Stephen Colbert On Dropping ‘The Colbert Report’ Persona and the Glorious Debut of ‘The Colbeard’

The Daily Beast caught up with the man taking over for David Letterman at the 10th annual Oscar Wilde Awards in Los Angeles.

Jon Stewart’s signing off, Brian Williams is in exile, and America has lost stalwart newsmen in Bob Simon and David Carr. There’s a critical void in truth-telling media these days that may not be filled until September, when Stephen Colbert—the media hero we might need, the one we surely deserve—takes the reins from departing Late Show host David Letterman.

So rest assured knowing that Colbert, too, is counting down the months until he slides behind the desk at New York’s Ed Sullivan Theatre.

And in the meantime, he’s grown a beard. A big, glorious beard.

The comedian, who espoused a conservatively bare-faced truthiness on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, debuted his new look Thursday night in Santa Monica at the 10th annual Oscar Wilde Awards, where the US-Ireland Alliance and emcee/host J.J. Abrams presented him with this year’s top honor.

“I have not allowed this to happen to my face since college because I’ve been working professionally pretty constantly since then,” he explained to The Daily Beast. “I have like nine months where nobody has to see me so I said, ‘I wonder what I look like?’”

The Colbeard was an instant hit on the red carpet. “In a pre-industrial stainless steel razor’s edge society, this is what I would have looked like all the time,” he said.

It’s almost Clooney-esque, I offer.

“You know what? I was too humble to drop the C-word, but I’m gonna say Clooney-esque right now—and I’m only echoing you,” he smiled.

The facial hair may not be here to stay as Colbert approaches his new late-night gig, but it slyly got people pondering what is different about the 50-year-old comedian. Gone will be the “Stephen Colbert” clueless pundit persona as the one-time drama student-turned-Second City improv performer revisits his comedy roots.

“I’m looking forward to telling jokes on a nightly basis,” he said. “That’s what I got into this game for, the laughs. No one should ever mistake me for a newsman and I’m glad now that they don’t have to.”

The new Stephen Colbert is not the old Stephen Colbert who last April announced he’d “won television” and would be ending his 10-season run on the Emmy-winning Colbert Report.

“As a performer I’m jonesing. I haven’t been onstage in two months,” he said. “My show ended two months ago and technically, for the record, I’m not in character. This is me. It turns out the real Stephen Colbert had a beard the whole time, I was just so deeply in character for 10 years you didn’t notice. That’s how good of an actor I am.”

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During the show held at Abrams’ Bad Robot headquarters, Stephen Fry waxed lovingly over Oscar Wilde recipient and old pal Carrie Fisher, but Colbert scored big laughs and showed off those comedy chops in a rollicking 10-minute set riffing almost entirely on the Irish and his fifth-gen Irish heritage (with a little Star Wars thrown in).

To wit:

When I heard an alliance wanted to give me an award at J.J. Abrams’ production company I thought ‘Great, the Rebel Alliance! Wedge Antilles can give it to me and Chewbacca will go [Chewbacca growl] at the end. Then I found out it was the US-Ireland Alliance and I thought, that’s good too.

Yes, for many years I tried to pass as French. But I’m happy to say tonight with this award I can now finally, openly, be proudly, flamboyantly Irish, and I hope that there are young people out there who are still in the Irish closet and see this as something that gives them the courage to come out. I want them all to know that it gets better.

And finally:

There is no other award being given out in Los Angeles this week named after an Oscar I would want more than this.