Yesterday’s announcement that Stephen Colbert will succeed David Letterman as the new host of Late Show came surprisingly fast. Letterman’s retirement news came out last week, but considering the wild success of The Colbert Report over the past decade, it makes sense that CBS would want to pounce on the Comedy Central host to lead their flagship late night show into a new era. While Colbert’s promotion is undoubtedly deserved, Comedy Central made an announcement yesterday that was pretty damn sobering if you’re a diehard Colbert Report fan: “We look forward to the next eight months of the groundbreaking Colbert Report and wish Stephen the very best.” At the end of this year, Stephen Colbert the character – the dim, truthy, pompous, narcissistic right-winger we’ve come to love – will retire and become TV comedy history. Oprah interview aside, the real Stephen Colbert is an almost unknown quantity. Do we really even know the real him?
When The Colbert Report premiered in 2005, viewers didn’t yet know how much they needed Stephen in their lives. George W. Bush had started his second term as president, and for Jon Stewart and The Daily Show that meant an overload of right-wing punchline opportunities. At times, watching The Daily Show in those days felt like watching Stewart’s blood pressure dangerously rise in real time, but Colbert came in and saved all that, not by avoiding the Bush era altogether but by completely embodying it via his on-air persona. By creating his conservative “Stephen Colbert” alter-ego, Colbert was essentially one-upping The Daily Show’s outraged lefty schtick by staying eager, naive, and hopelessly clueless to the fact that he exemplified the ugly roots of American ignorance. Stewart goes by the brain, but Colbert goes by the gut (the home of truthiness), and a magical chemistry exists between The Daily Show’s cold hard reality-style reporting versus the more deadpan faux-sarcastic vibe over in Colbert land – he’s the tasty chaser after a shot of something much harder. Soon, though, this ideal late night pairing will split up for good.
Beyond the television bond The Colbert Report shares with The Daily Show, we’re losing one of the best comedy characters of all time. Jesse Fox wrote a wonderful ode to “Stephen Colbert” over at Vulture that captures the collective brilliance of the Colbert persona: “The formation of a sitcom character is like a sculptor laboriously chipping away at marble; what Colbert did was more akin to a rock slowly being smoothed by the motions of the tide. 150 nights a year, Colbert defined the character slowly but surely, segment by segment.” Colbert is, among other things, a consummate trickster archetype. Much like The Onion, certain tone-deaf right factions can’t tell if he’s joking or not when he reflects their absurd stances back at them through the funhouse mirror – see his Better Know a District series, Monkey on the Lam, Tip/Wag, the Super PAC saga, and his stable of recurring characters (Tim Meadows as P.K. Winsome, Eric Frandsen’s Hans Beinholtz, Scott Thompson’s Buddy Cole, to name a few) – but he’ll be best remembered for his more overarching impacts on the parody news show format, from his hammy selfish guest intro takeovers to his hatred for bears, love for “Papa Bear” Bill O’Reilly, and supposed inability – call it problematic or genius – to determine his own race or the race of others: “People tell me I’m white, and I believe them because I think The Chronic refers to lower back pain.”
During the beginning of last night’s show, Colbert briefly alluded to his new gig on Late Show next year (“I do not envy whoever they try to put in that chair”) and paid tribute to his predecessor David Letterman, who became the host of NBC’s Late Night when Colbert was a freshman in college. Since The Colbert Report premiered in 2005, Colbert has become what Letterman was like when Colbert was young and watching the show in college; he’s become a big influence on a huge chunk of today’s post-grad Millennial generation, whose reliance on Stewart and Colbert to get their nightly news fix has helped build both shows into late night institutions.
The Colbert Report will be sorely missed by those who have never stopped watching him over the years, but now that those college freshman are all struggling to find decent jobs, riddled with debt, and the tiniest bit wiser than ten years ago, Colbert’s move to CBS – and the resulting retirement of the “Colbert” character – symbolizes a sad but necessary growth for the real Colbert and his many loyal supporters. Maybe it’s time to grow up – seriously, we’re talking CBS here – but the weaning period over the next eight months is going to be bittersweet for longtime fans. Colbert’s persona will retire along with an entire generation’s misplaced idealism, but next year Stephen Colbert proper will get to show us an entirely new facet to his personality – that is, the real one.