“The Colbert Report,” which is ending its nine-year run on Comedy Central on Thursday so that host Stephen Colbert can take over the “Late Show” when David Letterman retires in May, is thought of as a political show, and with good reason. Colbert’s faux-commentator character, a “well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot” as (the real) Colbert called him, was a brilliant lampoon of not just “Papa Bear” Bill O’Reilly, but, in a larger sense, the entire political media establishment, and its inability not only to get anything done, but to even have even a cogent conversation. Almost every time I watch either Fox News or MSNBC, I see people who still aren’t quite in on Colbert’s joke.
The character was surprisingly pliable: Early critics worried that the TV Stephen was drawn so narrowly that he would inevitably grow one-note over the lifespan of a daily news show, but Colbert always kept the character moving and organic. And the reason for this, and the reason the show was so amazing—yet probably had to die at some point—was Colbert himself. The real one. Every year, the Colbert character faded a little bit more, and the real Colbert emerged. And this Colbert was wonderful.
Everybody has their favorite Colbert moments, but mine isn’t really political at all. It’s a two-part interview—with excerpts added later—with “Where The Wild Things Are” author Maurice Sendak, who would die at the age of 83 four months later. Colbert is only nominally in character, and only in service of Sendak: Colbert is from the world of improvisational comedy (within that world, he’s widely considered the best improv performer of all time), and, as he’s said, “one of the things I was taught early on is that you are not the most important person in the scene. Everybody else is.” You can see this in the greatest Colbert interviews—it’s why usually stolid and bland politicians often end up looking lit up and charismatic when Colbert talks to them—and you never saw it more clearly than in the interview with Sendak.
This is everything that is terrific about Colbert. He’s smart, engaged, and accommodating, but also never backs off and just lets Sendak run wild: He treats the interview like a dance. The interview is funny—the bit where they sniff the markers kills me every time I watch it—but more than anything else, it is sweet. There is a gentleness to Colbert, the real one, the quiet South Carolina native who still teaches Sunday school and regularly quotes scripture, that is more unique in television than his wit or even his improv talent. Colbert is seen by those who don’t understand him solely as a cutting satirist, and sometimes he is, but that misses much of the point: Colbert, at his core, is a kind humanist. Watch his contribution to the It Gets Better campaign. Don’t tell me you don’t see some Mister Rogers in there.
This is why the left-wing advocates who took him as their savior after his tell-truth-to-power performance at the White House Correspondents’ dinner in 2006, and the right-wing pundits like Rush Limbaugh, who see him as some sort of liberal icon, both get it so wrong.
Colbert is a comedian, and there have been many times that his show has made strong political points, but he is not inherently a political comedian. The politics were (sometimes, though less and less as the show aged) the canvas, but the comedy was always the paint.
The contrast between fellow “Daily Show” compatriots Jon Stewart and John Oliver is instructive. Stewart, for all his skills, takes himself considerably more seriously than Colbert does; his “rally for sanity” ended, perhaps inevitably, with Stewart making an awkward, self-aggrandizing speech that felt more than anything else like a political manifesto, only with fewer jokes. (It’s telling that Colbert’s appearance at the rally was mostly absurdist, and he got out of there before the air became so clogged with self-righteousness.) Oliver lays it on less thick than Colbert, but he’s without question an advocate: His passed-around-on-YouTube-soliloquies are intelligent and incisive, but they’re more like TED talks with a few jokes spliced in than any sort of comedic crescendo. (A friend of mine loves Oliver but has begun calling these segments, “OK, So Who’s The Asshole This Week?”) Stewart and Oliver are trying to change the world, and it’s important to them that you know they’re doing that.
Colbert is not against scoring a political point or two, but the focus is always the comedy and the performance. Colbert has spoken about wearing his “Stephen Colbert character” “as lightly as a cap;” “you can take them on and off as you need.” When the cap came off, as it increasingly did, you saw the real Colbert. This lightness led to less heavy-handed statements and more quiet, lovely little moments, while still allowing for plenty of the show’s signature “we’re all in on the meta-joke” moments. (It was perfect that President Obama’s only live appearance on the show had him speaking as Colbert’s character—a President playing a person playing a fake character—and we all got it.)
As the real Colbert emerged, it became clearer that the show was still surprising and successful because of the times Colbert slipped out of character.
It was also clear that Colbert was enjoying himself more, too: In interviews and other media appearances, you saw more and more of Sunday School Improv Guy Stephen Colbert, rather than the blowhard Stephen Colbert. Which is why, when Letterman retired, CBS jumped so quickly (within a week) to grab Colbert. We’ve been watching a magic balancing act, an actor playing a part on the fly every night, for nine years. Colbert says he’s retiring the character after this week: Now we get to see the real guy.
There is a sadness in losing the political Colbert, and not just because he was such an inspired creation: As Guardian writer Jeb Lund put it, as terrific as Colbert’s satire of the news business and politics has been, nothing has really changed in the nine years—in itself a remarkable and depressing fact. There are still blowhards and people talking past each other and using Orwellian language to falsify and dissemble, all the things Colbert has been mocking for nearly a decade. Colbert pointed out their fatuousness, but that didn’t make them go away. Lund calls watching the program in some ways a “mordant surrender”—acknowledging what Colbert has been mocking also acknowledges that these political creatures might be unkillable.
But Colbert wasn’t really out to kill them, or anybody else, anyway. Now that the show is in its last week, it does feel like it’s time to say goodbye. It has been an amazing high-wire act, every night, watching one of the greatest live performers of our time create an intricate meta-upon-meta joke we can all feel in on. But the character has run its course: There are so many real-life versions of that character that he can live on every time we turn on the news. Stephen Colbert, the improv star, never really wanted to be a political comedian. And that’s precisely why he was the best one. I’ll miss “The Colbert Report.” But I can’t wait to bury the character, and see the real Colbert, all the time. I bet Stephen, at last, feels the same way.