Say one thing about Stephen Colbert: He certainly knew how to draw a crowd.
That much was evident during Thursday night’s finale, when the most bizarre and wonderful assortment of the show’s celebrity friends turned out to sing “We’ll Meet Again” — Randy Newman on piano, Big Bird, George Lucas (!), Alan Alda, Arianna Huffington, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Clinton (tweeting remotely), Jon Stewart (of course), Smaug — I could go on, but let me just embed the video for you.
Colbert has drawn crowds before. I remember the one-two punch of the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, which felt at the time like an ironic Woodstock, and the crowds who flocked to hear him and Herman Cain on the campaign trail.
I didn’t realize what a big generational end-of-an-era moment this would feel like. But I should have. “The Colbert Report” was always a show for millennials. That was clear the second we stepped onto the Mall for the Stewart/Colbert rally. There were only two things that my friends felt it was worth trekking down to Washington on a bus for: the 2009 presidential inauguration and the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.
You don’t realize what a fixture something has been until it’s standing on set singing to you one last time. Colbert, with “The Word” and “Better Know a District” and his traditional presidential campaign, has been there for the past nine years — long enough for us to grow up watching him. He — and the smart, sharp breed of satire that he and his writing staff so carefully honed — was there for the political events that defined us and how we viewed the political process. George W. Bush was president, again? Well, Colbert was there, with his iconic White House Correspondents Association Dinner speech. The Iraq war was happening? At least Colbert was there. The 2008 election? There he was, trying to get on the ticket. He was there for all the big political moments for millennials growing up (9/11 excepted), and, in the process, became a moment of his own. If there is anything we like, generationally speaking, it is a sincere message cleverly disguised beneath seven veils of irony and satire. That was his stock in trade — the sincere core as much as the parodic superstructure. In 2010, 80 percent of his viewers were in the coveted 18-to-49 demographic.
With the election of President Obama, I remember people expressing concern that Stewart and Colbert, so long cast in the role of class clowns, could successfully move to a position more akin to teacher’s pet. But in the years since the election, “The Colbert Report” did some of its most incisive work. Colbert’s take on campaign finance reform and super-PAC coordination was some of the best stuff of the 2012 election, including work from Actual Media Outlets. It seemed equally impossible to make it interesting and to make it funny, but he managed both (albeit with a big dash of horrifying).
Which, as long as we’ve mentioned actual media outlets, perhaps we owe a brief moment of silence to that question of Where Kids Are Getting Their News These Days. It is customary among a certain kind of commentator to sneer that “these days, the kids get their news from Colbert and ‘The Daily Show.’ ” Frankly, that would not have been a bad place to get it.
A PRRI/Brookings survey in 2014 found that “The Daily Show” was more trusted than MSNBC. But we weren’t actually getting our news from “The Colbert Report” and “The Daily Show.” Comedy Central, which conducted a survey on millennials’ political habits, noted that “When it comes to political comedy/satires, Millennials don’t watch to get informed; they watch because they are informed.” We got our news elsewhere, then tuned in to laugh about it. Fifty-three percent of Colbert viewers said (in a Pew survey) that they were primarily in it for the entertainment, the zinger after the fact.
Now where do we turn? There’s always Jon Stewart, in his role as Media Critic in Chief, and John Oliver, continuing in the If-We-Can-Make-This-Funny-We-Can-Make-This-Interesting footsteps. But it was always interesting to see the Colbert twist. You needed someone who was absurd on purpose because the world was so often absurd by accident. So we waited. “Let’s see what Colbert does with it.” It was stunning that it hadn’t always been there because it felt like something we had always needed. It was like having toothpaste in your hotel room — it hadn’t been provided before, but it instantly made sense, and you wondered how you had lived without it.
Now Colbert himself is moving on, but the model he pioneered still feels very vital. Larry Wilmore’s “Minority Report” has promise, but — why not a woman next? We’ve had a parody Bill O’Reilly — what about a parody provocatrix in the mold of Ann Coulter? Whatever its eventual form, we need something. Colbert is gone, but his “Report” is something I’m not ready to do without.