Stephen Colbert’s lasting legacy

Stephen Colbert and Grimmy

After 9 years of The Colbert Report, or 17 years including his time at The Daily Show, the time has come to say farewell to “Stephen Colbert”, an unprecedented character the likes of which we’ve never seen anywhere else in pop culture.

Requiem for a character

I’m really gonna miss this guy. I mean, I’ve been watching “Stephen Colbert”, the character, since he was a correspondent on The Daily Show. I was so legit excited when The Colbert Report premiered, but I feel like nobody could’ve truly predicted the runaway success it would be or the incredible impact Colbert would have on comedy, media, politics, and culture. What a legacy.

When we first learned The Colbert Report would be ending, “Stephen” appeared on The Daily Show to announce that he was getting out of the business because he had won television — a claim that only he could manage to pull off. Months later, on December 18, it was time for the series finale:

Stephen Colbert: Terrible news

As it turned out, some people probably were first- and last-time viewers — 2.5 million people watched the finale, making it the highest rated episode of The Colbert Report ever. But even for us regulars, it was unclear how such a unique series would come to a close — Colbert kept us guessing until the end.

The countdown to the final episode began when Grimmy, Stephen’s apparent lifelong friend, began showing up a little too often for comfort. We knew the end was near. What we didn’t piece together was that “Stephen” was never going to die — he’s been “cheating death” all along. In the fantastical world of the Report, Stephen ended up accidentally killing Grimmy, cheating death one last time and proving himself to be immortal. He sang “We’ll Meet Again” with basically everyone who ever appeared on his show and then rode off into the night with Santa Claus, Abraham Lincoln, and Alex Trebek, because of course.

At the end, Colbert went sincere — and it was honestly touching. Saying goodbye one final time, Stephen tossed it back to Jon Stewart, revealing that the entire Colbert Report was indeed just that — a report, as he had been delivering on The Daily Show since 1997. Jon fittingly ended with a moment of zen.

Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart

As the full credits of the cast and crew rolled for the last time, the song “Holland, 1945” by Neutral Milk Hotel played. This wasn’t some random selection — it turns out there’s a very somber meaning behind the song that extends to the actual Stephen Colbert’s real life. A series finale that was already emotional in a number of ways ended with a moment that hit us in all of the feels.

After spending the entire day showing a marathon of Colbert Report episodes, Comedy Central, of course, trudged forward — @midnight began slightly behind schedule, and as Chris Hardwick and crew paid tribute to Colbert at the start of the show, I was still processing everything that had just happened. It felt like more than the end of a great TV series. We had just said goodbye to a cultural force that helped define the past decade, well beyond comedy.

An indelible mark

Looking back to 2005, who knew what a lasting legacy Colbert would have? The Report’s first head writer and early executive producer Allison Silverman wrote that “it was definitely no sure thing” when Comedy Central first picked up the series. But it didn’t take long for Colbert to become cemented in culture. The character he played slowly evolved from a sort of general bloviator on The Daily Show, to a loose parody of Bill O’Reilly at the outset of The Colbert Report, to something certainly much greater than that as the years went by. The initial 8-week, 32-episode order turned into more than 9 years and 1,447 episodes. The guy who was described in the very first show-open as “grippy” had become the “grippest” by the very last show-open, in a clever callback:

Stephen Colbert: Grippest

The impact Colbert had on his contemporaries in comedy, media, politics, and entertainment was self-evident by their presence in the finale’s grand singalong, but if that wasn’t enough, dozens of celebrities shared their stories about Colbert’s legacy in the days leading up to the series finale. It became clear that he was in a league of his own. Bill Carter, the king of all media reporters and final authority on late night TV, had this to say about Colbert:

“He has left an indelible mark, and he did it in a way almost no one thought was possible or sustainable.”

I remember thinking there was no way Colbert could stay in character the whole time. But not only did he keep up the act, he used it to push the boundaries of what’s acceptable to say and how to act in any given situation, inside or outside his studio, and get away with things nobody else would dare even attempt.

My favorites: He stood mere feet away from George W. Bush at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2006 and deftly ripped him to shreds with a smile on his face, confusing the president and alienating the room but causing mass breakouts of incredulity and applause at home. He got his name or likeness put on countless things and places over the years. He actually ran for president in 2008. He testified in front of Congress in 2010 while in character, a move that required an unfathomable amount of balls. The same year, he rallied to restore sanity and/or fear, bringing hundreds of thousands of people together for… no particular reason. He exposed the inherent corruption of super PACs in 2012 by (what else?) launching his own super PAC, and then he used the money that was donated to him to run fake campaigns that subverted the real political process. Through his satire, he did such a uniquely great job of educating the public about super PACs and campaign financing that he won a Peabody Award, something that can’t be said for “real” journalists who reported on the same topic.

That kind of subversive impact on culture and society is what I’m talking about when I say “Stephen Colbert” is an unprecedented character. No one else has ever done anything on the scale that Colbert has, and who knows if anyone else ever will. The character of Colbert was lightning in a bottle. Future generations won’t have the luxury we did for 9 years: A satirical caricature of the worst people our media and society have to offer, but with a certain charm they’re lacking — a charisma that made him lovable… and unstoppable. He was someone who could speak “truthiness” to power in a way that simply no one else can.

Stephen Colbert: Same to you, pal

But in the final installment of The Wørd, Stephen himself had another idea. The word was “Same to you, pal” — he insisted in his last word that he did not in fact change the world since 2005, but rather “samed the world”. He cited things that were true then and are still (or perhaps once again) true now, like a Bush running for president, people on TV news defending torture, and an ongoing war against somebody or something in Iraq. In his own words:

“When this show began, I promised you a revolution — and I have delivered. Because technically, one revolution is 360 degrees right back to where we were.”

Stephen went on to say that if all he accomplished was to make difficult days a little better for the viewers at home, “what a waste” — so take the character’s last word with the requisite grain of salt. That being said, of course, it’s a fascinating counterpoint to the notion that he was this indispensable figure that I and others have made him out to be. The truthiness is, Stephen’s proud of the things that he accomplished together with the Colbert Nation, but he knows we’ll be able to go on without him, just like we did before.

The American dream

The most lasting legacy of “Stephen Colbert” might simply be our memory of the character as a representative for America — after a decade of his bombastic patriotism, Stephen will forever be tied in our heads to the red, white, and blue. But Stephen’s idea of America is, by design, idealistic. That idea doesn’t represent what this nation actually is — it only represents what he imagines it to be.

While the series finale pulled at everyone’s heartstrings, there was one segment from earlier in the week that stuck with me more than any other: Formidable Opponent, from the December 15 episode. In it, Colbert effectively dismantled the character he spent all these years performing:

“The idea of America would never torture. That, my friend, is why I choose to live in the idea of America.”

“Ah-ha!! But the idea of America is just an imaginary place… Which means you, sir, are just an imaginary Stephen Colbert.”

“And you, sir, have been a formidable opponent.”

Stephen Colbert: Formidable Opponent

By the end of the segment, the imaginary Stephen Colbert had faded away.

It’s a visual gag that packs a powerful punch, as heard in the sincere gasps from the audience at the end of the video when they saw the “Stephen” they’ve come to know disappear in front of their eyes. And if we’ve learned anything from The Colbert Report, you can’t take that symbolism lightly. The real Colbert is moving on to host the Late Show starting in September, and he sent a strong message to his future CBS viewers who might only recognize him as his character: That “Stephen Colbert” is as imaginary as the idea of America he lives in.

Of course, the joy of presenting that character as the “imaginary” Stephen Colbert is that with imagination, anything is possible. Whatever’s happening with that character is not on a linear timeline. He’s not dead, he’s immortal. It doesn’t have to make sense. So yes, the Report is done, but will we ever see “Stephen” again? Let’s take his wørd for it… We’ll meet again some sunny day. [Medium | Tumblr]

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