When comedian Stephen Colbert debuts as the host of CBS’ “The Late Show” this week, it will mean many things for his worldwide fans, for modern television, for political comedy. But for Colbert’s hometown, it means he is once and for all, without question, the most successful celebrity to come out of Charleston in modern times — likely ever.
And as longtime locals know, a victory for one is a victory for all in this corner of the world.
That’s especially true in Colbert’s case.
Growing up on James Island with 11 brothers and sisters, Colbert was rattled by tragedy at an early age. At only 10 years old, his father and two brothers were killed in a 1974 plane crash in Charlotte.
Colbert told The Post and Courier in a 2006 interview that he “kind of just shut off” after that. He turned to science fiction novels, consuming one a day for eight years.
All the fantasy stories gave him a comedic perspective, and “That’s when people said, ‘Oh, Colbert’s funny,’ ” he said. Soon, he became the class clown of Porter-Gaud School, where he graduated in 1982.
From there, he went to study drama at Northwestern, and later joined the Second City improv group in Chicago, which has spawned many comedy stars such as Steve Carell, Tina Fey and Mike Myers.
Colbert started out at Comedy Central in New York with shows “Exit 57,” “The Dana Carvey Show” and then “The Daily Show,” where he first developed his character as a parody of a right-wing commentator. That character landed him his own spin-off, “The Colbert Report,” which aired for 10 seasons starting in 2005.
Despite awards, critical acclaim and global fame, Colbert has always maintained a love for his hometown and the Palmetto State.
When tragedy struck the Holy City this summer, for instance, he returned to show support. He walked with thousands of community members across the Arthur Ravenel Bridge during the Bridge to Peace Unity Chain, an event to promote unity and love in the wake of a shooting at Emanuel AME Church on June 17 that left nine dead.
Colbert also returned to Charleston in 2013 to campaign for his sister, Elizabeth Colbert Busch, who ran for South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District seat in a special election. She lost to Republican Mark Sanford.
He’s supported many local causes, particularly education. Just this year, he donated $800,000 to fund nearly 1,000 projects at statewide schools.
He gave the commencement address in 2009 at MUSC, where his father, James W. Colbert, was the school’s first vice president of academic affairs from 1969 until his death.
At the ceremony, he told graduates, “Your patients may expect from you the perfection of a saint,” adding, “You are humans, and as such, you always have the right to fail.”
In 2012, during one of many attempts to get on the presidential primary ballot in South Carolina, Colbert was featured in a special episode of “the Morning Joe,” which was filmed at the Mills House Hotel in downtown Charleston.
He told hosts that he spends summers in the Lowcountry with his wife, Evelyn McGee Colbert, and their three children, adding why he appreciated South Carolina so much.
“I don’t think all people growing up in their state are taught about their home state like people in South Carolina are ... I know that our state motto is ‘Dum Spiro Spero,’ ” he said, signaling to the audience to answer what that means.
“While I breathe, I hope,” a chorus of voices replied.
“I’m not sure you could do that in every state,” he said.
Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.