The Stephen Colbert character feels like it has existed far longer than it actually has. Sure, the real Stephen Colbert developed the persona during his tenure on The Daily Show, and it blossomed into an ingrained cultural fixture in 2005, but it feels longer than that. I’m not sure why exactly, but I think it’s because American society always needed a Stephen Colbert type. We always needed someone to take a sword and stab the balloon of self-importance that permeates our cultural and political discourse, and Colbert realized that the best way to do that was to assume that absurd self-importance in the first place. Of course there were precedents to Stephen Colbert, but like all great comic creations, it also feels entirely unique, the brainchild of a consummate improviser and satirist who looked out at the world and saw a joke waiting to be told.
It’s difficult to pinpoint when exactly Colbert had a firm societal foothold. It could be 10 minutes into the first episode of The Colbert Report, when he coined the term “truthiness,” a concept that existed well before the Bush administration made it the law of the land but had never been properly articulated. It could be when Colbert hosted the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner and mocked the Bush administration to its leader’s face, still one of the ballsiest and most powerful cultural moments of my young life. It could be when Rahm Emanuel told freshmen Congressmen not to accept invitations to appear on The Colbert Report’s “Better Know a District” segment because he knew they would be outmatched. It could be when he briefly ran for president. It’s telling that any of those moments, or any of the numerous moments I haven’t mentioned, could be the one when Colbert blew up to epic proportions. American culture has a memory like a sieve, but if you’ve even been remotely connected to it over the last decade, you have an example in your back pocket of when Stephen Colbert became something more than a mock-conservative pundit.
But everything ends, and after nine years and 1,447 episodes, it feels like The Colbert Report is ending at the right time and ending far too soon. It’s incredible that The Colbert Report maintained relevancy long after the Bush-era demanded someone like him, but it’s also not surprising if you have any knowledge of the real Stephen Colbert’s talent. His unparalleled commitment to comedy, his showmanship, and his genuine eagerness to entertain are nothing short of excellent, and they all came together to create his magnum opus: a “well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot” that could slip into any room and create compelling theater. The character adapted over the years, evolving from an angry political ideologue into a more whimsical creation that included numerous elements of the real Stephen Colbert—his nerdy fixations, his musical theater chops, his folksy charm. As many people before me have pointed out, the Stephen Colbert character would never have endured as long as it has without the gentle soul behind the mask.
So how did The Colbert Report end? Well, somewhat unassumingly. The past week has been a fairly “normal” one. There hasn’t been a ton of fanfare around the ending beside the occasional mention from Colbert himself. The guests weren’t flashy and neither were the segments. It was as if Colbert knew the best way to go out was to simply do the show he’s been doing all along and not to make a big to-do out of it. It was consistent and funny as The Colbert Report has always been.
But last night’s finale was special. It started out fairly normal and became something extraordinary, exceeding any established expectations. Colbert began with his final edition of The Word, the longest running segment in the show, and gave a fairly pessimistic diagnosis of American progress, detailing how the world hasn’t changed much since The Colbert Report began: Another Bush is running for office, people are still defending our government’s use of torture, and we’re back in Iraq. Colbert says he “samed” the world, starting a revolution that ended in pretty much the same place he began. It’s hard not to listen to this and wince at how little change has occurred since 2005, especially after the induction of a president who promised that wouldn’t be the case. But Colbert couldn’t begin a celebration without a little reality check first. This is who we are and this is who we always have been, and no amount of Stephen Colberts can ever change that depressing fact.
Then, things took a turn for the wonderfully absurd. Colbert began his “Cheating Death” segment by accidentally killing Death and becoming “immortal,” complete with a giant sword, lightning bolts hitting his body, and a mad scientist’s scream. But what does Stephen Colbert do with his newfound immortality? He doesn’t decide to rule the world or smite his enemies. No, he uses his power to forgo a goodbye to the Colbert Nation and sing a song. When those first few piano notes rang out, it was hard to imagine that Colbert’s rendition of “We’ll Meet Again” would be as joyous as it was, with just about every celebrity and their mother coming out to join Stephen in song. Of course Jon Stewart showed up, but then came Bryan Cranston and Willie Nelson, Big Bird and Keith Olbermann, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and George Lucas, plus a host of journalists and politicians that Colbert has mocked over the years, Bill Clinton by satellite, and many, many more. All of them had big smiles on their face as they sang the chorus over and over again.
I’ve watched this clip four or five times since it aired last night and I’m not embarrassed to say that I get choked up every single time I see it. It’s not a stretch to say that 2014 has been a troubling, disturbing, and all-around piss-poor year. It seemed like every week a new disaster was just around the corner with no end in sight, and while it’s important to be aware of and involved in each and every upsetting development this country has to offer, it’s also easy to feel that there’s no room for unadulterated joy. It’s easy to believe that misery is the only appropriate feeling for our particular time. But for one brief moment last night, I felt a profound happiness that only someone like Stephen Colbert could deliver. I truly don’t want to sound hyperbolic, but my heart grew three sizes when I saw such a moving tribute to a fool whose job it was to take life less seriously.
After the song, we take a trip through the empty set up onto the roof where Colbert stood with his Captain American shield asking the world what he was to do now. Suddenly, Santa Claus appears on his sleigh with a vape-smoking Abraham Lincoln (who’s also a unicorn!) and Alex Trebek in tow to whisk him away. Then, from above the clouds, Colbert finally does break character to thank his crew, his family and friends, and all of the guests who’ve been on the show. You can see the glimmer and gratitude in Colbert’s eyes when he sums up his last decade of work with a sincere, “That was fun!” And then, in a final heartwarming moment, he says, “From eternity, I’m Stephen Colbert,” and tosses it back to Jon who thanks him for the report. Cue the Moment of Zen. Cue Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Holland, 1945.” And that’s it.
People wonder if Stephen Colbert will be able to transcend the character when he takes over for David Letterman on CBS, if he’ll be able to move forward into a new environment and play “himself.” While these questions aren’t entirely unfounded, there isn’t a doubt in my mind that Colbert will do many more extraordinary things in the future. He has enough innate talent and charisma to take him to the stratosphere. But the Stephen Colbert that I grew up with is gone to the skies, and he left our Earth in the best way possible. All I can do is hope that we’ll meet again some sunny day.
Long live Stephen Colbert.