The original version of this piece ran on April 10, 2014, when news first broke that Stephen Colbert would be taking over The Late Show. We are republishing it as part of our series of Colbert tributes.
Earlier this week, we published an Irish Wake of sorts for The Colbert Report, filled with friends, fans, and former guests looking back at the show and Stephen Colbert’s brilliant work on it. Everyone was optimistic about Colbert’s future as host of CBS’s The Late Show. Ken Burns said, “He has to be himself on late night, and that self is so extraordinary that I think people will be very, very surprised and pleased by how he does it.” I get the confidence, I really do: Over the course of over nine years and 1,400 episodes, he has proven himself to be exceptionally likable and amazingly funny. I am truly happy for Stephen Colbert, but still, I’m left feeling seriously bummed. Stephen Colbert will do great in his new job. I’m fairly certain of this. But is it really worth losing “Stephen Colbert,” maybe the single greatest comedic character ever built on TV?
Almost three years ago, Vulture asked Everybody Loves Raymond co-creator Phil Rosenthal to pick his five favorite character actors in TV history, and there, alongside the great Carroll O’Connor, was Stephen Colbert. What Rosenthal understood was that The Colbert Report was more than just a late-night show. The Colbert Report was also the type of character study that had never been seen or attempted before. Colbert can’t be compared to the star of a long-running sitcom who also evolves a character over years, because many sitcoms will shoot only as many episodes total as Colbert does in a single year. 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.
It was beyond the satire for me. I don’t care much about politics, and my desire to see pompous conservative pundits parodied definitely diminished as the show went on (fortunately, that desire concurrently diminished for the show’s writers). Rather, “Stephen Colbert” was about creating a full person that both heightened the absurdity of those he was parodying while also grounding them in psychological truth. “Stephen Colbert,” as portrayed by Stephen Colbert, was delusional, narcissistic, rigid, and daft, with flashes of the real man’s incredible sweetness (like when he married that couple on-air). He didn’t just have opposing and hypocritical takes on issues, such as the belief that government shouldn’t be involved in our lives and the belief that gay marriage should be illegal. No, he was a fully formed hypocrite, one who didn’t believe in global warming until An Inconvenient Truth’s success because that was a sign that “the free market has spoken.” And, yes, a lot of this delicate balance had to do with the show’s extremely talented writers, but as I learned at a recent Colbert Report panel, Colbert is always the one who decides where the line is.
Truthiness is what we are talking about here. The word the show famously invented in its first episode to perfectly encapsulate the emptiness of conservative rhetoric at the time, also perfectly encapsulate what Colbert did on the show. It’s, as the show’s first co-head writer Allison Silverman described in her piece about the show’s start, as the “sort of strange, ambiguous line between Real Stephen and Character Stephen.” In every moment, Colbert was “Colbert,” just in varying degrees. I wish I could think of a better reference to honor him, but it was like that Christopher Nolan movie The Prestige. Colbert cared so much about this character that he was willing to share a life with him. When Stephen Colbert’s mother died, so did the character’s, because he knew how much it would matter to both. And similarly, the character had the same nerdy interests and boyhood crushes as the actor, so that came out, too. Sometimes it felt like the character was the Colbert he wanted to be, like during the whole Daft Punk malarkey, when a defiant and entitled “Colbert” ruthlessly mocked his parent company. This mix of biography and complete commitment resulted in something totally unlike anything that had ever been on television.
His late-night show won’t premiere for a while, but I am pretty certain I won’t be able to say the same things about it. Right before the news came out that he got The Late Show came out, Jon Stewart endorsed Colbert to one of our reporters, saying, “[Colbert’s] got gears he hasn’t even shown people yet.” I would agree with him. I interviewed Colbert a little over a year ago at an event for StoryCorps. He was the most earnest, warm person I’ve ever met, full stop. It’s a side of him viewers don’t experience, as it would completely undermine the character of “Stephen Colbert.” So, sure, that’s something we’d get to see more of. We’d probably also get to see more singing and dancing. I am excited for him to be able to do regular interviews, because as he’s proven occasionally on his show, when he’s really into something, he can hold wonderful conversations. But is all of that necessarily lacking right now on television?
Two years ago, when The Colbert Report finally won the Emmy for Outstanding Variety Series after many years of being nominated to no avail, I assumed the show would exist in the top echelon of American comedy for years and years to come. It’s sad to think of it not existing anymore. Because maybe Stephen Colbert will win an Emmy in a few years for his version of The Late Show. And maybe Stephen Colbert will be better than the Jimmys and the Conans and the Lettermans. Stephen Colbert could even turn out to be the greatest late-night talk-show host ever. But even if that were the case, he’d still be a “late-night talk-show host.” We have had plenty of those. There will never be another “Stephen Colbert.”