Stephen Colbert’s Rough Start in Comedy

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Stephen Colbert may be the epitome of the cocksure comedian today, but when he first started out in the industry, he was much less sure of himself, perhaps in part because he had mixed luck early on.

Colbert studied acting at Northwestern University and then, like many aspiring comedians, he did improv comedy at Second City in Chicago (see video below for one of his skits). His time there helped Colbert make a name for himself, but even so, it would be years and several false starts – does anyone remember Exit 57 ?– before he earned his first claim to fame, as a frequent contributor to The Daily Show.

As Colbert explains in this excerpt from a candid Q&A on Reddit conducted several months ago, he worried greatly during these early years about whether he had what it took to make it in the comedy industry, and just as importantly, he struggled to balance the need to support his career with the obligation to support his family.

Reddit: You gained your fame and fortune slightly later in life, was there ever a point in your career where you thought about plan B? What kept you going as an actor, why did you keep trying?

Colbert: When you are young and single, there really isn’t anything to worry about.

Will you starve? Not likely. I worried that I didn’t have enough gumption to get work. That I wouldn’t know how to network or something. But at a young age several people, some professors and directors, told me I had talent, and that it was mine to husband if I was willing to work. Those kind words sustained me, many times.

I mostly just said yes to any opportunity to get on stage. Pay or no pay. Equity, amateur, comedy, avant garde, and improv especially. Chicago has a great improv community, and I could get up on stage a lot after I got to know the other members of the community. I called it getting in trouble. You say yes to something, then you are in trouble. You have to deliver. Each mini-crisis I forced myself into made me work hard.

Just keep working as long as you can’t think of anything else you could happily do.

As for true doubt, it got under my skin deeply only once. I was newly-married and I was offered a part I would have loved, but no pay. I had worked for six years doing anything, but had made a deal with myself that if I ever was to have family I could support, I would have to insist on pay. A small rule, right? But hard for a young actor to keep. Mostly you don’t really get paid.

I said no to the part and immediately (I mean within minutes) went into a spiral of panic that lasted for months. I was sure I had made the wrong decision (I hadn’t) and would never get a part like it again. But the worst feeling was that I knew I truly wanted to be an actor and there was no turning back now. I was too old to do anything else. This was a feeling I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

Importantly, I was wrong on all counts. Just keep working as long as you can’t think of anything else you could happily do. Keep saying yes.

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