The funniest and most incisive show on television is ending this week — so let's look back at how it began. On Oct. 17, 2005, a power-suited Stephen Colbert furrowed his eyebrows and showed off highlights of his new set. Red letters above him shouted “The Colbert Report.” The title of his show was silhouetted in back of those letters, so it appeared twice. The host's last name also was proclaimed by a plasma-screen on the front of his desk, flashed four times on a ticker that ran below it and was even spelled out on either side of that desk — “which,” he pointed out, “is itself shaped like a giant C.” There were nine “Colbert”s in all, not counting the initial he sat in.
“But this show is not about me,” the host insisted. “No, this show is dedicated to you, the heroes. And who are the heroes? The people who watch this show.”
Here was Colbert teaching us how to watch him. Fake news usually succeeds by doing things the real news never would. But by aping an essentially absurd TV format — personal-editorial shows such as The O'Reilly Factor, with a little Sean Hannity thrown in — Colbert could stretch the veneer of believability without shattering it. He could widen the gap between what the host said (“This show is not about me”) and what the viewer took from it (the nine “Colbert”s on his set) just enough that most people saw right through it — and laughed. (I say “most” because I know a few late-middle-aged liberals, fans of Jon Stewart and generally smart people, who never quite got the way jokes work on Colbert, and never found it funny.)
That Colbert could kill while largely staying within the bounds of a single, semi-realistic character and format set him apart from The Daily Show. There, Stewart plays himself, and the correspondents play whatever foil suits the story at hand. Colbert's continuous character is trickier, both for performer and audience — but when it works (and it usually does), it's both funnier and more incisive.
The genius of The Colbert Report wasn't merely that its host could satirize cable-TV blowhards' feigned humility and shameless pandering. It wasn't just that Colbert's “well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot,” as he often described the character, could somehow be hatable and lovable and funny all at once. It was that to be understood, The Colbert Report had to be watched with the same skepticism — the same suspicion that the real truth was the opposite of what was stated — with which Americans were then coming to regard the rest of our civic affairs. The Colbert Report was the first comedy news show written for a post-9/11 viewership that understood, or at least rightly suspected, that much of what was said by people who sat behind desks on television was a self-serving lie.
Though it was only a fake news show, The Colbert Report was keen enough to constitute a serious critique. The first episode introduced a regular segment called “The Word,” a spoof of O'Reilly's “Talking Points,” in which the host would declaim opinion at us while being crowded by an oppressive, text-filled square on the right side of the screen. O'Reilly's text reiterates, almost to a letter, what he is speaking, but Colbert's has a mind of its own. The first episode's Word was “Truthiness,” a handy coinage for a pleasant rationale that is utterly incorrect. It's used, Colbert says, not by “those who think with their head” but “those who know with their heart.”
“What about Iraq?” Colbert asks, exploring the concept. “If you think about it, maybe there are a few missing pieces to the rationale for war. But doesn't taking Saddam out feel like the right thing?” The text in the blue box instantly answers, “I'll Say!” — evoking the quick, chipper, ominous assent the country gave to war. “The Word” grew into a key segment of the show, with the on-screen cues indicating what the show meant, in contrast to what Colbert himself said. You had to watch and read and process both at the same time to understand it.
In 2005, truthiness seemed to be the principle defining our national affairs. It was two months after FEMA's disastrous failure with Katrina; less than three years into the Iraq war, with memories of the “Mission Accomplished” speech not long distant; George W. Bush had just been re-elected on a platform of ruthless swiftboating; and O'Reilly was the most popular host on Fox, which was (and still is) the most popular news channel in the country. It was also the first year that more than half of Americans came to view the Iraq war as a mistake, according to the Pew Research Center.
In this tense atmosphere of post-9/11, wartime America, Colbert was brave enough to challenge the Decider-in-Chief to his face. At the 2006 White House Correspondents' Dinner, Colbert, playing his character, reprised some material from that era-defining first episode, and showed just how deeply his brand of ironic humor could penetrate. “I stand by this man,” Colbert said, gesturing at President Bush, sitting a few places away from him. “I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things — things like aircraft carriers, and rubble, and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message: that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.” On the video, you can hear stunned groans and uncomfortable silence in the room as he delivers those lines. It's a classic illustration of how criticism couched as humor can hurt so much more than criticism without it — exactly what made The Colbert Report television's most powerful indictment of the times.
The Colbert Report's final episode airs on Dec. 18, at what feels like a good point for a conclusion. Yes, there is still plenty of truthiness, still plenty of televised airheads, for it to take on. But the show has softened of late, introducing fictional characters — such as Huffington Post managing editor Randy Ferrar — who aren't very funny. Colbert is a more consistent laugh than Stewart, and he still shreds guests like no one else. But perhaps the world doesn't need a Stephen Colbert quite as much as it did in the Bush years, when truthiness was the guiding mantra for an entire administration. Even with Republicans drooling over their new seats in Congress, it's hard to imagine a return to those blustering, post-9/11 days, when wartime unity (and a tepid press) all but forced the country to take a foolish president at his word.
After the freedom of late-night cable, one wonders how Colbert will handle the reins of the staid Late Show, how he'll follow such a comfortable stalwart of American TV as David Letterman. Will he play different characters? Can he keep his edge? Viewers nourished on The Colbert Report are more than ready for a Late Show host who gets laughs by making fun of the Late Show — and if anyone can pull that off, it's Stephen Colbert.