Before Stephen Colbert was a beloved political satirist and Peabody-winning grizzly bear detractor, he was an actor and comedian shuffling his way through various sketch shows and under-the-radar cameos. His stoic deadpan and occasional bouts of bluster were already present in the roles he would take on before The Colbert Report premiered in 2005, revealing an actor with Hartman-esque range aching for a breakout role. Rolling Stone takes a look back at the pre-fame Colbert with some classic clips waiting to be dredged up for his next Green Screen Challenge.
After years studying and performing at Chicago’s famed comedy launchpad Second City, Colbert made the journey to New York to develop Exit 57, a sketch show featuring fellow Chi-Town improv alums Amy Sedaris and Paul Dinello. Dry and absurd like an American Kids in the Hall and full of skits that often ended with a screeching halt, the underappreciated show lasted just 12 episodes, airing on Comedy Central from 1995 to 1996.
THE DANA CARVEY SHOW
Fresh off one the most iconic Saturday Night Live runs in history, Dana Carvey brought his manic impressions to primetime with a 1996 sketch show. Cancelled after seven episodes, Carvey’s profile never recovered. But during its brief run, the show cobbled together a writing staff that would change the next decade of comedy: Robert Smigel of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog fame, Chris Rock Show writer Louis C.K., future 40-Year-Old Virgin star Steve Carrell and post-modern Being John Malkovich screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. And of course there was Stephen Colbert, who appeared in the types of sketches that made their advertisers nervous, most notably “Skinheads From Maine” and providing the voice of Ace for future SNL staple “The Ambiguously Gay Duo.”
THE DAILY SHOW
After Colbert did two humorous new segments for Good Morning America — with only one making it to air — he captured the attention of The Daily Show‘s producers. Colbert came on in 1997 as a correspondent serving under original host, snarkmaster Craig Kilborn, and helped make the show into the cornerstone of American political satire by the time he started his own show in 2005. He told MediaBistro.com, “I never expected to stay here because I did sketch comedy and I wrote, and I really didn’t think that this show was going to go anyplace.”
STRANGERS WITH CANDY
While serving his first few years at The Daily Show, Colbert also co-developed Strangers With Candy, the delightfully demented mutation of after-school specials that launched the career of its star, Amy Sedaris. Colbert lasted three brilliant seasons from 1999 to 2000 (and spawned one not-so-brilliant 2006 movie) as history teacher Chuck Noblet, whose dead-eyed approach to fudging facts and frequent outbursts subtly set the stage for the evolving Colbert character on the Daily Show.
HARVEY BIRDMAN, ATTORNEY AT LAW
Colbert’s matter-of-fact tone made him the perfect candidate for voice-over work, and he was recruited in 2000 to be the voice of eye-patched, double-entendre-spouting lawyer Phil Ken Sebben on Cartoon Network’s ultra-wacky Harvey Birdman, Attorney At Law. The gig served him well, as he’s also provided voices on The Venture Brothers and Nickelodeon’s Chalkzone.
LAW AND ORDER
Colbert took a dramatic turn in an episode of Law And Order: Criminal Intent where he got to show off his famous wrist… as an expert forger and a murderer!
In 2004, GM decided to relaunch their long-dormant Mr. Goodwrench campaign with Colbert as a globetrotting bumbler in a safari vest searching for the real Mr. Goodwrench. His efforts didn’t keep GM from filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy a few years later, but laid off employees can at least eBay the promotional Colbert bobbleheads they made for the campaign.
CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM
In a 2004 episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Colbert played a crabby tourist quickly driven to his wits end by Larry David. Colbert goes from jolly to rubber-faced incredulity within seconds flat — a two-minute appearance that deftly shows the hyperkinetic possibilities lurking under the usually staid host.
THE GREAT NEW WONDERFUL
Colbert’s detached school teacher persona got dark makeover in this New York-centric Maggie Gyllenhaal indie flick where Colbert plays a frustrated principal dealing with the parents of troubled child. It’s classic Colbert how unfazed he can appear when calling a 10 year old a “selfish incorrigible monster with a heart made out of shit and splinters.”
Released just before the first Report hit the air in 2005, Colbert could be found as an announcer on the Xbox/PS2 game Outlaw Tennis, a regrettable title that works on the premise that video game tennis is more exciting when it’s appealing to douchebags.