(CNN) — The real Stephen Colbert is probably someone “Stephen Colbert,” the character, would find easy to mock.
The real Colbert is reportedly just a regular guy who lives in a New Jersey suburb with his wife and three kids, has taught Sunday school and says earnest things like “I really admire newsmen” when explaining that he doesn’t confuse his Colbert character with an actual journalist.
Fans have readily embraced the blustering buffoonery of the conservative character Colbert, who arrives on the “Colbert Report” set to calls of “Stephen! Stephen!” It remains to be seen if they will have equal affection for the man Colbert who will replace David Letterman as host of “The Late Show” in 2015.
Even Colbert the character is aware of how tough that just might be.
“I gotta tell you, I do not envy whoever they try to put in that chair,” he said with a wink on his Thursday night show as the audience cheered. “Those are some huge shoes to fill.”
If anyone is used to challenges, it’s Stephen Colbert. Raised in Charleston, South Carolina, the youngest of 11 children, he was just 10 years old when his father and two of his brothers were killed in a plane crash in 1974. Eastern Airlines Flight 212 crashed in a cornfield near Charlotte, North Carolina, and 72 people were killed.
“I didn’t really really feel the loss until I was in college,” he said ” Then, oh, I was in bad shape. ”
He told the New York Times Magazine in 2012 that he credits his mother with helping him survive the tragedy.
“She taught me to be grateful for my life regardless of what that entailed, and that’s directly related to the image of Christ on the cross and the example of sacrifice that he gave us,” said Colbert, a devout Catholic. “What she taught me is that the deliverance God offers you from pain is not no pain — it’s that the pain is actually a gift. What’s the option? God doesn’t really give you another choice.”
Colbert says it was his mother who encouraged him to enter Northwestern’s theater program, which led him into improv and a gig with Chicago’s famous Second City troupe. It was there he struck up friendships with Steve Carell and Amy Sedaris.
Colbert eventually landed in New York City where he briefly worked with ABC’s “Good Morning America” as they needed someone who “looked straight, but could act funny,” he told CNN’s “Larry King Live” in 2007.
“They really just wanted me to quip,” he said. “I did one piece for them.”
“GMA” shot down several other story ideas he pitched, Colbert said, but his credentials from them came in handy when “The Daily Show” came calling in 1997 looking for correspondents. Colbert had written a little for “Saturday Night Live” and his combination of comedy chops and the brief experience working with “GMA” made him “genetically engineered” to work with the show, he said he was told.
Thus, the character of “Stephen Colbert” was introduced to the world.
One person who could do without his alter ego is his wife, Evelyn “Evie” McGee-Colbert, whom he married in 1993. She told Oprah Winfrey that other Colbert is not welcomed in their home.
“I don’t really like the other guy,” she said. “He doesn’t come in this house.”
Her husband is smart, funny and incredibly romantic, McGee-Colbert said. He is also intensely private, though he works hard to connect with his audiences and fans, he told Rolling Stone Magazine.
“I was 22 or 23 when I made a decision not to be actively Hamlet-like and miserable in my daily life, and the decision helped a lot,” he said. “Living vitally is not easier than living morbidly — it’s just better. People are all we’ve got.”
Colbert will have to rely on such fans to make his new venture a success. Merissa Marr of the Wall Street Journal wonders at his crossover appeal once Colbert the character has been vanquished.
“Whether Mr. Colbert can maintain his following as a different persona, no longer cloaked in parody, isn’t guaranteed,” she writes, noting that “CBS is arguably the most middle of the road of the broadcast networks.”
Colbert’s old boss has no worries. On “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart said, “The exciting news is that I no longer need a cable subscription for the privilege of watching Stephen Colbert.”
“I think Stephen Colbert is up for the challenge,” Stewart said. “So while we wish Dave the absolute best for a well-earned retirement, there’s no greater joy for seeing a genuinely good man, who works as hard as he can every day and deserves all the success in the world, actually get that success. For Stephen we’re just thrilled.”
By Lisa Respers France, CNN
™ & © 2014 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.