Unlike many of its most successful alumni, incoming Late Show host Stephen Colbert didn’t long dream of attending The Second City improv troupe in Chicago and using it as a way to start a career in show business. As a theatre student at nearby Northwestern University, he even shunned it, he told The A.V. Club in 2006.
But after graduating college in 1986, he got a job at Second City’s box office and decided to take advantage of the free improv classes he had access to.
Over the next several years he would learn the mechanics of fast-paced comedy, but it was on his first day performing on stage that he learned the greatest lesson of his career, he told GQ for a new profile by Joel Lovell.
Second City director Jeff Michalski told Colbert and his fellow improv students, “You have to learn to love the bomb.”
Colbert explained further:
It took me a long time to really understand what that meant. It wasn’t “Don’t worry, you’ll get it next time.” It wasn’t “Laugh it off.” No, it means what it says. You gotta learn to love when you’re failing … The embracing of that, the discomfort of failing in front of an audience, leads you to penetrate through the fear that blinds you.
As explained in Shane Snow’s book “Smartcuts,” Second City employs a rapid feedback technique during training that allows students to act fearlessly, which translates into their performances in front of audiences.
“Performers typically take audience suggestions for topics or backstories for characters, then act out the first thing that comes to mind,” Snow wrote. “Amid all the zaniness that ensues, casts can slip in scenes they have been considering for their show and gauge audience reactions. And though sometimes the material is dreadful, it doesn’t matter. They can fail without failing.”
Colbert told GQ that because he’s naturally an introspective person with a “discomfort in society” he developed a habit of creating uncomfortable situations for himself, like singing in a crowded elevator, just to confront that discomfort and realise it didn’t need to have power over him.
Combined with his training, this approach turned him into one of America’s most electric television personalities.
For more on Colbert’s life, including how dealing with tragedy has had a tremendous impact on his career, check out the full article from GQ.
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