Compiling a list of the funniest, smartest, most entertaining, most moving bits Stephen Colbert has delivered on his groundbreaking series The Colbert Report is impossible. There’s too much content, and arguably every episode hit something out of the park. Trying to express what made the series, which ends tonight as Colbert prepares to take over The Late Show, so groundbreaking? It feels damn near impossible as well.
How can one sum up nine years and nearly 1,450 episodes of an excellent satire led by such a dynamic host? A host who rarely broke his blowhard, right-wing character façade and through that guise pushed back against the kind of rhetoric you’d hear on the Fox News Channel. The series began in October 2005, remember, as President George W. Bush’s second term was under way and many Americans’ disillusionment with the government - this was only a few months after Hurricane Katrina — and especially the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan deepened; revelations about the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib had been out for several years, but the topic hadn’t gone away as the wars continued; and the Border Protection, Anti-terrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005 was a few months shy of passing Congress.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The events of this fall have more than a few Americans and observers of American politics flashing back to the Bush-Cheney years of shadow government and riots in the streets due to civil unrest and a deep, painful sense of injustice and inequality in the fabric of our society. The Colbert Report debuting in October 2005 didn’t change the world, but it did provide an outlet for those who felt like everything was spiraling to sit, and watch, and listen, and think — Yes! That right there — that is exactly what is happening.
He appeared on our TVs that fall, and he talked to us about truthiness. The word caught on, and so did his cultural importance. (There’s actually a Wikipedia page dedicated to the cultural impact of the Report.)
It’s easy to forget this impact now that he’s become such a presence in our lives. But it’s important to remember how he began. I mention the topics of torture and the treatment of immigrants because they come readily to mind when considering the moral indignation Colbert has displayed throughout his Report tenure. Amidst jokes about the evilness of bears, getting things like bridges in Hungary or treadmills on the International Space Station named for him, making out with Jane Fonda, and more, Colbert was right in the center of whatever debates were raging in our country. With expertly executed satire, Colbert passionately rallied for things such as torture or deportation or illegal wire-tapping or what have you in a manner that clearly poked holes in the arguments and often demonstrated his opposition. Colbert and his mentor Jon Stewart, of The Daily Show, have always rebuffed the notion they are some of the more trusted men in news these days, but they are. Yes, they are progressives. But you can trust people who speak truth to power, even if you don’t agree with their position. And thus the Colbert Nation was born.
If anything, it was Colbert’s White House Correspondent’s Dinner speech in 2006 that made him a household name. You can argue it was disrespectful to speak to a sitting president in that regard, and that’s fair. But disrespectful or not, it was on point.
He had plenty of fun, better knowing the districts that make up the American political system:
He choked back tears when he and Stewart announced Barack Obama had been elected president in 2008:
He delivered a week of shows for soldiers in Iraq and shaved his head in a show of solidarity:
He got into the Super PAC game to demonstrate how unbelievably ridiculous it is - the type of gimmick that educated viewers on the subject far better than anything else did, surely:
He did a stint as a migrant farm worker, airing his experiences on the show and then testifying before Congress about the plight of migrant workers:
He took time to be serious and delivered this beautiful tribute to his late mother:
He took time to dance and delivered this hilarious montage to Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”:
And he never stopped jabbing at Stewart:
That’s perhaps the most important thing of all — Colbert isn’t just funny or good at what he does. He’s also, by all accounts, good. He showed compassion to those in need, gave voice to the voiceless, and through it all, never lost his sense of humor, playfulness, and a kid-in-the-candy-store sense of wonderful at how lucky he was to have his gig.
Stephen Colbert the person isn’t going away, of course, but Stephen Colbert the character likely is. It wouldn’t work for late night on CBS with a broader, more diverse audience. That’s fine — Colbert deserves this promotion and all the chances he gets to succeed. But his bowing out of the fake news game leaves a hole that can’t be filled. Stewart did and is still doing his part, and John Oliver has taken over the reins of blistering reporting mixed with disgust and humor to HBO and Last Week Tonight. But neither is doing what Colbert has done, and likely no one ever will.
His portrait should go back on display, National Museum of American history. For he is truly a national treasure.
Sarah Carlson is Television Editor for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter. She’s in mourning.