"Stephen Colbert" Is Dead. Long Live Stephen Colbert.
“Holland, 1945” just played and we bid farewell to Stephen Colbert.
Since October 2005, when the show premiered, I have not missed a single episode. That’s 1447 in total. It was never my intention, as I was stuck in college dorm room during the premiere, and the only access to cable TV we had rested in the common area on the first floor. “Bullying” isn’t the right word for the kind of force I exerted to make sure no episodes that first season were skipped, but it’s not far off. In early 2006, I moved off campus and my first adult decision was to acquire access to Comedy Central on day one, to ensure my ability to keep up with Colbert was not severed. In October of that year, one-year to the date of his first broadcast, the man himself came and sat in a small room with me and twenty other students, to discuss comedy, his character, and what is was like to waste so many years taking himself too seriously, only to become this satirical icon. Afterwards, I mentioned I moved from a place where people didn’t think he was joking, and he laughed and suggested that he never knew either.
In the eight years since that day, the narrative for me switched from wondering if Colbert would let us in on his joke, to the overwhelming sea change of watching America let Colbert in on their own joke. Many of his greatest accomplishments, including an overwhelming Super PAC, saving Olympic teams, and testifying in front of Congress (in character) all came from outside motivation. The Colbert Report stopped creating a narrative and began to reflect the needs and desires of the nation it represented, purely through investment from an audience that truly cared for making a better tomorrow… tomorrow. Stephen himself evolved from sharply drawn, market driven caricature, into a literal tool for his audience.
It wasn’t until the announcement of the show’s impending cancellation that I realized my own investment in Colbert’s world. I took an afternoon to determine if I’d truly navigated a near decade of my life, subtly making sure to include 30 minutes of daily programming from a man I’d met once. I can’t find an episode I don’t remember taking in, even during those years where I had to retrieve the episodes through less than legal means. Did I download episodic content through a dial-up connection to circumvent the rules of my Alma mater? Absolutely. Does this cumulative investment seem goddamned ridiculous now? Not at all.
“Holland, 1945” just played and we bid farewell to Stephen Colbert. Yeah, he pulled a Neutral Milk Hotel song in my weakest moment and I’m furious he had to twist that blade. We just witnessed a cultural event of which books will cover for years — the death of a character and the evolution of a host. While Colbert’s career continues, the “Colbert” whose fear of bears and marriage to his own gun defined his politics — that person is immortal and dead and raptured to wherever Santa and the rest of our imaginary heroes live. While we’ll miss him, I worry that we’ll miss our need of him even more. He went from a reporter who treated himself as the most important part of the story, to becoming the most important part of the story, to letting us dictate where we needed him to fix the American story. We put him up for President, because it was easier to believe in real change from a caustic mirror image of the most dangerous ideologues in this country, than to trust a career politician.
That chapter is over. For a dedication of 1447 episodes, it feels wrong not to consider this alongside the great scripted series on the last 20 years, but it was something so much more. A spin-off from a comical nightly-news parody, voiced by an exaggeration of a dying political viewpoint, became the experimental back-and-forth that has been a lone source of inspiration in news cycle culture that makes change seem impossible and threatens that positivity is poison. So to end on the promise that Stephen Colbert has become immortal is to validate every dollar, every email, every laugh as something more than we were promised. To those that took the journey, it has been the rare pop culture undertaking whose return was always greater than its cost.
Stephen Colbert is dead. Long live Stephen Colbert.
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