Television has been a fixture in American life for so long now that on some level almost every show feels like a rerun, a present-day iteration of something we’ve seen before. How often, really, does someone burst through the small screen’s many formulas and deliver something that feels wholly new?
Not often. But that’s exactly what Stephen Colbert did.
It’s true that his comic persona — the blowhard conservative pundit, often in error but never in doubt, with an ego the size of the Grand Canyon — was originally inspired by Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, or “Papa Bear,’’ as Colbert called him with mock reverence.
But after nine years of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,’’ which ends Thursday, the pseudo-commentator known as “Stephen Colbert’’ stands as a groundbreaking creation who could well go down as one of the most unforgettable characters in TV history.
The rise of the real Stephen Colbert — who is retiring his character and heading to CBS to take over David Letterman’s late-night show — dovetailed with the growth and increasing inanity of the cable TV commentariat whose bloviations he so expertly lampooned. Reflecting politics, news, public policy, media missteps, and celebrity culture in a funhouse mirror, Colbert helped make television a whole lot smarter.
He and the equally quick-witted Jon Stewart emerged as the Ruth and Gehrig of TV satire. (Colbert had been a correspondent on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart’’ before going solo in 2005). Their takes were so brilliantly incisive that when actual news unfolded, you would immediately wonder: “What will Stewart and Colbert do with this tonight?’’
But Colbert was the bigger innovator. It was he who refined and exemplified the comedy of reductio ad absurdum. Sounding august, even presidential, the hyper-patriot “Stephen Colbert’’ would intone the word “Nation’’ as if he were commencing a State of the Union address, then proceed to spew a hilarious geyser of red-white-and-blue nonsense. Almost invariably, the character’s over-the-top monologues expressed the opposite of what the real-life Stephen Colbert felt and believed (and wanted us to feel and believe).
This rhetorical jujitsu flipped humor’s traditional script, requiring not just Colbert but his audience to think on two levels rather than one. Yet that audience, with whom he forged an unusually tight bond — prolonged chants of “Stee-phen! Stee-phen!’’ greeted him at the opening of each show — tended to be with him every convoluted step of the way.
The key to the equation was that Colbert seldom broke character onscreen, even when conducting real-time, unscripted interviews with guests. His ersatz pundit manufactured self-aggrandizing feuds with celebrities and media figures in his “Who’s Attacking Me Now?’’ segment, embraced extreme positions, and airily dismissed facts because, as he once put it, “reality has a well-known liberal bias.’’ But Colbert refrained from knowing winks to the audience. He knew not to spoil the joke.
The real-life Colbert and his invention garnered substantial cultural and political clout; when politicians or authors appeared on his show, the host would boast of “the Colbert bump’’ they would receive. Perhaps in search of that bump after the disastrous midterm elections, President Obama showed up as a guest on Colbert’s show on Monday. The president even took Colbert’s place in the host’s chair for a regular segment titled “The Word,’’ renamed “The Decree’’ on this occasion. “I will say I felt more powerful behind that desk,’’ the leader of the free world later told Colbert.
Obama’s Oval Office predecessor, George W. Bush, had a much less enjoyable encounter with the comedian in a turning-point episode that contributed greatly to the Colbert legend. Performing a stand-up routine at the 2006 White House Correspondents Association Dinner — held at a time when the war in Iraq was going especially badly — Colbert mercilessly skewered Bush while ostensibly praising him, as the tight-lipped president sat just a few feet away. “The greatest thing about this man is he’s steady,’’ Colbert said. “You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday.’’
Clips of Colbert’s nervy performance quickly went viral. Then again, from the beginning, he had seemed to have an instinct for how to broaden his presence beyond the late-night arena. On the premiere episode of “The Colbert Report’’ on Oct. 17, 2005, Colbert added to our cultural vocabulary by championing the word “truthiness,’’ which he essentially defined as believing what your gut tells you to believe and not allowing anything as inconvenient as facts to get in the way. “Truthiness’’ was chosen as the “2005 Word of the Year’’ by the American Dialect Society, and earned a similar honor the following year from Merriam-Webster.
Colbert also grasped the importance of the digital revolution; his show’s lively website extended his brand online before many other TV performers had figured out how to fully exploit the Internet. He wrote several books, including “I Am America (And So Can You!).’’ In October 2007, shrewdly timed to coincide with the book’s publication, Colbert extended his parody into the real world by announcing plans to run for president. In 2010 he and Stewart teamed up for a “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear’’ that drew an estimated 215,000 people to the National Mall in Washington. And in 2011, Colbert established his own super PAC, vividly illustrating the flaws of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
Throughout it all, Colbert inhabited his invented character as deeply as Bryan Cranston did with Walter White, or James Gandolfini with Tony Soprano. Yet to fully grasp the Colbert phenomenon, you had to burrow down still another layer, to the sincerity quietly lurking beneath the noisily ironic stance. It became clear over the years how much Colbert actually cared about the stuff — call it democracy, for lack of a better word — that he enfolded within his elaborate burlesque.
One manifestation of that was the “Better Know a District’’ series, in which the host would interview members of Congress. Once he had the representatives in his grasp, Colbert of course toyed with them relentlessly, but you could also detect his genuine interest in the legislative process and the distinctive qualities of their districts.
On Tuesday, for the final “Better Know a District,’’ Colbert interviewed Representative Jack Kingston, Republican of Georgia, who had been the first guest on the segment back in 2005. “I’m leaving my show because I won television,” Colbert deadpanned to Kingston.
Yes, Stephen, you sort of did.