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Stephen Colbert on Storytelling and What Makes Him Cry and Laugh

Stephen Colbert
Stephen Colbert at StoryCorps 10th Anniversary Gala Photo: Paul Porter/

Last night in New York was the Tenth Anniversary Gala for StoryCorps, a nonprofit whose mission is to give people of all backgrounds an opportunity to record their stories (some of the 45,000-plus stories have been heard on NPR’s Morning Edition). To celebrate, Stephen Colbert slapped on a suit, told some jokes, and introduced clips of some of the organization’s most touching stories. Afterward, Vulture was able to talk briefly with Colbert about storytelling, what makes him cry, and what makes him laugh. We even got him to tell a story of his own, sort of.

What makes a good storyteller? And do you think of yourself as one?
Oh, I don’t know if I’m a good storyteller. I think desire to tell a story is most important. Everybody tells a story in their own way, but it’s the need — the need to tell it. And I think everybody has it. It’s just allowing yourself the space and the time to do it. 

Do you have a go-to story you tell?
I’m one of eleven children; there are so many stories. And my wife gets tired by the number of times we tell the same story over and over again. Actually telling the story to each other, pretending like we haven’t heard it before. It’s like food. We’re giving food to each other. We’re reminding each other of our shared experiences. 

Does one stand out?
Here’s a story that I wasn’t even around [for], but I feel like I was around for because I heard it so many times: My brother Eddy, when he was a teenager, had very sharp pencils and he’d throw them up in the air and catch them and throw them up in the air and catch them. And he was walking shirtless, because he was a teenager. And our brother Billy was lying on the floor watching Hitchcock Presents. At the moment Eddy walked into the room, the title from that week’s episode of Hitchcock Presents came on. Right then Eddy grabbed the pencil by the wrong end and drove it into his chest. The title of that week was “Poor Ed, He’s Dead” [laughs]. My brother Billy didn’t see Eddy drive the pencil in his chest, he just taunted, “Poor Ed, he’s dead!” And my brother Eddy tore the pencil out of his chest and said, “That’s not funny!” For my brother Billy or my sister Mary, who had seen it happen, they couldn’t express how bizarre the moment was. 

So there are a thousand stories like that in my family. That’s the first one that came to mind. It’s not the biggest one, but it’s the one I thought of.

StoryCorps stories have a reputation for getting people to cry …
Yeah! But joyfully! Sometimes one of the reasons they make you cry — like after I heard the one where the doctor’s father taught him algebra, and I said, “Boy, I suck as a father” — is the willingness for these people to share their own lives. Usually these ordinary people share something extraordinary about themselves. And the love they’re expressing in that moment is beautiful, and the beauty of that moment accuses you of hiding your light under a bushel. The beauty of what they’re saying is an accusation that you do not share what’s beautiful about yourself. That’s one of the reason why I think I cry. 

Conversely, what makes you laugh in a story?
[Laughs] Real human behavior. Like the story with the little boy. His mother said, “You made me a better parent.” And he goes, “Well, I actually made you a parent.” That was so surprising. 

Is that what makes you laugh in general?
Almost everything in life can make me laugh. I don’t even know, as it’s part of my job to find something in everything. Other people’s tragedy: No. My own tragedy: You bet.

Colbert on Storytelling and What Makes Him Cry