The Colbert Report was a landmark of our times. Chase Branch bids the show a fond farewell.
I’ll be honest. I’ve spent about as much time thinking about how much I’ll miss The Colbert Report as I have just watching the show during its last few months. Comedy Central’s landmark fake news show is entering its final week on the air, and I’m here to say farewell. Stephen Colbert is moving on to new things, but he’s leaving his fake news personality behind. Sure, Colbert will probably continue to make brilliant comedy, but these are the last days of “Stephen Colbert.” Whether you realize it or not, we’re losing one of the greatest TV characters of all time.
The Colbert Report is more closely tied to my young adulthood than any other show. It premiered in the fall of 2005 when I was a freshman in college (living down the hall from some David McGinnis guy), and a group of friends would crowd into my dorm room every night to watch this new show about a blow-hard newsman. I’d never been a fan of The Daily Show and I preferred Jay Leno for my late night comedy (both sins, since corrected), but I loved this new Colbert guy. My political views hadn’t rounded into shape yet, but even then, I knew the show was brilliant.
The fictional “Stephen Colbert” was the perfect counterbalance for the rise of the cable news personality, adopting the same traits as many real-life cable hosts and taking them to absurd extremes. The Colbert character was more confident, unquestionably patriotic, and egomaniacal than any of them. As the real Colbert would often say, the character is a “well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-class idiot.” People often point to Bill “Papa Bear” O’Reilly as the character’s ultimate inspiration, but Sean Hannity is more correct – a new breed of newsman for the 21st Century, propping up their political opinions with over-the-top studio graphics, social media bombardment, and a dogmatic refusal to admit to even possibly being wrong.
Colbert coined the word “truthiness” during his very first show, a word characterizing a feeling of truth that comes from the gut without regard to any evidence, logic, or facts. It was a word that perfectly summed up the inanity of the cable news personality, and it was named the word of the year by many real news outlets. If The Daily Show set out to mock the cable news experience, The Colbert Report aimed to deconstruct the cable news host and mine the results for comedy gold. Whereas Jon Stewart occasionally veers away from comedy to make a real-world point, Colbert has always kept humor in the forefront, letting his critiques emerge from his satire without ever overtaking it.
People forget that the Report was a bit of a gamble. The Daily Show was hitting its stride in the early 2000s, and much of its success came from the contribution of correspondents Colbert and Steve Carell. The Daily Show was already dealing with the loss of Carell to The Office in 2005 when Colbert branched off into his own show, and, suddenly, The Daily Show was left without two of its biggest stars. The Colbert Report was Comedy Central’s attempt to not let Stephen Colbert get away. Early episodes always featured a brief joint segment at the end of every Daily Show; it always seemed as if Stewart was as much eager to hang onto his old friend as to just provide a strong lead-in for the new show. Some critics questioned whether the Colbert character would remain funny over an extended time period, or if the pompous newsman joke would quickly wear out its welcome.
Comedy Central needn’t have worried. As with Monty Python, it takes true genius to act this absurd and stupid. The real Colbert is whip-smart and lightning quick. You can often see it during the show’s interviews with guests – the least scripted part of the show. His character is just as funny and sharp when he’s existing purely as an extension of Colbert’s talent. Colbert set out to fully embody his character, making almost all of his public appearance in character. The results have consistently been amazing, as they were when he appeared in character at the 2006 Emmy Awards. As you can see below, the crowd eats it up, and the introduction by Conan O’Brien is the perfect explanation for what Colbert and Stewart do: using fake news to mock the network version of what’s, in reality, fake news:
But Colbert has always been so much more than a comedian. Not content to merely mock the news, Colbert became a part of it. “Truthiness” was just the beginning. Colbert fictionally ran for president twice, openly embracing a campaign sponsorship from Doritos to mock real candidates’ fundraising strategies. His performance at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner made national headlines for the way he targeted the president and the media, becoming a hot-button issue and a political and cultural litmus test. Rahm Emmanuel once asked Democrats to not appear on Colbert’s “Better Know a District” segment, where he interviews real members of the US Congress. Stewart and Colbert’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” drew national news coverage and 200,000 people to the National Mall in Washington, DC. He even testified to congress in character.
Perhaps his greatest moment was the founding of “Americans For a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow,” a real Super PAC used to highlight the perceived absurdity of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. The Super PAC received over a million dollars in donations and won Colbert a Peabody award. Colbert is now big enough that the sitting President came to the show, when Barack Obama filled in on Colbert’s “The Word” segment at Georgetown University last week. [Ed. note — not to mention the great dragon Smaug! Colbert has done almost as much to keep Tolkien nerd-dom mainstream as Peter Jackson himself.] The Colbert Report has become that big of a deal. It’s a testament to the show that real cable news pundits will make time to respond to the Report on their own shows.
And now he’s leaving it all behind for a new opportunity, taking over The Late Show from David Letterman, one giant of comedy succeeding another. I wish him luck, but I know how much I’ll miss The Colbert Report. Like I said, I grew into adulthood with his show, and I always felt like he was speaking directly to me and my peers. As much the fictional Colbert was a blowhard idiot, I think the real Colbert is an optimist who hates cynicism. The message that I always took from The Colbert Report (others than that it hurts like hell to laugh until your sides ache) was to think for myself, and to be as little like the fictional pundit as possible. Read, learn, listen to others, and meet the world with a sense of empathy. Maybe, just maybe, if enough people were listening, then Colbert could mold a group of young people into a generation that the country would be proud of – a generation that rejected the white noise of hard-line news pundits and sought to change the world. I’ve always heard that Millennials possess the traits to become America’s next Great Generation if we put our minds to it. In his own way, I think “Stephen Colbert” is a big part of what might help us get there.
Part of that entails turning off the TV and getting involved in the world – but not this week. This week, stay in and watch the final episodes of The Colbert Report. We get to hear our parents’ stories of watching Monty Python and seeing Lenny Bruce, listening to Eddie Murphy records and experiencing Richard Pryor.
We’ll tell our kids about The Colbert Report in the same way. So let’s stay in this week and see greatness at work.
One last time.