A Eulogy for Colbert

Obama on Colbert
President Barack Obama with Stephen Colbert on “The Colbert Report” at George Washington University on December 8, 2014. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Nation! We gather here to celebrate tonight's grand finale of The Colbert Report, to review its nine years of star-spangled, chest-thumping, unsurpassed and unmitigated glory with a humble salute that we have titled "Stephen Colbert, The Alpha and Omegalomaniac: A Standing Bloviation! The Battle of the Five Armies!"

Nation, we have come so far under Stephen's stewardship of our 50 states, our various and sundry tropical territories and our cadre of propped-up African governments. When The Colbert Report premiered in 2005, our intrepid host was debating the merits of torture of United States detainees while an Ivy Leaguer sat in the Oval Office. This week, in the dying throes of 2014, Stephen used his platform of freedom to debate the merits of torture of U.S. detainees while an Ivy Leaguer sat in the Oval Office.

This wouldn't have been possible without him, without his unbridled passion for, as he calls it, "truthiness."

Behold, the most inspired political activist of the 21st century. Since liberating himself from the talons of The Daily Show (like a red, white and blue eaglet fiercely departing the nest) and host Jon Stewart, Colbert has taken his Comedy Central show from a spot-on parody of Fox News host Bill O'Reilly (a.k.a. "Papa Bear") to the most brilliant satire late-night television has seen since Barth Gimbel (Martin Mull) and Jerry Hubbard (Fred Willard) created TV magic in the late 1970s with Fernwood 2Night.

Mull and Willard took aim at the faux conviviality of the late-night talk show (something Garry Shandling would also do a dozen or so years later with The Larry Sanders Show), but Colbert chose to walk a high-wire many stories higher off the ground. His eponymous character was a send-up of not just of O'Reilly but every cable news host—and politician—who opted for demagoguery over public service.

"Now don't you owe me an enormous amount of money?" O'Reilly asked Colbert when the latter appeared on The O'Reilly Factor in 2007, intimating that he had brazenly ripped off his persona. (Of course he had!)

"There's a difference between imitation and emulation," Colbert replied. "Let me tell you the difference. If you imitate someone, you owe them a royalty check. If you emulate them, you don't."

Nation, such alchemy is not easily replicated. Take two parts narcissism, one part pomposity, three parts bluster, add a dash of unbridled insincerity and then mix in a melting pot of activism, and you get Colbert. He ran for president—twice. He created a Super PAC, calling it "Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow," and raised $1.02 million. He spoke at the White House Correspondents' Dinner and insulted the sitting president, George W. Bush, in the nastiest way possible—by defending him. ("I believe that the government that governs best is the government that governs least, and by these standards we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq.")

Colbert and Stewart headlined a gathering on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" and drew an estimated 215,000 people. Colbert even testified before a U.S. House subcommittee on undocumented workers and likened himself to the elected congressmen and women by noting, "None of us have read what's in this report."

Bill Maher has a politically themed late-night show, but his weapon of choice is vitriol. Even Colbert's mentor and lead-in, Stewart, has long been prone to bouts of on-air rage and contempt for the hypocrisy and self-interest of American government. Colbert's flag has flapped more brilliantly than theirs, 'neath spacious skies and over amber waves of grain-of-salt, because he steadfastly refused to be taken seriously.

Just last week, when President Obama appeared on The Colbert Report, the audience at George Washington University greeted the commander in chief with a robust ovation. Colbert interrupted the applause to apologize to POTUS for their cheering for him, for "stealing his thunder."

Like Henry Winkler, who in the 1970s portrayed a character, Arthur Fonzarelli ("The Fonz"), who was light-years distant from his actual self, Stephen Colbert portrayed a brazenly self-righteous right-winger who is far from the man who grew up one of 11 children in South Carolina. The brilliance of the character was not only how deeply Colbert committed to it but that you had to squint real hard to see where self-important gasbags such as O'Reilly or Rush Limbaugh ended and where Stephen Colbert began.

Too, if Americans were not giving elected representatives approval ratings that were categorically lower than the ratings Rotten Tomatoes gave Tammy, the shtick might not have worked so well. Americans are clearly fed up with democracy, not in theory but certainly in practice, and into that void of disillusionment Colbert descended—and thrust an American flag into its heart.

At the heart of Colbert was a playful nature. He is an incurable scamp, and so even when the bits were apolitical, they were hilarious. When Daft Punk canceled on an appearance just two days before airtime in the summer of 2013, Colbert turned that frown upside down with a viral video that will never be forgotten as long as the term "viral video" exists. Just last night, as he showed off his set, he cut to former REM lead singer Michael Stipe seated on a shelf. When Stipe complained that he needed dusting, Colbert haughtily replied, "Hey, that's you in the corner. This is me in the spotlight!"

When this writer was an undergraduate at Notre Dame, a pair of classmates found themselves disgusted with the artifice of student body elections. The duo, Mike Switek and Don Montanaro, opted not to grouse about it with an inflamed editorial. Instead, they found a pack of Crayola crayons and some poster board and printed up campaign posters. Their slogans were willfully infantile ("Our Dad Can Beat Up Your Dad"), and they ran on a platform to rename macaroni-and-cheese as cheese-and-macaroni.

Switek and Montanaro garnered enough signatures to be placed on the ballot, however, and, of course, they won the election. They even welcomed sitting President George H.W. Bush when he visited campus.

Nation, satire isn't easy. But in the right environment—for example, craven politicians and a disaffected electorate—it is an idea that can take seed and grow. Kinda like freedom.