If you frequented Scoozi restaurant in River North during the 1980s, chances are a handsome young actor named Stephen Colbert was the server grating Parmesan on your spaghetti Bolognese. “I waited tables there for five years out of college,” says Colbert. “I had a beard and I wore a lot of black. I was a stereotypical actor. I remember walking around and saying, ‘Why am I so depressed right now?’ And I would think, ‘Oh, that’s right. Because I paid for the bus with pennies.’ ”
The 48-year-old comedian has come a long way from his days digging for spare change. He’s the Emmy-winning creator and star of the Comedy Central show “The Colbert Report.” He’s won a Grammy for Best Comedy Album, a Peabody Award, been named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People and one of GQ’s Men of the Year and delivered a memorable address at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner — and those are just the mainstream nods. Colbert has quirkier honors to spare: a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor, a species of spider and a NASA treadmill are all named after him.
On March 2, Colbert returns to Chicago to accept yet another accolade: He’ll receive Lookingglass Theatre’s Civic Engagement Award at the organization’s annual Gglassquerade gala. For Colbert, it’s more than a visit to his old stomping grounds — it’s a reunion. “I got to know most of the original members when we were at Northwestern University together,” says Colbert, who was once in a college improv group called No Mud Fun Piranhas with co-founders David Schwimmer and Joy Gregory. He even contributed to some of the theater’s first few shows, toiling in the sound pit for “The Odyssey” and lending his comic chops to the initial improv of “The Jungle.”
But before long, New York came calling. “Shortly before I left Chicago, they asked me if I would do something in ‘The Master and Margarita,’ and I just couldn’t at the time,” says Colbert. “I actually had a nervous breakdown when I said no to them because I thought they were amazing. Boy, I practically had to be hospitalized, I was so upset.”
Colbert’s brand of sharp, intelligent humor — which has made him a household name — was honed in part by the Chicago comedy scene. He grew up one of 11 children in Charleston, S.C., and after graduating from Northwestern, where he majored in theater, he moved to the city and began to train with local arts organizations such as Lookingglass, Annoyance Theatre and, of course, The Second City. “I was sleeping on my friend’s floor and I needed a job,” says Colbert. “I found out that if you worked there, you could take classes for free, so I started working in the box office.” He soon earned himself a role as Steve Carell’s understudy on a touring show. There, he hooked up with Paul Dinello and Amy Sedaris, with whom he moved to New York to create the quirky television series “Exit 57” and “Strangers with Candy.”
A brief reporting stint on “Good Morning America” caught the attention of the creators of “The Daily Show,” Comedy Central’s satirical news program. After eight years as a field correspondent, he moved on yet again, this time to headline “The Colbert Report.” Crafted in a similar vein as its predecessor, the mock news program features Colbert in character, playing a right-wing political pundit who is, as Colbert puts it, “aggressively dumb.” While he skewers modern media and the elements of politics, he’s not out to make a huge difference in the political realm — he’d just like to help people adjust their perspectives. “We do our jokes about politics because I’m interested in it, not because I think it’s going to change anything,” he says. “We’re applying a critical lens to information, saying ‘Is the information we’re getting saying what it’s really saying? Or is the gestalt of the information telling another story that we’re not naming?’ I don’t think it will change how people behave or change politics, because politics is like a huge ship, and we’re just little minnows bouncing off the side. We’re not going to change the direction, we’re just sort of pointing out what the shape of it is, that’s all.”
To best make that point — and to get in character — Colbert leans on his improv training. (It’s safe to say that his time spent in our politically absurd city had an influence on his political humor as well.) He works on every script, following it through every stage and helping to edit each segment. “That’s what was really great about Second City for me. Having to improvise every night for years let me know that [whether it worked or didn’t work] we’ll try it again tomorrow. That’s the gift of improvisation, it’s the discovery of what you can do right now. Try it, and you can do something else tomorrow.”
“The Colbert Report” films 161 episodes a year, leaving Colbert with little down time. But when he has it, he’s happiest spending time at his New Jersey home with his wife, Evelyn McGee-Colbert, and three kids, or traveling with the family back to South Carolina. “I was smart enough to marry a girl from my hometown, so we don’t debate where we go when we have time,” he says.
Despite his loyalty to his home state, Colbert says Chicago was the perfect place to grow into his talents. “To every young performer who is like, ‘How do I do what you did?’ I say, ‘Go to Chicago!’ There’s a great community both in theater and in comedy, and the only stakes are caring about what you do,” says Colbert. “I can’t believe I was lucky enough to start my career there, because you got a chance to make mistakes and find out what you could do. I couldn’t have loved it more.”
“It’s frantic,” says Colbert of putting together the show. “You’re making 10 decisions an hour that you can’t take back, because the other 90 people that work here are moving on the decision you just made. But the nice thing is that if you think of something, you can try it, and if it’s no good, you can try something else tomorrow. That requires you to not be precious about your work.”
How to make an Emmy-winning show: in 6 easy steps!
Step 1: Initial ideas
First thing in the morning, Colbert meets with the editorial staff and executive producers to decide what topics they want to cover that day.
Step 2: Writers pitch
Colbert and his team meet with the 12-writer staff to hear ideas. Along with the editors and producers, Colbert selects and assigns six stories. The writers pair off and have just a few hours to craft their segments.
Step 3: Decisions
Scripts come back by 1:30. Colbert and his team make edits and decide what to use by 2 p.m. From there, writers have an hour and 15 minutes to rewrite stories.
Step 4: Segments
By 3:15 p.m., the scripts are put to bed, and the staff works on field pieces or production elements. “Around 4 o’clock, I start thinking about my guest, and bring in some writers to talk about what I might ask [him or her],” says Colbert.
Step 5: Rehearsal and rewrite
By 5 p.m., Colbert is in the chair and running through the show. “The rehearsal is done around quarter to six, and hopefully we can rewrite a half-hour show in the next hour.”
Step 6: Showtime
Colbert is back in the chair and in character by 7 p.m. to film.
On getting into character: “As the language of the scripts evolve, all of us are sort of improvising on the character,” says Colbert. “And the more the script is refined, I start getting my mind or my body or my mouth around the way I might say this tonight. How do I feel about this news story? If I know how I feel about it, the rest just follows.”
Story by Molly Each