If you’re a fan of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert or The Colbert Report, perhaps you’ve noticed something different about the host of those two shows. Colbert’s right ear sticks out and draws attention. What happened to it? Well, it’s a holdover from a childhood that was full of grief and difficulty, and without it he might have never become famous at all.
Colbert has been a mainstay of the American entertainment industry for a long time now. In the ’90s he worked on the satirical and controversial Dana Carvey Show before it was cancelled after a mere seven episodes. After that, he took his brand of comedy to Good Morning America, where he caught the eye of a producer who realized she had something special on her hands.
Colbert became part of the Daily Show cast in 1997, gaining the onscreen nickname of “the new guy.” The show gained a reputation for pointed satire and skewering the politicians of the era. From 2004 to 2006 Colbert ended up winning three consecutive Emmy awards for The Daily Show’s writing.
Such was the success of Colbert’s character on The Daily Show that he got his own spin-off, The Colbert Report. Fictional Colbert shared a deal of resemblance to the real Colbert – he was married, from South Carolina, and part of a family of eleven children. The lines between the two personas was quite blurred.
After The Colbert Report finished at the end of 2014, it was announced that Colbert would take over from David Letterman as presenter of The Late Show. Colbert made his debut on September 2015, and from 2017 onwards the show got higher and higher ratings as Colbert satirized the new Trump administration.
Colbert is now one of the most successful comedians in America. In both 2006 and 2012 he made it into Time’s 100 Most Influential People list, and he has an impressive collection of nine Primetime Emmys and two Grammys. He’s exceptionally popular – but not everyone knows about the hurdles he had to overcome to get to this point.
Colbert was the last-born of the 11 children in his family. Ahead of him, from youngest to oldest, were Peter, Paul, Elizabeth, Jay, Thomas, Margo, William, Mary, Edward and James. His parents were devoted Catholics, albeit ones who raised the young Stephen to know he was allowed to question religion.
Colbert was sensitive about his accent growing up. In 2006 he told CBS News, “At a very young age, I decided I was not gonna have a southern accent. Because people, when I was a kid watching TV, if you wanted to use a shorthand that someone was stupid, you gave the character a southern accent.”
Colbert continued, “And that’s not true. Southern people are not stupid. But I didn’t wanna seem stupid. I wanted to seem smart. And so I thought, ‘Well, you can’t tell where newsmen are from,’” But a fear of being perceived as “stupid” would end up being the least of the things Colbert would deal with during childhood.
When Colbert was just ten years old, his father and two of his brothers were killed in a plane crash. Peter and Paul had flown out with their dad to enrol at a Connecticut school, but they never made it back home. Their plane, Eastern Air Lines Flight 212, crashed short of its runway and most of the passengers died.
In his 2006 CBS interview, Colbert remembered that after the tragedy he found himself trying to cheer his grieving mother up with humor. It was a terrible time for the whole family, Colbert recalled, “I would certainly say I was detached from what was normal behavior of children around me.”
In 2012, Colbert was interviewed on Oprah’s Next Chapter about the plane crash, and he explained, “I didn’t really feel the loss until I was in college. Then, ugh, then I was in bad shape. I went into college at about 185 pounds. By the end of my freshman year, I was 135. I was just green. I was just green, just so sad about it.”
On Oprah’s Next Chapter Colbert reflected, “I like the idea that you have a secret name. You have your name but then you have a secret name, and that’s a name that no one can ever really pronounce because that’s who you are. And there’s a magic to your secret name. And that was my secret name, the loss of my father and my brothers.”
Colbert was the only child living in the family home at the time of the plane crash, and his life changed. His mother moved herself and him to Charleston and sent the young boy to a new school. Colbert, still reeling from his loss, refused to engage properly in his classes. All he wanted to do was read.
In 2015 Colbert told GQ that at school “there was no way to threaten” him, as he’d stopped caring about grades. Instead, he said, “I had so many books taken away from me. I read a book a day. Spent all of my allowance on books. Every birthday, confirmation, Christmas – books, please, stacks of books.”
Between books – Colbert had a particular love for Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings — the young man discovered he could escape his tragic circumstances by making people laugh. Despite the fact that he didn’t enjoy high school at all, he realized he was capable of entertaining his classmates, and was at one point voted “wittiest” at his high school.
Colbert told GQ that he was able to fall back on his faith after the tragedy. He said, “I’m very grateful to be alive, even though I know a lot of dead people.” The “Catholic tradition” which helped him, he explained, “makes a lot of sense to me. I got that from my mom. And my dad. And my siblings.”
The same month as the GQ interview, Colbert talked to Howard Stern on SiriusXM about the plane crash and how he’d become a carer for his mother afterwards. He told the host that the incident was, “built into me the way like the marble is built into the shape of statue. It’s kind of at a certain age what I was made of.”
Stern asked Colbert if losing his brothers and father so suddenly made him afraid of life, and Colbert answered, “I think it was disassociated. Like, completely cut off. The world didn’t make any sense. And so it was easy to remove yourself from the world.” For a while, that was his existence as he worked to help his mother manage her grief.
Colbert remembered that in the immediate aftermath of the terrible tragedy, “I was there with my mom, she was there for me, and I sort of kept her going. Mom and I used to joke that I raised my mom, because at a certain point it had changed her completely and it changed me completely.”
Stern asked Colbert if it was hard to be around his mother as she inevitably had breakdowns in front of him. Colbert answered, “That’s a very deep question. Not difficult, but I think there’s no doubt that I do what I do because I wanted to make her happy.” Wanting to help his mother had made the young Colbert understand on some level the power of comedy.
Colbert went on, “I think it’s also important to remember that it’s my father but also my two brothers. That is in some way – there is a chance you’re going to lose your husband, but it’s just not in the cards when you go into life that you’re going to lose two of your kids as well, and on the same day. I can’t imagine.”
Whenever the young Colbert wanted to cry about the situation himself, he said, he would “go off by myself someplace. Very rarely, I don’t know, once a year or something like that. It would take me by surprise and I would just go be by myself for a long time.” But with his mother, he always had a “strong urge” to cheer her up.
As time went on, Colbert realized how important it was that his family was still able to laugh. He told Howard Stern that one day, while on a trip to visit the graves of Peter, Paul and their father, his sister Mary made another sister laugh so much “she fell on the floor of the limo and snorted laughing, even in the midst of how we were feeling at that moment.”
Seeing that triggered something in Colbert. He told Howard Stern, “I remember thinking, ‘I want that. I want to be able to make that connection.’ That was important to me.” And the world knows now, of course, how that worked out. But before the plane crash, Colbert had another ambition – and he had to give it up because of his ear.
Millions of comedy fans all over the world have noticed Colbert’s slightly disfigured right ear. While it’s occasionally the target of jokes, other people see it as one of their favorite things about the beloved television star. In fact, there was even once a popular Colbert fan website called “Wonky Ear.”
How did the wonky ear come about? It was actually the result of an eardrum surgery gone wrong. In 2005 Colbert told The New Yorker, in typical amusing style, “I had this weird tumour as a kid, and they scooped it out with a melon baller.” And ever since then, Colbert has been deaf in his right ear.
The ear problem caused Colbert to rethink what he wanted to do when he grew up. In 2006 he told The Post and Courier, while flicking his ear, “I always wanted to be a marine biologist … but then I had this ear problem. I have no ear drum.” Marine biology, of course, involves underwater swimming which affects the inner ear.
Colbert explained to The Post and Courier, “So I had this operation at the Medical University when I was a kid. Now I can’t get my head wet. I mean, I can, but I can’t really scuba dive or anything like that. So that killed my marine biology hopes.” But he’s never seemed unduly regretful about this.
And Colbert has actually maintained his interest in marine biology as an adult, even if he can’t go underwater. While he worked as host of The Colbert Report he featured a segment called “The Craziest F#?king Thing I’ve Ever Heard” all about science, including the science of the ocean and its creatures..
Colbert even has a sea creature named after him. In 2009, a group of marine scientists from UC Santa Cruz decided to call one of their elephant seals “Stelephant Colbert” in honor of the television host. Although Colbert joked about the seal, calling it a “hideous monster,” he helped give the researcher’s project more attention.
And as for the ear, Colbert is now happy to use it to entertain people. Once, while talking to Letterman on The Late Show, Colbert demonstrated to the audience a trick he claimed to have done since he was a child. He folded his ear inside out, and then, just by winking, it springs back up.
And in recent years Colbert’s done that ear trick as part of his political act. In June 2018, he reacted on his show to Donald Trump saying “This guy on CBS has no talent,” by snappily responding, “Oh, I’m being told he was talking about me. To which I say, no talent? Have you seen this?”
Colbert turned his ear inside out and popped it free again, to cheers and applause from the crowd. Once the clapping died down he said, “All these women are pregnant now. That’s how virile that is.” When the clip was posted on YouTube, many commenters expressed delight as they’d had no idea Colbert could do that.
Colbert found himself talking about his ear again in December 2018. On The Late Show with Stephen Colbert he did a segment where audience members got to interrogate the host, and one woman asked him, “Did you have a talent as a kid?” Of course, the answer was yes.
Colbert explained to the watching crowd, “This ear right here, I had an operation… you see how my head is not symmetrical? Hideous, absolutely hideous.” As the audience laughed he said, “So I had an operation on this when I was a kid, and they sort of had to cut it open here to work on my ear.”
Colbert went on, “As a result, my ear is super floppy right now. So I can do this with it, I learned this when I was a child.” He folded his ear in to cheers from the audience. “But that is not the talent! This is the talent. Ready?” He winked, popping the folds of his ear back out again, to yet more cheering.
In the comments posted under the YouTube clip of the Late Show moment, one person wrote, “Now I will never be able to un-notice his lopsided ears.” And another person replied to that remark, I’ve always noticed it, and now I’m happy to have the explanation – and how he had fun with it.””
Despite all the hardships Colbert has faced in his life, he’s always seemed to be able to turn them around and turn them into something positive. In 2019, sitting down with Anderson Cooper on CNN, he quoted a line attributed to J.R.R. Tolkien that meant something to him. It was, “What punishments of God are not gifts?”
Though Colbert was primarily speaking about the plane crash, those words could have applied to his whole life. He explained, “If you are grateful for your life – which I think is a positive thing to do, not everybody is, and I am not always but it’s the most positive thing to do – then you have to be grateful for all of it. You can’t pick and choose what you’re grateful for.”