In a culture as fickle and fast as ours, it ought to be impossible to keep a running joke aloft for nine years and still have it play in a vibrant and smart way night after night, but that’s what comic actor Stephen Colbert and his crew achieved with “The Colbert Report,” which ends its run Thursday on Comedy Central.
The show was so good and so meticulously performed that you could, in fact, not watch it. That, too, is high praise. It’s rare for a show and a performer to become so enmeshed with the zeitgeist that ratings become a moot point. Only the most loyal citizens of the so-called Colbert Nation truly needed their nightly dose of the layered political satire that Colbert mastered in the guise of “Stephen Colbert,” a narcissistic, conservative blowhard spouting his fact-averse commentary on the day’s news.
The rest of us could instead check in from time to time and make sure his carefully constructed outrage and indignation were still very much attuned to the degrees of viral outrage and deep indignation that have come to define American life in the early 21st century. The Colbert era was in the air as much as on the air, as the show’s best work took morning victory laps on Internet news feeds.
The joke caught on and never exhausted itself. What we were seeing was the perfect indictment of the world of political punditry, yes, but also a send-up of our inflexibility when it came to opinions, reason and the truth. “Truthiness,” an early invention of the Colbert shtick, allowed its host to have it both ways, as a buffoon who holds objectionable opinions that he intends his liberal-leaning audience to object to by pretending to bask in his jingo-wingo patriotism. “Anyone can read the news to you,” Colbert said on the show’s first episode. “I promise to feel the news at you.”
“The Colbert Report” was both a spin-off from and essential companion piece to “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” which airs before it. Together — yet pretending to be ideologically apart — Stewart and Colbert occupied a rare, perfect melding of the serious and the satirical during a period in which the country was at war abroad and experiencing a series of nervous breakdowns at home.
Washington seemed slow on the uptake, even though savvier politicos and lawmakers quickly mastered the bizarre art of partaking in “The Colbert Show” and making it work for their message. (They’d had some practice, some of it unwitting, on “The Daily Show,” where the Colbert character had been a correspondent since the late 1990s.)
“We know that polls are just statistics that reflect what people are thinking in ‘reality,’ ” Colbert told the audience at the White House Correspondents Association dinner in 2006. “And reality has a well-known liberal bias.” His monologue then proceeded to strafe an audience filled with media people, politicians, cabinet members, generals, a president and a first lady. It was at once quietly horrifying and frankly beautiful.
After that night, it seemed as if our world had sorted itself in yet one more way: People who got Colbert and the dolts who didn’t; people who were in on the act and people who were congenitally impervious to it.
Some of the swells who had been in the Washington Hilton ballroom that night swore they had witnessed an act of inappropriate self-immolation by a little known comedian (the Correspondents Association decided to bring back the ancient impressionist Rich Little — Lazarus-like — to headline the 2007 dinner); millions more who watched Colbert’s monologue on TV, or, more likely, on the Internet, felt they had found a new American hero.
In the ensuing years — through war and recession and two elections — “The Colbert Report” turned into the strangest sort of kiss goodnight from a man playing the most taciturn sort of dad.
“The Colbert Report” was, for its left-leaning viewers, a reassurance: Not only was someone discombobulating the conservative noise machine by mimicking it, he never once let his audience forget that it was all in fun. Whenever his fans attempted to heap upon him the burden of being their trusted news source, he was quick to remind them it was all a show.
Nowhere was this more evident than at the October 2010 “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” a gathering on the National Mall that drew 200,000 or so passionate viewers of “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” who seemed prepared for something more meaningful (a movement, perhaps?) and instead received live entertainment and a vague message about the need to turn down the volume of the country’s ongoing screaming matches.
The real Colbert (the 50-year-old Catholic churchgoer, husband and father of three who will become the host of CBS’s “Late Show” after David Letterman’s retirement next May) is what they call a consummate showman. He can sing beautifully and dance, too; for all its biting and relevant wit, “The Colbert Report” was never more lovely than when its star’s full range of talents were on display. (For the best example of this, go find his 2008 holiday special, “A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All!” a musical entry in the delusional “war on Christmas” debates. In a more perfect world, “A Colbert Christmas” would be as widely known and celebrated each year as “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”)
In personal moments, such as a videotaped Q&A with Google employees two years ago, Colbert referred to the character he played on “The Colbert Report” as “a well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot. … He is living an unexamined life and that’s fine with him.”
When media ethicists fretted over the idea that a generation of younger Americans was relying on Colbert and Stewart’s shows as its only sources of “real” news, Colbert (in a candid, out-of-character moment) once said that his audience got the jokes because they came to it well-informed. They were already up to speed, already aghast at what they’d read or seen elsewhere, and needing someone to express their angers and worries in an entertaining way.
What compares to “The Colbert Report” in the history of American entertainment and humor, in which the material and the society that it lampooned were so intertwined?
The work of Mark Twain easily comes to mind (another case of a talented writer and cultural commentator inhabiting a fully realized persona at just the right moment), and, to a lesser degree, so does the work of Will Rogers. Both men are inextricably identified with the kind of America they lived in and the kind of technology it invented — from telegraph wires and a burgeoning print media industry to the eventual wonders of radio and film.
Likewise, Colbert is forever linked to the art of linking, via the almighty broadband. YouTube and “The Colbert Report” found success at the same time; when Colbert’s show first started in October 2005, Comedy Central encouraged fans to freely cut-and-paste to the Internet his tirades and his slyly executed exchanges with his guests, who were celebrities, politicians, writers. It’s entirely possible to imagine historians leaning on “The Colbert Report” archives to truly understand how we understood our own submersion in media.
It’s also possible to imagine “The Colbert Report” fading into the usual relief, lumped into history somewhere alongside “Laugh-In” and “Saturday Night Live.” Maybe everything we love is terribly ephemeral. How vain do we have to be to think anyone will find our television shows fascinating 100 years from now?
As vain as Stephen Colbert! (Cue screeching eagle.)
Watching his final shows, it’s clear that Colbert the actor intends to seal the “Stephen Colbert” character away forever. “The Colbert Report” is leaving a world largely unchanged; almost eerily, the long-awaited report on CIA torture arrived as a grim flashback to the era in which the show began. The nation made almost no progress on the biggies — the wars, the environment, the bickering, the wealth gap. Noting that China had released a statement asking, “How long can America pretend to be a human rights champion?” Colbert replied: “Uh, I don’t know — for about as long as I can pretend I don’t know who made my iPhone?”
Colbert then revived a segment called “Formidable Opponent,” in which he debated the only person he believed to be his intellectual equal — himself.
“I’m not talking about the actual country. I’m talking about the idea of America. The idea of America would never torture,” Colbert said to Colbert.
To which Colbert replied: “Have you read that report? We pumped hummus up people’s butts! Now, I’m no imam, but I’m pretty sure that’s not halal.”
The two Colberts continued to debate perception vs. reality, until one of them faded away, almost elegantly foreshadowing the host’s final exit. For months now, fans inside and outside of “The Colbert Report’s” cozy echo chamber have wondered whether Colbert will literally act out the death of Stephen Colbert on Thursday night. (In listings, the last episode is ominously titled “Grimmy”; some critics have already written their farewells to the show in obituary form.)
What a relief it may be, for the real Colbert and for his viewers, to slay this giant ego in dramatic, pompous fashion. Everything about “The Colbert Report” was a put-on, a fake, but the grief of losing it is real.