When Colbert was ten years old, his father and two older brothers were killed in a plane crash. From a GQ profile that came out in late August:
That day after he got back from Michigan, we eventually got around to the question of how it could possibly be that he suffered the losses he's suffered and somehow arrived here. It's not just that he doesn't exhibit any of the anger or open-woundedness of so many other comedians; it's that he appears to be so genuinely grounded and joyful.
He sat silently for a while and then smiled. “Yeeeahhhh,” he said. “I'm not angry. I'm not. I'm mystified, I'll tell you that. But I'm not angry.”
There were such depths in the way he said “mystified.”
“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.”
It was hard to talk about these things, he said. “I want to answer in ways that are not pat. And so I want to take a moment and think of a way to answer that isn't pre-packaged.”...
He didn't have to do this. He was exhausted. He had so many other things to do that day, meetings stacked up for the next few hours, people peeking in through his office window hoping to grab a moment of his time. He could have certainly given a version of the answer he's given before. Or he could have said, Come on, man, right now? Just let me eat my chicken with hot sauce in peace, will you?
Instead he said, “So my reaction when I hear that question isn't”—he shifted into a somber, sonorous voice—“ ‘Oh, I don't want to talk about that.’ It's that I don't want to say this—ready?” He snapped his fingers and locked eyes with me in a pose of dramatic intensity. “MY. MOTHER.” His face softened. “But the answer is: my mother.”
He lifted his arms as if to take in the office, the people working and laughing outside his door, the city and the sky, all of it. “And the world,” he said. “It's so…lovely. I'm very grateful to be alive, even though I know a lot of dead people.” The urge to be grateful, he said, is not a function of his faith. It's not “the Gospel tells us” and therefore we give thanks. It is what he has always felt: grateful to be alive. “And so that act, that impulse to be grateful, wants an object. That object I call God. Now, that could be many things. I was raised in a Catholic tradition. I'll start there. That's my context for my existence, is that I am here to know God, love God, serve God, that we might be happy with each other in this world and with Him in the next—the catechism. That makes a lot of sense to me. I got that from my mom. And my dad. And my siblings.”
He was tracing an arc on the table with his fingers and speaking with such deliberation and care. “I was left alone a lot after Dad and the boys died.... And it was just me and Mom for a long time,” he said. “And by her example am I not bitter. By her example. She was not. Broken, yes. Bitter, no.” Maybe, he said, she had to be that for him. He has said this before—that even in those days of unremitting grief, she drew on her faith that the only way to not be swallowed by sorrow, to in fact recognize that our sorrow is inseparable from our joy, is to always understand our suffering, ourselves, in the light of eternity. What is this in the light of eternity? Imagine being a parent so filled with your own pain, and yet still being able to pass that on to your son.
“It was a very healthy reciprocal acceptance of suffering,” he said. “Which does not mean being defeated by suffering. Acceptance is not defeat. Acceptance is just awareness.” He smiled in anticipation of the callback: “ ‘You gotta learn to love the bomb,’ ” he said. “Boy, did I have a bomb when I was 10. That was quite an explosion. And I learned to love it. 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.”
I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.