thanksgiving week of that year, “No Fun Mud Piranhas” were more prepared to face off against other teams at the Halpern-curated college league competitions in late November 1985 at CrossCurrents Theatre, 3206 N. Wilton Ave.

“The Chicago Sun-Times, The Chicago Tribune and even the New York Times did a piece on us,” Pfaff said. “We destroyed Yale [University] on the Tuesday night and then played [University of Chicago]. We got this incredible coverage and, yeah, it was a big deal.”

Pfaff left the “No Fun Mud Piranhas” in 1986 to work on the “Mee-Ow Show,” Northwestern’s short-form improv and sketch comedy group.

Colbert’s college girlfriend and fellow Piranha, Halliday said she remembers basking in the glory of the media attention. Halliday now lives in New York City and writes and illustrates her own zine, The East Village Inky.

“All of us ‘No Fun Mud Piranhas’ were interviewed by a reporter for a new, extremely small circulation magazine in the lobby of Northwestern’s Theatre and Interpretation Center complex’s dance wing,” Halliday said in an email. “I was pretty sure we were big shots, and I wanted to project an air of unself-conscious nonchalance, so mid-interview, I very deliberately took my barrettes out and started rearranging my hair. Stephen totally busted me on it. I denied it, of course, but he was right.”

That same year, Marc Goldstein, now a writer and actor based in Los Angeles, joined the “No Fun Mud Piranhas.” Goldstein said he remembers admiring Colbert’s skill as a performer. 

“He was very smart and mature very early on,” Goldstein said. “He just had a nice wit about him, and was someone you kind of looked up to and aspired to be at a very early age. I don’t suppose you know anybody’s going to explode that early in time, but you’re young, and you’re naive like that. You could always sort of tell that there was something interesting and special about him.” 

“This is one of those situations where they stamped your hand when you go in,” Nichols said. “He licked the back of his hand, pressed it against my hand so I would have that little ink mark, the stamp. I thought that was a real generous and unusual thing, and that’s all Stephen. Very quick to think, very resourceful and very generous.”

Libera was never part of “No Fun Mud Piranhas,” but worked with Colbert at a theater company they put together called the Journeyman Theatre Ensemble from 1986–1988. With famed Second City writer and performer Mary Siewart-Scruggs, who died in 2011, the group wrote and performed several plays, including “Rumpelstiltskin v. the Queen,” which toured the greater Chicagoland area.

Libera and Colbert lived in a large house just off the Northwestern campus in Evanston, Illinois, while they were in the Journeyman Theatre Ensemble. Colbert nicknamed the house “Din,” after the circle of hell in which the heretics burned in Dante’s Inferno. Libera jokingly said the house bordered on a commune, with anywhere between five and nine people residing there depending on the month.

“That year [or] two finishing college is where your friends are your family and you have great plans for the future of the planet,” Libera said. “[You have] those late nights where you question the nature of existence. I remember Stephen going, ‘Okay, we have to stop now. We’re going to agree that we are, everything is and we are not a dream in the mind of an alien on a mining planet.’ That’s where you allow yourself to take an idea [as far as] possible. That’s part of the fun of being 21.” 

During that time, Libera said she saw the beginnings of the Colbert persona that fans have since come to know and love, which sprung from an impersonation of NPR commentator and “All Things Considered” host Noah Adams.

“The joke was that Noah Adams was the world’s most cred- ulous interviewer, that anything you ever told Noah Adams, he would respond with, ‘Really?’’’ Libera said. “There would be some long Stephen one-man rant scene that he would do where he would have these people describing how they found this picture of Jesus on the side of a silo. Then he’d be interviewing people and he’s like, ‘Really?’”

For the last nine years, he has done pretty much the same thing by poking fun at the antics of cable news anchors such as Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity.

By 1993, Colbert was performing regularly at Second City, 1616 N. Wells St., with comedians Amy Sedaris and Paul Dinello (both of whom were in the improv group “Upright Citizens Brigade” and starred in “Strangers With Candy” with Colbert), Steve Carell and David Razowsky.

A respected Los Angeles-based actor and improviser, Razowsky is the former artistic director of The Second City Los Angeles and also hosts the podcast A.D.D. Comedy. Razowsky said Second City allowed Colbert to develop his political humor, which came from Colbert’s fascination with current events.

“Stephen would be able to riff on the topics of the day,” Razowsky said. “He and Scott Allman and Jackie Hoffman would get together and say, ‘Here’s some New York Times articles that we’re going to go through today.’ The beginning of the scene was [already] written, the end of the scene was written, [and] the middle was improvised. It was Stephen improvising off the news.”

Razowsky said that he performed with Colbert in stage shows “Take Me Out To The Balkans,” “Where’s Your God Now, Charlie Brown?” and “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been Mellow?” at Second City.

Razowsky even locked lips with Stephen in the classic Second City scene “Maya,” from “Are You Or Have You Ever Been Mellow?” Razowsky, Colbert and Carell performed the scene at Second City’s 50th anniversary cel- ebration in 2009.

The scene featured Colbert returning to his hometown with his friend, played by Carell, where he was inexplicably seen by the townspeople as an elderly black woman. In the skit, Razowsky played Colbert’s former lover.

“It’s one of the greatest scenes that I’ve ever been a part of,” Razowsky said. “It’s beautiful. It’s a simple idea, but it says so much about our country, it says so much about religion and community.”

Razowsky said he was heartbroken when Colbert left Second City in 1995 to join the shows “Exit 57” and “The Dana Carvey Show.”

“When he left and I had to kiss an understudy, I was like, ‘What the f–k, dude?’” Razowsky said. “Who the f–k am I going to kiss? And the guy wasn’t a good kisser. It’s interesting that when someone leaves, a lot of people go, ‘Oh well, we’re going to miss doing that scene.’ But what I really missed was kissing him because it was a good kiss.”

Razowsky said he also remembers Colbert as sensitive, intelligent and willing to speak his mind. When the two were at Second City together, Razowsky had recently gotten engaged. Before the show, Colbert spotted him flirting with the woman working at the box office. He approached Razowsky backstage before their scene together.

“Before the scene started in the blackout, Stephen came up to me and said, ‘I saw you flirting with the box office manager. You recently just got engaged, didn’t you?’” Razowsky said. “I said, ‘Yeah,’ and he said, ‘Don’t do that.’ At first you go, ‘Who the f–k are you to—’ and then you go, ‘Yeah, you know what? Don’t do that.’ For me, it was a great example of what a lovely man he was. It was just such a groovy thing to say, and I really loved it. And he was right.”

This affords a glimpse of the private Colbert that interviewers have noted—a guy who goes to church every week and doesn’t let his kids watch him on TV.

Despite his talent and an accomplished career that eventually led him to the cushy spot on “Late Night,” Colbert’s Chicago friends remember him most for who he was rather than what he has done. As to who he will be behind his new desk at CBS, if he’s anything like himself, people will like him, Halliday said.

“I am sure viewers will take to the real Stephen,” Halliday said. “Behind the mask, he’s a prince of a guy.”