The Collected Wisdom of Stephen Colbert

After a career in comedy that’s lasted for more than two decades, Stephen Colbert was named David Letterman’s replacement as host of CBS’s 11:35 pm program Late Show last month. Colbert has both been a part of revered comedy institutions (Second City Chicago, The Daily Show, a brief stint as an SNL writer) and helped to create idiosyncratic works of his own (Exit 57, Strangers with Candy, The Colbert Report), and with next year’s transition to network late night, he could end up helping to solidify CBS’s Late Show into as prestigious a late night franchise as NBC’s Tonight Show, if not moreso. Started in 1993 and having had only one host prior to Colbert, Late Show is a relatively new program in the grand scheme of late night history, but the show is being passed off from one of the most influential late night hosts ever to one of the sharpest, most versatile hosts ever, which will likely create quite a legacy and leave some intimidatingly big shoes to fill when it’s time to pick the show’s third host someday.

Stephen Colbert has been playing the character “Stephen Colbert” on The Colbert Report and in the bulk of his public appearances over the last decade, only occasionally lapsing to for the occasional interview with Oprah, Larry King, and the like. Nevertheless, we dug up a whole bunch of funny and/or insightful quotes from the real, sincere, non-fake pundit Stephen Colbert and collected them below.


If you must find your own path, and you are left with no easy path, then decide to take the hard path that leads you to the life and the world that you want. [UVA Commencement Speech, 2013]

Realize that the things that people say about you don’t really matter. It’s who you are, and the older you get, the more you’ll understand that. [It Gets Better, 2011]

Analyzing comedy

Comedians dissect jokes all the time. Comedians are beautiful structuralists. But ultimately it’s an athletic endeavor. You have to be able to just hit the backhand. You can’t think about all the pieces of it. You can’t think about your swing. You just have to do it. Reading someone else’s deconstruction of what I do, all it does is put me in my head. On nights when the show goes particularly well, I am not aware of its fluidity. A lot of nights I’m just worried that I’m not going to be as good as the script in front of me. [Playboy, 2012]


If you don’t give power to the words that people throw at you to hurt you, they don’t hurt you anymore, and you actually have power over those people. [It Gets Better, 2011]

The Colbert Report

We wanted to do something that was a pundit show where the character was well-intentioned, poorly informed, high status idiot. [Oprah’s Next Chapter, 2012]

The most important thing when we look at any script is, what is my emotional approach to this news story. The facts, for those of you who may have watched the show, are not so important. It’s how he feels. Same thing with the guests, when I’m going over, is this guy a good guy or a bad guy? Are you helping America or are you part of the problem, and can I bring you lower?  [New York Comedy Festival, 2013]


A sure sign that things are going well is when no one can really remember whose idea was whose, or who should get credit for what jokes. [Northwestern Commencement Speech, 2011]


Jokes make things palatable. Comedy just helps an idea go down, that’s all. It just makes you listen for a minute. [Meet the Press, 2012]

Comedy as a Career

What’s the other option? Tragedy? [Yale Daily News, 2013]

I tell [my kids] I’m professionally ridiculous. [Larry King Live, 2007]

I love what I do. I want to do comedy. Long ago I realized this is what I’m good at, I hope. I want to do it until I’m not having fun anymore or rather the audience isn’t having any fun at my fun. [Yale Daily News, 2013]


It’s completely natural. I’m surprised there aren’t more unbalanced people in the world, because being alive is not easy. We’re just not that nice to one another. We’re all we have, and Jesus, are we shitty to one another. We really are. The only thing that keeps us going back to one another is that we’re all filled with such enormous self-doubt. We have doubts about our ability to be alone, to self-actualize. We’re on such a rocky road all the time. Every moment is new. Every inch of the mountain is fresh snow. If someone said, “I have been out ahead and I know what you’re supposed to do,” if I believed that were true, I would absolutely obey whatever father told me. I would stay on the compound. [Playboy, 2012]


Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes” leads to knowledge. “Yes” is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say “yes.” [Knox College Commencement Speech, 2006]

The Daily Show vs. The Colbert Report

Jon does what’s called pure deconstruction where he picks apart the day’s news and kind of lays it out for you like a cadaver. But I falsely reconstruct the news. So that’s a different way of doing the same kind of job. [Meet the Press, 2012]

Educating the Audience

You have to get the education out for people to get the joke. Because he playing field we’re on has got to be laid out for them. So if they don’t understand the news story they’re not going to get the joke. A lot of people say young people get their news from Jon Stewart and myself and other late night people. But I think they wouldn’t get the joke if they didn’t know some of the news already. I think those studies are a little off. [Meet the Press, 2007]


I suppose fear is like a drug. A little bit isn’t that bad, but you can get addicted to the consumption and distribution of it. What’s evil is the purposeful distribution of fear. [Playboy, 2012]

When you laugh, you’re not afraid. And sometimes you laugh because you’re afraid, but when you laugh, the fear goes away. And it’s not just whistling past the graveyard. It actually just goes away when you’re laughing. That’s why I don’t think I could ever stop doing what I’m doing because I laugh all day long and if I didn’t I would just cry all day long. [Meet the Press, 2007]


Now there are very few rules to improvisation, but one of the things I was taught early on is that you are not the most important person in the scene. Everybody else is. And if they are the most important people in the scene, you will naturally pay attention to them and serve them. But the good news is you’re in the scene too. So hopefully to them you’re the most important person, and they will serve you. No one is leading, you’re all following the follower, serving the servant. You cannot win improv. And life is an improvisation. You have no idea what’s going to happen next and you are mostly just making things up as you go along. [Northwestern Commencement Speech, 2011]

One of the things that I like about improvisation is that,literally, there are no mistakes. There are only opportunities. [Parade, 2007]

Interning for Letterman (almost)

In 1986, my girlfriend in college got an appointment to interview for an internship for the old show over at NBC … She came here for the internship. She was in the room getting the interview, and I’m just waiting in the hallway like a boob. The person in the next door opens up and says, “Are you the guy for the thing?” I said, “No, my friend’s in there.” They said, “Well, do you wanna just come talk.” I said, “Okay.” We had a 15-minute conversation. I got the internship. She did not … I did a foolish thing: I did not take the internship … because you do not pay people. It’s an expensive city. [Letterman, 2014]


I would say there’s almost nothing that can’t be mocked on a certain level as long as it doesn’t involve loss of life or deep human tragedy. I don’t think we ever looked at something and said that’s too ridiculous to make more ridiculous. Contrary to what people may say, there’s no upper limit to stupidity. We can make everything stupider. [Campus Progress, 2005]

Making Up Facts

We want people to be in pain and confused. I make up facts left and right. Liberals will come on the show and say, “Well, conservatives want this to be a theocracy.” And I’ll say, “Well, why not, the Founding Fathers were all fundamentalist Christians.” And they’ll say, “No, they weren’t.” I say, “Yes, they were. And, ladies and gentlemen, if I’m wrong I will eat your encyclopedias.” And the person folds, ‘cause they don’t realize I have no problem making things up, because I have no credibility to lose. [Rolling Stone, 2006]

Meeting Bill O’Reilly

I met him at the Time 100 Dinner. I turned around and he was right behind my chair, and he said, “Oh, it had to happen sometime.” He was very nice. He said, “I like you. You know why? You’re not mean-spirited like most of ‘em.” And I said, “That’s nice, I’m glad you like it.” He said, “Can I give you some advice?” And I said, “I would love it.” He said, “Watch your guests. You have an Olbermann on, you have a Franken on, that’s a pattern. Your audience may not think about it, but they have a sense of it.” And I said, “But you saw how I played with Olbermann. I didn’t take him seriously.” And he said, “Not everybody watches your show as closely as I do.” And I thought, “Take me now, Jesus.” I was so thrilled. [Rolling Stone, 2006]

Meeting Jon Stewart

I’d been doing The Daily Show when Craig Kilborn was hosting. I heard they were doing a press conference to announce that Jon was the new host, and I said, “Isn’t that the sort of thing we should be covering?” So I went, sat down in the audience and raised my hand when they opened it up to questions. I was like, “Stephen Colbert, Daily Show … Does this announcement have any effect on the prospects of me getting the hosting job?” Jon looked at Doug Herzog, who was the network president at the time and is again, and said, “You said he wasn’t funny.” [Playboy, 2012]


So self obsessed – tweeting your Vines, hashtagging your Spotifys and Snapchatting your YOLOs – your generation needs everything to be about you. And that’s very upsetting to us baby boomers because self-absorption is kind of our thing. [UVA Commencement Speech, 2013]

In our benign self-absorption, I believe we have given you a gift; a particular form of independence, for you do not owe the previous generation anything. Thanks to us, you owe it to the Chinese. [UVA Commencement Speech, 2013]

Pronunciation of “Colbert”

My father always wanted to be Col-bear. He lived in the same town as his father, and his father didn’t like the idea of the name with the French pronunciation. So my father said to us, “Do what you want. You’re not going to offend anybody.” And he was dead long before I made my decision. I was flying up to theater school at Northwestern, and I sat next to an astronaut, actually. And I told him I was going off to a new school. I was transferring to Northwestern and I didn’t know anyone in Chicago. He said, “Oh, wow, you could really reinvent yourself out there.” When the plane took off I was Col-bert, and when the plane landed I was Col-bear. [Rolling Stone, 2006]


Satire is parody with a point. That’s all it is. If I was doing satire and didn’t have a point of view that would be truly schizophrenic. That would be like trying to establish patterns that aren’t really there. I always have a point of view. I care about the news. I mean, we do 161 shows a year, and you can’t do that unless you care a little bit about what you’re talking about. Or I couldn’t, some people could, but I can’t do that. [Meet the Press, 2012]

Serving Others

I have my own show, which I love doing. Full of very talented people ready to serve me. And it’s great. But at my best, I am serving them just as hard, and together, we serve a common idea, in this case the character Stephen Colbert, who it’s clear, isn’t interested in serving anyone. [Northwestern Commencement Speech, 2011]

Stephen Colbert vs. “Stephen Colbert”

I often don’t know who people invite to come talk to them, because I’m called Stephen Colbert, I have a character Stephen Colbert, we both have the same social security number, the whole deal and and I don’t mind if the audience can’t tell who’s who at times on the show. [Oprah’s Next Chapter, 2012]

I started at Second City in Chicago and the rule there, the old saying was, wear your character as lightly as a cap. You know, you can take them on and off as you need. And on the show too, I’ll have someone on who’s there to talk about genetics or something and I’ll dial the character down very low or I’ll have Tom Delay on and I’ll dial him up as high as I can. So it’s a sliding scale depending on the situation. [Meet the Press, 2007]

There are times that I agree with my character. It does not matter to me if you know when that is. I’m not here to affect you politically or socially. I’m here to make you laugh. I use the news as the palette for my jokes. [The Star Ledger, 2009]

There’s also times when I’m very frustrated because I actually know a lot about their subject, but my character doesn’t, and I find that very frustrating. I remember I said that to Jon Stewart once. I had Neil DeGrasse Tyson on. I’m very interested in Neil’s subject, and I said, “That’s so frustrating, because I want to engage him from a place of knowledge because there are all these interesting places I want to go, but I have to not know what he means, and somehow by embodying an ignorance, he gets to dispel a common ignorance about a subject. I find that frustrating, I wish I could actually be knowledge as you are with your guests sometimes.” And he goes, “Oh I wish I could have the freedom of your ignorance because then I could get away with those terrible things you say to people. And no one writes you up in Jezebel.” [New York Comedy Festival, 2013]

The Collected Wisdom of Stephen Colbert