Let’s face it. There are not many cultural superstars who are superstar Catholics, too. But Stephen Colbert, whose “The Late Show” debuted on CBS Tuesday, is one of them.
“Stephen, Stephen, Stephen,” last night’s crowd chanted over and over as Colbert received multiple standing ovations. He paid homage to his predecessor, David Letterman, and his CBS boss Les Moonves. Then he got to work, sounding very much like Stephen Colbert of old. He told his first political guest, Jeb Bush, that he needs new talking points that sound, well, “Trumpier.” Bush, said Colbert, should tell America, “I will build a wall between the United States and Iran.”
Colbert looked and sounded terrific to me, but then, I’m rooting for him wildly. When a creative genius at the height of his success wears his faith so unabashedly, it bolsters my own.
Stephen Colbert calls himself “the pope of cable TV” and “America’s most famous Catholic.” He blesses himself on air. He says Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had “the hair of Anderson Cooper and the face of an angel that got stuck in a food dehydrator.” He has his ribald way with Mother Church: “The Catholic Church is not known for changing its positions … missionary, by the way.”
He even complains about Catholic minutiae: The Vatican “tweaked” the 1,700-year-old Nicene Creed. Oh no! “One in being with the Father” is now “Consubstantial with the Father.” Colbert raises an eyebrow. “What the hell does that mean? We’re trying to get into heaven here, not take the SATs.”
He’s also worn his ashes on Ash Wednesday, given a Lenten debrief, appointed Jesuit writer James Martin his “Colbert Report” chaplain, and ended Martin interviews as if he were ending Mass. “Father,” says Colbert, “this interview has ended. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
He has had his serious moments as well. In 2010, Colbert testified before Congress on immigration reform, describing how he’d worked alongside migrant farm workers in upstate New York. First, he made jokes as the blowhard he embodied on TV, but at the end, he somberly explained why he came to the hearing at all.
I like talking about people who don’t have any power, and it seems like one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come in and do our work, but don’t have any rights as a result. And yet, we still ask them to come here, and at the same time, ask them to leave. And that’s an interesting contradiction to me, and um … You know, ‘whatsoever you did for the least of my brothers…’
Millions of Colbert fans this week, Catholics or not, are worried about him replacing David Letterman. Can he do it? Will he fail? So far, so good. But I’m worried, too. And I cannot remember being so invested in a star’s career until Mr. Catholic came along, Mr. Velcro Catholic, in fact. Colbert can talk openly about his life’s purpose as serving God and get away with it among left-leaning urban millennials, his audience, the ones who are making up the fastest growing group of Americans, religiously speaking. That is, the NONES, those with no religious affiliation at all.
Another question looms: Will he remain Mr. Catholic in his new and bigger home, The Ed Sullivan Theater on network TV?
The best take I’ve seen lately on Colbert’s Catholicism was in a Joel Lovell profile last month in GQ magazine. Lovell movingly captures the paradoxes and complexities of Colbert the real-life son, brother, comedian, “the moral intellectual,” as Lovell calls him.
Colbert understands loss better than many. At the age of 10, Colbert lost his father and two brothers in a plane crash. Grief could have ruined both Colbert and his mother, who had nine other children.
“Deaths of loved ones, the phases of our children’s lives hurtling by, jobs and relations we never imagined would end,” writes Lovell. “Among other things, our lives are compendiums of loss and change and what we make of it. I’ve never met anyone who’s faced that reality more meaningfully than Stephen Colbert.”
Colbert tells Lovell how his mother drew on her faith as “the only way to not be swallowed by sorrow, to in fact recognize that our sorrow is inseparable from our joy, (to) always understand our suffering, ourselves, in the light of eternity. What is this in the light of eternity?” Imagine an overwhelmed mother still being able to pass that perspective on to her son, says Lovell. Explains Colbert, “It was a very healthy reciprocal acceptance of suffering. Which does not mean being defeated by suffering. Acceptance is not defeat. Acceptance is just awareness … You gotta learn to love the bomb.”
Colbert also speaks to Lovell of his profound gratitude for being alive, for life itself.
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.
Tragedy, he tells Lovell, “is sacred… People’s suffering is sacred.”
Jimmy Fallon, who inherited Jay Leno’s “The Tonight Show,” was raised a Catholic, but practices no more. Jimmy Kimmel of ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” still does practice. So does Steve Carrell, once a correspondent with Colbert on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show.” But neither man is out there talking catechism and serving God and the upside of suffering like Stephen Colbert.
Lovell says Colbert once had a note taped to his computer that read, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the existence of God.”
Lovell also says he wrote down on a slip of paper something else Colbert told him, and has carried it with him ever since. “It’s our choice whether to hate something in our lives or to love every moment of them, even the parts that bring us pain.
“At every moment,” Colbert said, “we are volunteers.”