And now we ride the circus wheel
With your dark brother wrapped in white
Says it was good to be alive
But now he rides a comet’s flame
And won’t be coming back again
The Earth looks better from a star
That’s right above from where you are
He didn’t mean to make you cry
—Neutral Milk Hotel, “Holland, 1945”
After The Colbert Report ended, after those joyously weird 30 minutes of television came to a close, I thought about what viewers expected and wanted from the show’s finale. What was the fundamental question people needed answered? And the answer was immediately obvious: Who is Stephen Colbert, and who is “Stephen Colbert”? Colbert must have been aware of this, as he ended the show with a revealing 2010 outtake. Jon Stewart, having just finished The Daily Show, tosses to Colbert, who is talking through a tiny gorilla head. It’s silly and hilarious, but the producer won’t let them use the take, forcing Stewart and Colbert to do it in character. Colbert’s reaction is to parody his own parody. And that’s the answer. Stephen Colbert is, was, and will always be Stephen Colbert, in one form or another.
In that moment, I finally cried, and you maybe did, too. I spent this week immersed in The Colbert Report: I looked back at the show’s early days, edited together 49 former guests’ memories of being on the show, watched more than a dozen clips of him breaking, and I cried. Why? I read comments to these posts where people admitted to also getting teary-eyed. Why? It’s a TV show. It’s a comedian who is not retiring, but essentially going on vacation. He’s not even changing time slots!
Here’s why. In the first episode of The Colbert Report, in the first Wørd segment (Truthiness, remember), Colbert made us a vow: “Anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you.” At the time this was meant to satirize the anti-intellectual attitude that many considered pervasive among the conservative media and in the executive branch. More than 1440 episodes later, it appears he has kept his promise. Unlike The Daily Show, which was tightly focused on reacting to the day’s events, the Report gave viewers a feeling of the bigger picture. And through the character of “Stephen Colbert” — so wide-eyed and naively confident — we were able to personally connect to the news, and more broadly to the world. Severing a relationship like that: [loudly crying face emoji].
The song that played over the show’s closing credits, which I quote above, was “Holland, 1945.” A Neutral Milk Hotel song is not the oddest choice for a guy who had Wilco, the Black Keys, the Decembrists, and other rock bands regularly play his show. But Colbert surely picked the bittersweet song because, as he told Maureen Dowd in the New York Times back in April, its “strange, sad poetry” resonated with him in relation to the loss of two of his brothers and his father when he was 10. But after hearing it in this context, I kept on thinking about how the song is widely considered to be about Anne Frank — the person, the diary writer — and “Anne Frank” — the concept, the symbol, or, as it relates to our purposes here, the character. Colbert is an optimist in the face of darkness, like Frank was. With The Report, all he wanted at the end of the day, after hours and hours of usually terrible news, was to be the person you can turn to make light of it all. As he said, simply, at the end of last night’s episode, “That was fun.”
It’s why his final episode didn’t even attempt to stick one final nail in the coffin of modern conservatism. If anything, he did the opposite, dedicating The Wørd to the fact that everything is exactly the same as it was when he started nine years ago. (That “I promised a revolution and I delivered, because technically one revolution is 360 degrees back to where we were” joke is why Colbert’s writing staff has won the last two Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series Emmys.) Things are always going to be how they are, and all we can do is have a silly time, singing and dancing with all our friends in the face of it. Colbert winked at exactly that in The Wørd, saying, “And if all we achieved over the last nine years was to come into your home each night and help you make a difficult day a little bit better, man, what a waste,” but meaning the exact opposite.
And that’s the power of “Stephen Colbert.” The show ended with the sign-off, “From eternity, I’m Stephen Colbert,” and that’s exactly right.Stephen Colbert is a finite thing; he’s leaving to host The Late Show. “Stephen Colbert” isn’t going anywhere, because he is his fan’s version of an eternal idea of the cosmic joke, their prism through which to see the world as an ultimately good, or at least absurd, place. He knew that and that’s why he repeatedly thanked Colbert Nation last night, at one point saying, “The truthiness is … all those incredible things people said I did … none of that was really me. You, the nation, did all of that; I just got paid for it.”
The result was an episode that felt less like an episode of The Colbert Report and more like a tribute to The Colbert Report. What could be more Colbert than throwing a tribute for yourself, literally looking directly into the camera and saying what your legacy would be? It was a tribute to the character. It was a tribute to the fans. It was a tribute to the staff, with executive producer Tom Purcell, who has been with the show since the start, getting a cameo as the guy who catches Colbert’s gun. It was a tribute to how unparalleled the diversity of his guests has been, with everyone from James Franco to Henry Kissinger to Cookie Monster to Bill Clinton to an astronaut to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to a million other people joining him to sing “We’ll Meet Again.” It was a tribute to silliness and how vital it is to our very being; how essential absurdity is in the face of the painfully absurd; how much we need Stephen Colberts and “Stephen Colberts.”
That was fun.