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The roots of that powerful ‘Late Show’ interview with Colbert and Biden

Amy Sullivan
·Senior editor
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Anyone still wondering what the real Stephen Colbert — and not the pompous conservative character he played on ‘The Colbert Report’ — is like need only watch his thoughtful and emotional conversation last night with Vice President Joe Biden. Still deep in grief over the recent death of his oldest son, Biden shared stories about Beau and described himself as overwhelmed by the loss.

But the conversation turned even more intimate when Colbert asked the Vice President a question he’s had to answer many times himself: “How has your faith helped you respond to loss?” Both men are churchgoing Catholics who have suffered great personal loss — Colbert’s father and two of his brothers died in a plane crash when he was 10. So when Biden spoke about finding solace in saying the rosary and in the solitude of Mass, he didn’t need to explain further.

Now that Colbert has taken over the “Late Show,” it’s hard to think of another national television figure — particularly on late at night — who has been so comfortable with religious faith. David Letterman certainly never taped shows on Ash Wednesday with a cross of ashes still smudged on his forehead, as Colbert has done. In the weeks leading up to his new show’s premiere, Colbert was on a public relations blitz, appearing on the cover of Time magazine and 40-foot billboards in Manhattan. But he also found time to tape an extraordinary interview with Salt and Light, the Toronto-based Catholic media network.

In a wide-ranging 45-minute conversation that airs in full Sept. 13, Colbert talked about everything from Pope Francis to Charlie Hebdo. Fans who are most familiar with the Stephen Colbert who fears bears and feuds with Barry Manilow will barely recognize the white-bearded man casually dropping theological references like, “It reminds me of Saint Anselm of Canterbury’s ontological argument…”

What makes Colbert unique is that he engages with religion at all. Most of his peers in entertainment — and, let’s face it, journalism — seem most comfortable when ignoring religion. Every so often, a particularly juicy scandal may provide the opportunity for them to mock religious leaders and believers as hypocrites, but the jokes and commentaries rarely zing with originality. By simply approaching religion as something to be neither ridiculed nor treated with sacred reverence, Colbert has found fertile comic ground that is inexplicably unoccupied. As he says in the Salt and Light interview, “The Church is an important part of my life — I would be crazy if I didn’t make jokes about it.”

It’s been part of his comedy from the beginning. Catholics of a certain age, as well as seminary and divinity school graduates like myself, can date their fanhood back to 2000, when Colbert performed a hilariously goofy song-and-liturgical-dance to the Catholic folk hymn “The King of Glory” on Comedy Central’s “Strangers With Candy.” That clip went viral among religion nerds the way a Jimmy Fallon lip-sync video does on social networks today.

In his day job as a correspondent on “The Daily Show,” Colbert regularly hosted a feature called “This Week in God.” He used the segment to lob equal-opportunity comedy bombs at whatever faith tradition had the misfortune to catch his eye, but he just as often mocked secular institutions, as when McDonald’s admitted it had been frying food in beef fat at its restaurants in India, where hundreds of millions of Hindus consider cows sacred.

Colbert took his religious comedy further when he got his own show, once skewering Justice Antonin Scalia’s position on the Establishment Clause in a segment that concluded with him reciting the entire Nicene Creed.

By the time Colbert recorded what he billed as a Catholic Throwdown with rocker Jack White, in which they battled to stump each other with arcane Catholic trivia (do yourself a favor and watch the whole thing — it’s gloriously absurd), we religion nerds were in love. Colbert’s show was not just the only place on late-night television where you could hear people talking about “brothers in Christ” or greeting a nun with raucous cheers, but virtually the only place anywhere on secular television.

Colbert’s guests on “The Report” often included theologians and religious leaders, and his conservative alter ego delighted in sparring with them. (Although his first few guests on “The Late Show” have been high-wattage celebrities like George Clooney and Joe Biden, he’ll continue the tradition later this month when Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski appears on the show.) Still, religion was one of the few topics on which Colbert would sometimes drop his persona. In one much-discussed interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Catholic Gary Wills, all lines between the character and the man eventually disappeared as Colbert defended orthodox Catholic doctrine and the vocation of priesthood.

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The “Colbert Report” even had its own chaplain — not a Father Guido Sarducci character, but a real Jesuit priest, Father James Martin, editor-at-large of America magazine. His conversations with Colbert were always entertaining, as Martin has a lively intellect and wit. But they were most important in that they presented a different side of Catholicism.

“Colbert reminds people that you can have a sense of humor and a rational mind and still be a good Catholic,” Martin told me earlier this week. “A lot of non-Catholics wonder about that. He shows that you don’t have to check your brain at the door once you become a Catholic.”

Martin, who says he isn’t moving with Colbert to be “The Late Show”’s chaplain (“But if he asks me, I will follow”), sees similarities between the impact the comedian is having on Catholicism’s reputation in the United States and that of the world’s other most famous Catholic. “He shows the joyful face of Catholicism to his viewers, as well as the thoughtful face,” says Martin. “In many ways, he’s doing the same thing that Pope Francis is.”

As for Colbert, it’s safe to say he’s a fan of the Holy Father. In his conversation with Salt and Light, Colbert gushed that people are “given such hope by this Pope — that’s the Church that I want.” When he heard Pope Francis declare in his first sermon, “I want this to be a church for the poor,” Colbert says, “That made me so excited!”

The reigning posture in American comedy is cynicism, with a world-weary distance that places the observer above it all. With his earnestness, unabashed joy and willingness to express real convictions, Colbert is a rare creature, what one of my friends calls “a pop culture snow leopard.” The overwhelmingly positive response to his almost pastoral talk with Biden suggests that as much as viewers enjoyed “Stephen Colbert,” they’re ready for the real thing.