Farewell to a magnificent comic actor who skewered the news, the media and his own blowhard character — and made it all incorrigibly, indelibly appealing+ READ ARTICLE
I’m blue. After nine years and two months, The Colbert Report is off the air. I’ve seen each of the 1446 episodes leading to tonight’s sign-off, and cherished almost all of them. The show’s conclusion will leave a void in my life and in my writing, since I’ve shoehorned Colbert references into reviews of Superbad, Prince of Persia, Pompeii, Jackass 3D, Nightcrawler and Julie Taymor’s The Tempest, and into essays about Richard Nixon, Ingmar Bergman, Derek Jeter, makeup artist Dick Smith and the 2012 Super Bowl. For my wife Mary Corliss and me, Colbert has been destination viewing. Even in the early years, we never took the show’s excellence for granted, agreeing that some day we’d look back on the double whammy of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report as the golden age of TV’s singeing singing satire.
That age ends now. Colbert is gone from TV until September, when he takes over David Letterman’s CBS 11:35 slot and, at 51, becomes the oldest man to debut as the host of a late-night network talk show. (Joan Rivers was 53 when she began The Late Show in 1986 on the upstart Fox network.) He’ll be off the air for nine months — a long time for admirers like me to go cold, or Colbert, turkey. And when he finally starts on CBS, he’ll just be Stephen Colbert. Not “Stephen Colbert,” the greatest fake newsman in TV history, and one of the richest fictional characters in any popular art form of the past decade.
I was around (as a toddler) for the late-night pioneers Steve Allen and Jack Paar, and for the 29-year reign of Johnny Carson. They established comedy as the tone de unit for post-prime time TV. And fealty forever to Jon Stewart, who took command of The Daily Show in 1999 and turned it into the prime exemplar of cogent, corrosive political comedy in any medium. The edge Colbert has on all these giants is that he is a magnificent comic actor, commenting cuttingly on his egotistical right-wing “Colbert” character even as he seems to live inside it. He made that Colbert both politically outrageous and personally appealing.
Without Stewart, of course, The Colbert Report would not have existed. Both shows skewer politicians, pop culture and that inexhaustible source of satire, the Fox News Channel. (It’s amazing that, with the same butts for their humor, the two shows rarely cracked the same jokes.) But the on-air Stewart was himself, not “Jon Stewart.” Colbert, who had been a Daily Show correspondent for two years before Stewart replaced Craig Kilborn as host, was already honing his pompous-ignoramus persona, which he described in 2006 as “a fool who has spent a lot of his life playing not the fool – one who is able to cover it at least well enough to deal with the subjects that he deals with.” In other words, the authoritative bluffer, the officious fraud, the idiot know-it-all.
He played another incarnation of this all-hat-no-cattle character on the Comedy Central sitcom Strangers With Candy (1999-2000), which he also wrote with costars Amy Sedaris and Paul Dinello. High-school history teacher Chuck Noblet was every bit as seemingly self-assured and wildly misinformed as the Colbert Colbert. He instructed his students that Gandhi “was devoured by his followers,” that the 1840s Opium War was between China and Mexico and that the tragedy of Martin Luther King’s life was that “all this footage is in black and white. Imagine how powerful it would have been in color.” Frequently mentioning his lovely wife, Chuck actually carried a man-crush for Dinello’s slightly-less-closeted art teacher. (Dinello, a Colbert Report executive producer, has made appearances as Tad the building manager. And Sedaris crashed the Dec. 3rd episodes as a “canceled” guest.)
When The Colbert Report premiered on Oct. 17, 2005, a lot of people predicted that the character would quickly grow stale. This blowhard pundit, modeled on Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, was too meta; to play along, you had to get the joke that he was dispensing a right-wing take on the news from a left-wing perspective. (I sometimes wonder: Do all his viewers appreciate that?) One wondered how long he could sustain the role: take the audience’s cheers as he trotted over to the guest’s table, or denounce bears as “godless killing machines,” or deflect charges of race prejudices because he’s color-blind (“People tell me I’m white, and I believe them…”) or preen through repeated segments of “Who’s Honoring Me Now?”
The answer turned out to be: forever. For Colbert and his splendid writing team had created a ferociously funny Col-BEAR — or Col-BARE, if you think this character exposes aspects of the man whom impersonates him —as an alternative to the bright, quiet, modest fellow whose family pronounces its surname COLbert. Both Colberts are ardent Catholics, born and raised in South Carolina and married with three children. But the TV Colbert went to Dartmouth, humiliates his underpaid staff and has harbored an almost stalker-y obsession with his teen love Charlene. The real Colbert graduated from Northwestern; is by all accounts a kind, caring boss; is married to Evelyn McGee (who played his mother on one episode of Strangers With Candy); and for years taught Sunday school near his Montclair, N.J. home. Need we also say, the real Colbert is a liberal.
The last weeks of shows have put poignant ends to some enduring Colbert shtick. His continuing segment, “Formidable Opponent,” in which the more moderate Stephen (blue tie) would debate an issue with the more conservative Stephen (red tie), got a final segment this week in which the cross-cutting ended with a split screen of the two men; and as red-tie Stephen faded out, blue-tie Stephen said, “And you, Sir, have been a most formidable opponent.” (Verklempt!) And in a visit last week to George Washington University, he turned his familiar conundrum to political guests — “George W. Bush: great President, or the greatest President?” — by asking the current President of the United States, “Barack Obama: great President, or the greatest President?”
We’ll bet that the “real” Stephen was touched by that moment. We know that he did get pumped by his audience’s cheers at the top of the show and, in the early years, express pleasured surprise at his renown — for example that “my Wikipedia page is longer than the line for the Lutherans.” (Wikipedia’s Colbert pages now run more than 300,000 words, to about 15,300 for Lutheranism.) Colbert has intimated he thought that, after nine years, his character had run its course. But isn’t it possible that COL-bert will miss Col-BEAR as much as we do?
If so, Mr. Colbert, please come back, at least occasionally. Your replacement show, Larry Wilmore’s The Minority Report, will be on hiatus eight weeks between its debut in January and your September stint on CBS. You may have felt worn out by “Stephen Colbert,” but we need more of the Greatest TV Talk-Show Host.