In a perfect world, The Colbert Report would’ve shamed Fox News Channel, and perhaps the other cable news outfits, off the air. For nine years, it has relentlessly and hilariously held a funhouse mirror up to the pasty white faces of the conservative entertainment complex, exposing it as the thoughtless, shallow and incredibly spoofable joke that it is. Normal human beings would’ve run for cover, frantically tweaking the embarrassing flaws and shallow delivery of the news that “Stephen Colbert,” the right-wing character played by Stephen Colbert, has highlighted so wickedly every night on Comedy Central.
Other than, perhaps, The Daily Show, there hasn’t been and likely will never be another half-hour that’s both consistently the smartest, funniest late night show on television while also achieving something that in lesser hands would never have endured this long much less remained relevant and hilarious for its entire run. Stephen Colbert invented a character that could’ve been perfectly successful sketch on SNL, and which very few observers would never have guessed could enjoy the longevity of nine years, four nights per week, and a treasure chest of awards. That’s how rare Colbert’s talent is. No one else could have done what he did. It’s never happened in the history of television.
All at once, Colbert played a Bill O’Reilly style pundit, satirizing the worst aspects of a cable news show, but constructed in such a way that made an otherwise unlikable character eminently likable. How do you make Bill O’Reilly likable to people who hate Bill O’Reilly? It isn’t just about lampooning O’Reilly’s act. That’s the silly, easy sketch show version that would have failed after nine episodes — an arrogant bastard who we’d laugh at for five minutes. “Stephen Colbert,” on the other hand, was a Bill O’Reilly character who we laughed with. Just enough of Stephen Colbert, the real guy, was doled out for us to really, really like. It’s difficult to name anyone who could pull off that balance.
We were committed to the character because Colbert was fully committed to both the character and the news, owning every second of his time on camera and never relenting. Just watch his legendary roast of President Bush at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. That’s fearless, ballsy commitment.
Unlike Jon Stewart, who occasionally reflects our own exasperation with current events, Colbert never faltered — like a comedy machine, he never let on that he was disgusted or exhausted with news stories that were inherently exhausting (though he surely had to have been). In other words, on nights when even The Daily Show version of the news was too difficult to digest, Colbert was unreal enough and yet committed enough to make us laugh in spite of our level of political burn-out. The awfulness of the news never seemed to drag down the show.
Then there’s the wonderfully twisted, absurdist side of the character. There were bits and jokes on the show that were so excellently out there, it seemed at times that Colbert simply didn’t care if he drove away some of his audience who simply didn’t get what the hell he was up to. Whether it was his low-budget sci-fi cartoons about the alter-ego of his alter-ego, a space hero named “Tek Jansen,” or his utterly fucked-up 2008 Christmas special, it was easily the weirdest show on basic cable. But again, he was committed to the weirdness and the commitment made it work — the commitment and the fact that it was usually laugh-out-loud funny.
Coincidentally, Colbert’s last show airs just four nights after another show about a fictitious cable news anchor ended its considerably less successful run. Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom is a different kind of show, so it’s unfair to compare the two shows too rigorously — The Newsroom reflected what cable news ought to be, while Colbert reflected cable news at its worst. However, as televised statements about the current landscape, there was no way in hell The Newsroom was going to be as salient and as fearless as Colbert’s take. That said, The Newsroom could have been so much more — it could’ve been Serious Colbert: Behind The Scenes. It had the potential to badly scold the cable news networks, but it groaned under the weight of Sorkin’s self-indulgence and missteps, failing to even reach the status of a consistent show, much less a valuable criticism of modern journalism. Colbert, on the other hand, accomplished both consistency and valuable criticism. Times a thousand.
Ernie Kovacs would’ve loved The Colbert Report. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Kovacs invented modern television comedy and, for the first time, differentiated television comedy from radio comedy. Years later, Colbert reinvented how satire is done on television and, like Kovacs, took advantage of every resource to do incredibly funny things. Every convention and every detail of a Fox News style show was used for a joke. Beyond that, technology itself became a platform for satire. Take for instance, his “Green Screen Challenge.” In what was perhaps the first television/YouTube crossover, Colbert seized upon an awful 2008 speech by Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ), delivered in front of a sickly green backdrop, and asked his viewers to use the movie-visual-effects green screen technique to composite weird things in place of the green background then post the videos to YouTube. The Kovacsian results were ingenious. And it’s no damn wonder why David Letterman, who himself is an heir to the Kovacs style, chose Colbert to take over The Late Show.
This is all to say that on December 18, “Stephen Colbert” is going to be badly missed. America needs this form of pop culture and political satire because it doesn’t exist anywhere else, and probably won’t for a long, long time to come. More specifically, journalism needs “Stephen Colbert” to underline how disgraceful it’s become — that instead of reading the news to us, it too often feels the news at us (paraphrasing the definition of the neologism “truthiness” from The Colbert Report, Episode 1, 2005).
On the other hand, it’s debatable how much longer it could’ve really lasted. Nine years in which he pulled off the impossible was probably pushing it long enough before Colbert retired the character and moved on to a larger audience and a different format. Colbert, no longer as “Colbert,” is still one of the two or three most talented, consistently hilarious men on television, and his kind of brain needs to be heard by the largest possible audience, because there’s no telling the kind of super-colossal impact he’ll have — perhaps not politically, but culturally.
Beginning in May or June, or whenever his new show premieres, I’ll be watching network late night for the first time in many years, that’s for sure. Stephen Colbert is going to own that time-slot, mark my words. On a personal level, I not only relate to the political angle of his character, but I relate to Colbert, the guy. Beyond the comedy, I admire his commitment, his tenacity and his consistency as a performer. I admire the fact that he’s an unapologetic Catholic but isn’t so dogmatic that he can’t see its contradictions. I admire the fact that he’s an unapologetic Tolkien nerd, just like me (though life-ages ahead of me on the trivia). I admire that his favorite guest of all time is Neil deGrasse Tyson. I admire that he’s an ordinary family man without any (public) vices. I admire that even as himself, his improv and comedic chops are unmatched. And I admire the fact that he accomplished a comedic feat unrivaled on television — and we were lucky enough to witness it first hand. Breathe easy, nation, the good news is that these are all aspects of Colbert that will absolutely be seen on CBS in the old David Letterman slot next year.
And together they answer the question: Stephen Colbert, great comedian, or the greatest comedian?