As we prepare for the end of The Colbert Report, it is time to reflect on exactly what we are losing as Stephen Colbert retires his character and moves on to host The Late Show. Sure it's a great move for Colbert. Sure it promises to invigorate late-night comedy and give Colbert a chance to show us the full range of his skills as a performer. But let's be serious, there is a huge loss here and that loss is the brilliant character Colbert crafted.
The "Colbert" of The Colbert Report was one of the best vehicles for political satire of all time. In our view -- and we are writing not just as fans but also as authors of books on his show -- the Colbert persona has been one of the most important satirical figures in our nation's history. (For more on why this is true see Is Satire Saving Our Nation?, Colbert's America, and The Colbert Report A-Z.)
There is little question that "Colbert" played a major role in invigorating our democracy and advancing public debate. The point is that, regardless of what he will do on The Late Show, when Colbert puts his extraordinary character to rest we are losing a valuable feature of our nation's political satire. And it sucks.
Here are 10 reasons why:
1. He stood by (and up to) Bush.
It's never easy to stand up next to the leader of the free world and call him out on the administration's biggest mistakes, but Colbert did it. In the years following 9/11, when dissent was equated to hating America, Colbert made holding the government and the press accountable an act of patriotism. If he hadn't been in character, he simply would have never been able to pull the Bush roast off.
2. He expanded our vocabulary -- especially with the word "truthiness."
Colbert created countless neologisms that have enriched our vocabulary. But truthiness still stands out as a great linguistic gift to our nation. Truthiness has been more than just Merriam-Webster's 2006 Word of the Year; it encapsulates the retreat from logic, truth, and facts that characterizes a lot of the rhetoric of both politicians and the media. When Colbert coined the word "truthiness", he established himself as a modern-day Jonathan Swift ready to call out social folly and give a name to it.
3. He taught us politics and made it fun.
Audiences of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are regularly found to be better informed than viewers of cable news channels, especially Fox News. Colbert's long-running, award-winning Super PAC expose, however, stands out as an example of how much the Colbert Nation could learn from his show -- especially when he was the only one covering an important issue. He proved that satirical comedy can be a great tool for educating the public on serious political issues.
4. He made it okay to call Sarah Palin something terrible.
The brilliance of this bit is that Colbert uses his character to get out of character. Again and again we hear right-wing pundits and politicians use twisted logic to say outrageous things -- racist, sexist, vicious things -- that they then attempt to justify through twisted logic. Colbert often found a way to use his character to just vent back at the ridiculous rhetoric of figures like Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin. The beauty is that he used his brilliant comedy to suggest that calling out Palin was actually doing her a favor.
5. He shamed Donald Trump and offered $1 million to let him dip his balls in his mouth.
In a climate where neither media nor government want to risk drawing the ire of the multimillionaires who keep their coffers full, Colbert was never afraid to mock the wealthy and powerful. By countering Trump's offer of $5 million to see President Obama's college transcripts and birth certificate with an offer of $1 million if Trump dipped his balls in Colbert's mouth, allowing Colbert to expose Trump for the clown he is.
6. He called Mitt Romney a "serial killer."
Colbert killed two birds with one stone with this Super PAC ad, which called Mitt Romney a serial killer since corporations are people and he "killed" corporations. In this ad, he poked fun at the increasingly extreme mudslinging in political advertising and he highlighted the true nature Romney's "business experience" at Bain Capital. He also highlighted one of the growing political ills plaguing our nation: the ongoing equation of corporations with people. In a record-breakingly expensive election full of dubious Super PAC ads, this one stands out as the only one we could laugh with.
7. He made tweeting matter.
In an era where we constantly hear that social media is dumbing us down, making us anti-social and basically destroying civilization as we know it, Colbert showed the nation that we could use Twitter as a way to exercise political power and have fun while we're at it. Early efforts included having his audience change entries on Wikipedia, but here Colbert encouraged his audience to tweet "non-facts" about John Kyl, since clearly Kyl thought non-facts were not inflammatory. That first night there were over 1 million tweets with the Colbert-created hashtag #NotIntendedToBeAFactualStatement in one hour alone.
8. He reminded us that we have a House of Representatives.
The House of Representatives tends to get substantially less media coverage than the White House and the Senate. But the House has a lot of power, as we have recently seen with the last government shutdown. So clearly we need to pay closer attention to the intelligence of the men and women that serve there. Colbert championed the cause by interviewing a range of representatives in his recurring segment, "Better Know a District." The interviews often quickly became viral, such as this one of Georgia congressman Lynn Westmoreland, who wanted to pass a law to have the ten commandments in courthouses, but couldn't name all ten himself.
9. He was the perfect foil for Jon Stewart.
As we explain in Is Satire Saving Our Nation?, Colbert's character offered the perfect follow to Stewart's hard-hitting political satire. One of the most entertaining ways they intersected was in the early years with a segment "The Toss" that had the two comedians interact. But besides the fun of having them banter, there was a special synergy to their comedy. With Stewart doing straight satire and Colbert in character viewers got a powerful combination of comedy with a political punch. As Colbert once said in a Rolling Stone interview:
Jon deconstructs the news in a really brilliant comedic style. I take the sausage backwards, and I restuff the sausage. We deconstruct, but then we don't show anybody our deconstruction. We reconstruct -- we falsely construct the hypocrisy. And I embody the bullshit until hopefully you can smell it.
And boy could we smell it!
10. He kissed Jane Fonda.
Okay, okay. So this is probably exactly the sort of Colbert we will see more of as he moves to The Late Show, but he did it on the Report first. And you have to admit that his combined discomfort and excitement with Fonda is just too adorable not to watch at least one more time.
Farewell, "Stephen Colbert." You will be missed!