The ‘Colbert Report’ Finale Was a Fitting Tribute to the Show’s Overstated — and Understated — Legacy

Last night, The Colbert Report ended after ten seasons and 1,447 episodes on Comedy Central. “When this show began, I promised you a revolution,” Stephen Colbert said during his final “The Word” segment. “And I delivered, because technically one revolution is 360 degrees right back to where we were.” In keeping with his “Colbert” character, he’s both right and wrong, giving himself too much credit and too little at the same time — and aware that, as much as he boasts about this “revolution,” his show did little to change the actual world. The Colbert Report was not the political revolution that Conservative pundit “Colbert” imagined; it was, at least, a tiny revolution for both Comedy Central and fake news.

The final episode of The Colbert Report played out much as you would expect, with numerous references to the host’s departure, a star-studded musical sendoff with too many celebrities to name (or even identify, though here’s a start), a segment where Colbert killed death and then became immortal (you know, normal stuff), and one final “Word,” in which Colbert discussed his legacy. That legacy isn’t hard to understand, though for some of us it may be difficult to completely support. But love him or hate him, while watching this series finale, it was impossible not to get swept up in the clever absurdity that was The Colbert Report, and to remember what made the show so important in the first place.

To be completely honest, I have barely kept up with The Colbert Report in recent years, mostly catching the notable segments when they made the Internet rounds the next morning. But for a short period in my life, The Colbert Report was a must-see program. In high school, I had obsessed over The Daily Show, which was, somewhat embarrassingly, my #1 news source — the combination of going to school in New York City in 2001 and having my father fight in a war overseas meant watching “real” news would often send me into a spiraling anxiety attack, so I much preferred learning about bad shit in the world with some comedy thrown in to take the edge off. Later, when Jon Stewart’s show was followed by Colbert, sticking around to watch just felt like the norm.

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I was hesitant about the first few episodes — what the hell was this schtick he was doing, and how could it possibly avoid getting stale? But Colbert quickly won me over (enough so that I attended a taping of one of his very, very early episodes). Like The Daily Show, I’m sure much of this had to do with timing: It’s easy to be attracted to The Colbert Report when you’re a liberal college freshman in New York, a time when you’re supposed to be an obnoxious know-it-all who is all about political snark. But there was something else there, too, most notably a fascination with Colbert’s ability to straddle the smart and the stupid. It takes a great deal of intelligence to consistently play such a clueless blowhard, to have him spew a never-ending selection of ignorant, obnoxious, and frustrating ideas in such a way that the character proves the opposite of the point he’s trying to make.

It’s clear that The Colbert Report made an impression on a fairly wide swathe of people. There was a musical goodbye that included Bill Clinton, James Franco, soldiers in Afghanistan, Big Bird, Katie Couric, Pussy Riot, and on and on and on, all singing “We’ll Meet Again” — a poignant and fitting choice of song, not just because of its connection to the satirical film Dr: Strangelove, but also because it’s true. We’ll meet Stephen Colbert the character again, in the form of multiple sincere pundits — and sincerely misguided — pundits, and we’ll meet Stephen Colbert the person again when he takes over for David Letterman in 2015 and we get to see his true personality anchor a late night program. The Colbert Report is over, but Colbert is just beginning — again. “Stephen Colbert” is dead; long live Stephen Colbert.