In retrospect, the idea that the real Stephen Colbert would kill off his creation, “Stephen Colbert,” so that he could have a clean start when he takes over for David Letterman on CBS next year, was a kind of lunacy. Over the nine years of The Colbert Report, Colbert (the real one) has proven himself a performer with impeccable instincts and timing and a keen sense of the cultural temperature. Over that same time, Stephen Colbert, the character, has been the over-confident idiot savant that, so often, America needs. Colbert, the man, is too wise to kill off Colbert, the character, when that character still has so much to say, hilariously, about the world we inhabit.
And so in the final episode of The Colbert Report, as totally sincere as it was entirely ludicrous, Stephen Colbert defeated death, achieved immortality, got hundreds of his friends to sing “We’ll Meet Again,” and rode off into the night with those other godheads of American culture: Santa Claus, Abraham Lincoln, and Alex Trebek. We will meet Colbert again, and we will have to comfort ourselves with that future meeting, even if it will not be quite as soon as we might like. (Though perhaps that depends on how long Colbert, the character, remains the spokesperson for pistachios.)
As Colbert himself gently mocked in his final episode (“I am a transformational historical figure!”), the praise swirling around him at this moment could not be greater: Colbert is the greatest piece of political comedy, agit-prop, and performance art of our age, everyone is saying, and he is going out on top. It is nearly impossible to argue with any of this. Stephen Colbert has always made playing Stephen Colbert, freakishly charming, gasbag Conservative pundit, look astoundingly effortless. He spits out contorted, true-to-Colbert logic with such ease that it can be difficult to appreciate how hard that is. He takes issues that usually make eyes glaze over— campaign finance reform, super PACs—and turns them into riotous theater. Every night he threads a needle with a minuscule pinhole: passionately wanting to expose hypocrisy, stupidity, complacency, and self-satisfaction without being anything less than completely entertaining. Colbert isn’t just dancing backward in heels: He is dancing backward in heels and somehow making it look like he is barely moving his feet.
And this past week of The Colbert Report has shown just how vital he remains. Perhaps he has had a little extra spring in his buoyant step, a little more twinkle in his egomaniacal eye, but not by much. The Colbert performance, which was always too inventive to harden into shtick, was vibrant and feisty and alive to the end. On Monday, the smartest idiot in American entertainment debated himself about the recently released Senate torture report, working his way around to the notion that the “idea” of America doesn’t torture. The next night, discussing low gas prices, he declared “carpe gasum” and filled not just his tank, but his entire car with fuel. Wednesday, speaking with the writer and former soldier Phil Klay about his National Book Award–winning Redeployment, Colbert noted that he himself didn’t fight in Iraq, though “I wanted to go. But I was here using the troops as a cudgel against people who disagreed with me.”
In the final episode, Colbert crowed that over the last nine years he had not changed, but “samed the world,” the opposite of a humble brag—call it bombastic self-effacement. Today, as in 2005, a Bush is running for president, America is torturing people and sending troops into Iraq. The idea that Colbert has, in his tenure, only achieved “same-ness” is one with which the Colbert Nation, and even less partisan observers, would vehemently disagree. But that is what makes it such a perfect, acid Colbert joke. Layered and layered right down to a cutting core, it’s a sour pill for everyone to swallow.
All week Colbert has been greeted, per usual, by a steady, strong chant of “Stephen, Stephen, Stephen,” which he salutes, appreciates, signals to a close. Colbert is, of course, not a pundit, but a send-up of one. He deserves all of the love and respect that he has accrued. It was fitting, moving even, for him to be sung off stage by literally hundreds of luminaries—including Willie Nelson, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Big Bird, Tom Brokaw, Katie Couric, Gloria Steinem, Samantha Power, James Franco, George Lucas, and Bill De Blasio among many, many others—all happily willing to do something both so silly and so sweet for such a talent. But the adulation of the Colbert Nation, while a fundamental part of the joke, is also the glimmering edge of the problem: a riff on a demagogue still teaches us about demagoguery. Colbert, especially, has never lost sight of this. It’s part of what has kept The Colbert Report so razor-sharp. To the very end, Colbert was not playing around with safe material. Thank goodness he’ll still be around on occasion to help us deal with the hard stuff.