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Stephen Colbert showed ‘great wit’ as part of ‘80s improv group at NU

Stephen Colbert now host “The Colbert Report” Comedy Central will return his almmater Friday deliver commencement address.

Stephen Colbert, now host of “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central, will return to his alma mater on Friday to deliver the commencement address.

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Updated: September 21, 2011 12:34AM

They knew it even then. A quarter-century ago, when Comedy Central bloviator and lushly coiffed American icon Stephen Colbert was part of a short-lived improv troupe — the No Fun Mud Piranhas — at Northwestern University in Evanston, castmates were wowed by his natural ability to bring the funny.

And not just zany funny, though he was that, but smart funny — funny that seemed to come from an intellect sharpened by far more real-world experience than the bearded and shaggy-haired dramatic actor, then 21 and a junior-year transfer, actually had. It was the start of something big.

Colbert was unavailable for an interview, but several of his fellow Piranhas shared memories of his entry into onstage comedy.

“I felt like I was young in college, I felt like I didn’t know very much,” says Marc Goldsmith, an actor and writer in Los Angeles. “But I always kind of looked up to [Stephen’s] intelligence, wondering, ‘Did this guy travel the world? How is he so smart, only being a year older than me?’ ”

Now 47 and one of the country’s most recognizable celebrities, Colbert returns Friday whence his comedy journey began in earnest to deliver the keynote address at Northwestern’s graduation ceremony. The 1986 grad previously served as grand marshal of the school’s homecoming parade, in 2006.

Joy Gregory would go on to found Chicago’s Lookingglass Theater Company with fellow Piranha (and later “Friends” star) David Schwimmer. Back in the day, she marveled at the young Colbert’s “spiky intellectual energy.”

“Even then he was someone who, when he got going, you would just kind of step out of his way and let him go,” Gregory says. “He was clearly really gifted and brilliant. Not to say that he wasn’t a very generous, giving scene partner, because he was, but I observed that I was not the only one who would often give him the reins in a scene.”

Assembled in August of 1985, according to Piranha chief organizer Chris Pfaff, the troupe rehearsed and performed on campus and occasionally trekked to Crosscurrents Cabaret Theater on North Wilton in Lake View, where Pfaff had squired Colbert pre-Piranhas.

Their instructors-chaperones in that space (which housed ImprovOlympic, now known as iO Theater on North Clark) were current iO owner Charna Halpern and her creative partner, the late improv wizard Del Close. They taught long-form improvised assemblages dubbed “Harolds.”

Later in 1985, the Piranhas participated in what Pfaff termed their “coming-out” party at the first-ever Intercollegiate Improvisational Championships. Held at Crosscurrents, the audience-judged contest featured competitors from Yale, the University of Chicago and DePaul.

Wearing white T-shirts emblazoned with a piranha and a graffiti-like rendering of the group’s name using Northwestern’s trademark purple ‘N’, the Piranhas trounced its rivals.

At least that’s how Goldsmith remembers it.

“We killed,” he says. “We absolutely just devastated. And part of that was that everybody was a serious performer. … It was an amazing night. We were all on. It was a great jam.”

Mostly, though, “this was all about entertaining ourselves,” says Piranha Alan Goldwasser, a Seattle-based entrepreneur. “We didn’t care if there were five people there or a bunch of people there.”

Like the rest of them, Goldwasser says, Colbert was drawn to the Piranhas (whose name stemmed from the bizarre piranha-centric nightmare of a friend’s son) “because we were people who didn’t want to go out and do ‘Death of a Salesman’ at Indiana Repertory Theatre for the rest of our lives. We knew that we wanted to color outside of the lines. And we did that individually and we did that collectively and we knew — I think most of us in that [team] picture knew — that we wanted to do it professionally, too.”

Piranha Jessica Hughes, a casting agent, recalls that Colbert “was supposed to be the Lyle Waggoner of the group — the straight man with a handsome face and refined demeanor. He ruined that image every time he opened his mouth and revealed his sly intelligence, great wit and impish sense of the world.”

That said, she adds, he has “absolutely no street smarts. Put him on a quiz show and he will emerge victorious. Leave him in the middle of the night on the streets of Gary, Ind., and he’s a dead man.”

In recent years Colbert has described his conservatively be-suited Comedy Central character as a “well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot.” And viewers buy it largely because of Colbert’s preternatural devotion to whatever nonsensical notion he’s spewing at any given moment.

Gregory, now an L.A.-based television writer-producer, saw flashes of that approach at Northwestern.

“One thing that he would do is find comedy by taking a completely absurd situation and playing it very deadpan straight, with total commitment,” she says. “He was very good at that.”

From goofy but inspired bits in which Colbert pretended to bore holes in people’s heads as if they were giant wheels of well-aged cheese or musically riffed on the word “tong” (“Ting, ting a tong…”), his Piranhas work combined the comedic, the dramatic and the intellectual — three realms in which Colbert, then as now, excelled.

“This form of improv was made for him,” says Pfaff, the proprietor of a PR and marketing firm for tech and new media companies in Montclair, N.J., where Colbert also lives. “He was not shy about talking about the fact that he was still involved in [playing] Dungeons & Dragons that first year at Northwestern. And he had a great musical recall. He was a very different cat, to be sure, but onstage doing improv with him, he was a virtuoso.”

A virtuoso who was, as he would continue to be well into his ensuing stint at Second City, torn between the silly and the serious — “a thespian,” as Pfaff puts it, “with a capital T.”

Still, when it came to the Piranhas, Colbert gave it the old college try.

“I don’t think he ever thought that he was going to be a stand-up or he was going to be a sketch comedian,” Pfaff adds, “but he was bringing every club in the bag to this all the time.”

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