The moment that America was dreading has come. And while parting is said to be a sweet sorrow, the finale of Stephen Colbert’s Colbert Report leaves open the possibility of a future meeting. In the meantime we will need to console ourselves with our memories of the past and our hopes for a “Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.”
Colbert’s send off included a segment of his take off on Bill O’Reilly’s Talking Points Memo that Colbert transformed into “The Word.” The premise of the piece titled “Same to you, pal,” was his observation that nothing much has changed in the nine years that he has been doing the show. But no matter the sly references to ongoing wars and political debates, things definitely won’t be the same. There was a Colbert Report then, but there isn’t one now. That’s a big difference.
Colbert was much more than a comedian, more than a satirist, more than a late night talk show host, and more than a commentator on contemporary culture. What set his program apart from any that had come before it was the way he integrated his fake persona into real life. It wasn’t good enough to throw punch lines at society’s targets. That would have been way too easy. Colbert interacted with them, and in doing so, made points that could not have been made any other way.
For instance, when he appeared at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner in 2006, he came in character. He broiled both President Bush (who was sitting a few feet away) and the entire audience of media elites. He noted that he was “appalled to be surrounded by the liberal media that is destroying America, with the exception of Fox News. Fox News gives you both sides of every story: the president’s side, and the vice president’s side.” But the coup de grace was the indictment he served up in the form of a tribute (one of his specialties):
“Over the last five years you people were so good — over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn’t want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out. Those were good times, as far as we knew.
“But, listen, let’s review the rules. Here’s how it works: the president makes decisions. He’s the Decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put ‘em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know – fiction.”
The “journalists” in the audience (along with such notable guests as Morgan Fairchild, Tommy Lasorda, Mitt Romney, Anna Kornikova, and “Dancing With the Stars” winner Drew Lachey) were caught in a frozen gasp as they tried to comprehend what just took place. Many of them rushed home to pen bitter criticisms of Colbert’s performance that they regarded as unfunny. But that didn’t salve their woulds.
Colbert also transported himself into Congress, again in character, as he lobbied on behalf of migrant farm workers. As usual, his shtick was as serious as it was humorous. When asked by Rep. Judy Chu why he chose to address this issue he said that…
“I like talking about people that don’t have any power. And it seems like one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work, but don’t have any rights as a result. Yet we still invite them to come here, and at the same time ask them to leave.”
When Colbert decided to do a piece on how Super PACs allow politicians to skirt campaign financing laws and enrich themselves without any reasonable oversight, he didn’t just rant on television about it. He started his own very real Super PAC, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow. It raised more than a million dollars that was donated to charity.
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There is so much more that could be recalled here, including the historic event in Washington, D.C. with his friend and producer, Jon Stewart: The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. It was a biting satire of Glenn Beck’s lame Restoring Honor rally, from a man who has never demonstrated any. But the best way to remember the Colbert Report is by letting the show speak for itself. So here is one of my favorite segments that skewers Glenn Beck’s debut on Fox News by asking “How far up your own ass are you willing to go?”
Colbert’s finale also saw him slaying the Grim Reaper, thus making himself immortal. So there may be more to come. At least we can look forward to Colbert’s return to television as the host of CBS’s The Late Show, succeeding David Letterman. You can rest assured that he will revolutionize the genre, as he did with the Colbert Report. Till then we will have to be satisfied with the bittersweet farewell he gave on his final program. The ending featured a cast of dozens of former guests and friends of the show singing the song “We’ll Meet Again.” But you have to wonder whether that selection was a wily reference to the ending of the film Dr. Stangelove, where the song had an ironic twist.