Stephen Colbert is showing his serious side.
The 51-year-old new host of CBS' "Late Show" covers the September issue of GQ, and candidly talks about his decision to shut down "The Colbert Report" even before he was offered his new late night gig, and how he's dealt with plenty of tragedy in his own personal life.
"I no longer felt that that model served to address the national mood," Colbert says about discontinuing his beloved Comedy Central character. "We're in a different place now. We can stop freaking out that the guy's middle name [President Barack Obama] is Hussein. What else? Our response to the horror in South Carolina is to take the flag down. That is something I didn't think was ever going to happen."
As for the tragedy in South Carolina -- in which nine people were killed by a lone gunman at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston -- the comedian says there's a reason he didn't address the incident on-air a la Jon Stewart's now-famous "I have no jokes" monologue.
"We would have done it, if we had to," he says. "[The shooting] is such an old form of a particular evil. Such a pure form, that it feels very old. It was like a dragon showed up. Like, yeah, there used to be dragons. I didn't know there still were dragons … and I don't necessarily crave facing that dragon with my little sword."
"Tragedy is sacred," he stresses. "People's suffering is sacred."
Colbert, of course, would know about tragedy. His father and two of his brothers, Peter and Paul -- the two closest to him in age out of 11 children -- were killed in a plane crash when he was 10. He credits his late mother and his Catholic faith for not having become "bitter."
"I'm very grateful to be alive, even though I know a lot of dead people," he says bluntly. " ... I was raised in a Catholic tradition. I'll start there. That's my context for my existence, is that I am here to know God, love God, serve God, that we might be happy with each other in this world and with Him in the next -- the catechism. That makes a lot of sense to me."
"I got that from my mom," he adds. "And my dad. And my siblings. ... I was left alone a lot after Dad and the boys died.... And it was just me and Mom for a long time. And by her example am I not bitter. By her example. She was not. Broken, yes. Bitter, no."
As for his highly anticipated approach to hosting the "Late Show" as himself, and not as a character, Colbert surprisingly likens his style to the Food Network show "Chopped." The competing chefs' challenge in the show is to take a mystery basket of ingredients and turn them into a dish.
"Late-night shows are 'Chopped,'" he explains. "Who are your guests tonight? Your guests tonight are veal tongue, coffee grounds, and gummy bears. There, make a show … Make an appetizer that appeals to millions of people. That's what I like. How could you possibly do it? Oh, you bring in your own flavors. Your own house band is another flavor. You have your own flavor. The audience itself is a base dish, like a rice pilaf or something. And then together it's 'Oh s--t, that's an actual meal.' And that's what every day is like at one of these shows. Something is one thing in the morning, and then by the end of the day it’s a totally different thing. It's all process."
And he's not afraid to fail. He shares that one of his greatest lessons he's ever learned is from Second City improv theater director Jeff Michalski, who told him, "You have to learn to love the bomb."
"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. Fear is the mind killer," he stresses. " ... I'm a very uncomfortable person. I really like people, and I also don't always know what to do with them. ... I have always had an eclectic roster of friends, but there's something about my work that speaks to a deep discomfort with being in society."