As one of the most popular comedians and political satirists over the last two decades, Stephen Colbert has made people laugh and cringe on a nightly basis. His comedic mind is unparalleled, supported by a razor-sharp wit and expansive intellectual curiosity, but what sets him apart isn’t just the fact that he can get belly laughs on command. The true key to the former Colbert Report and current Late Show host’s success as a humorist is his humanity and empathy, two traits that were at least in part forged by early tragedy.

Colbert spent his early years in Maryland before his large family moved to just outside Charleston, South Carolina, when his father, a doctor and academic named James William Colbert, Jr., accepted a job at the Medical University of South Carolina. Stephen is the youngest of 10 siblings, a brood that included James III, Edward, Mary, William, Margo, Thomas, Jay, Elizabeth, Paul and Peter. The tight-knit Catholic family was shattered by a horrible accident that made national headlines and broke his own little private world.

The plane crash resulted in 72 deaths, including Colbert's father and two brothers

On September 11, 1974, Colbert’s father and two brothers nearest in age, Paul and Peter, were passengers on a plane making a short flight from Charleston to Charlotte, North Carolina. Eastern Air Lines Flight 212, operating on a small DC-9 plane, had 82 people on board and seemed to be making a routine approach towards Douglas Municipal Airport. The flight never made it to Douglas, crashing three miles shy of its intended runway on a hillside covered with cornfields.

It was a foggy morning and the plane’s crew, according to cockpit recordings, lost track of the altitude. But it wasn’t just a matter of inclement conditions — the real problem was that the pilots weren’t exactly paying attention. “The flight crew's lack of altitude awareness at critical points during the approach due to poor cockpit discipline in that the crew did not follow prescribed procedure,” the NTSB wrote in its final report.

Regardless of the exact cause of the crash, the crash was catastrophic. Only 13 of the 82 people on board survived the initial impact, and in the end, 72 people died from the crash. Among the losses were James, Paul and Peter.

Colbert struggled for years after the accident

Colbert was just 10 years old when he lost his father and brothers. “There’s this big break in the cable of my memory at their death. Everything before that has got an odd, ghostly tone,” Colbert told Anderson Cooper in 2019. “I was personally shattered and then you reform yourself in this quiet, grieving world that was created in the house. My mother had me to take care of, which I think was sort of a gift for her, a sense of purpose at that point. But I also had her to take care of. It became a very quiet house, very dark, and ordinary concerns of childhood kind of disappeared.”

Colbert became something of a rebel, though in an unconventional way. While clearly smart, he was a terrible student, uninterested in studying or doing his homework. He wasn’t out making trouble, though — young Colbert was a sci-fi and fantasy geek, obsessed with playing Dungeons & Dragons and reading the Lord of the Rings. It’s an obsession he maintains to this day — his love of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic novels always leads any “fun facts” list about the Emmy-winner.

While times were bleak, he didn’t lose himself entirely. “It was just me and Mom for a long time, and by her example I am not bitter,” Colbert told GQ in 2015. “She was broken, yes. Bitter, no.”

Growing up Catholic, Colbert found himself turning to religion in an effort to understand such a senseless, painful tragedy. That’s not to say that he became okay with what happened, but it did begin to inform his worldview as he grew up and processed the emotions that came with the loss. More than anything else, he learned acceptance, which he describes as not allowing yourself to be defeated by suffering.

“You gotta learn to love the bomb,” he told GQ. “Boy, did I have a bomb when I was 10. That was quite an explosion. And I learned to love it. So that's why. Maybe, I don't know. That might be why you don't see me as someone angry and working out my demons onstage. It's that I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.”

He struggled through high school, then hit a wall when he went away to Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. “I didn’t really feel the loss until I was in college,” he told Oprah Winfrey in 2012. “Then, I was in bad shape... I was just so sad about it.”

stephen colbert at desk of the late show
Stephen Colbert during an episode of "The Late Show"
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Theater and improvisation changed his life

While working through his feelings, Colbert began to excel once he found his passion. After two years, he transferred to Northwestern University in Chicago to concentrate on theater, then discovered improv comedy at the world-famous Second City Theater and its founder, Del Close. Colbert met his future comedy partners while in Chicago, including Amy Sedaris, with whom he created and starred in the cult hit show Strangers With Candy.

After that show ended, he joined the cast of The Daily Show. His career took off from there, turning him into a household name and injecting his biting-yet-joyful sense of humor into the mainstream. One of the most engaging interviewers on television, Colbert allows his interviewees the space to be honest and vulnerable. He too lets his guard down from time to time, an openness and empathy informed by the tragedy that changed his life all those years ago.

“What do you get from loss?” he asked rhetorically in his conversation with Cooper. “You get awareness of other people’s loss, which allows you to connect with that other person, which allows you to love more deeply and to understand what it’s like to be a human being if it’s true that all humans suffer.”