You know, I’m really going to miss “Stephen Colbert.”
I realize that comedian and writer Stephen Colbert, creator and star of TV’s “The Colbert Report,” will still be with us, as David Letterman’s replacement on CBS’s “The Late Show.” But I fear that “Stephen Colbert,” the bloviating, self-important, clueless conservative pundit Colbert-the-comedian plays on his late night show, will be gone forever when the show ends its run this Thursday.
(In classic “Colbert” fashion, the supposed reason for the show’s ending is that its host has “won television” and to continue would just be “running up the score.”)
I confess that, when the “Colbert” character got his own time slot, a spinoff from John Stewart’s now-essential “The Daily Show,” I had my doubts. I thought basing an entire half hour, four times a week, on a single character, would be a one-joke premise that would quickly run out of steam. Eventually, I thought, Colbert would have to break character.
Boy, was I ever wrong. On the very first show, Colbert coined a word that would soon find its way into the actual dictionary: “truthiness.” Webster’s dictionary now defines truthiness as “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts of facts known to be true.”
When he introduced the concept as part of his regular segment called “The Word,” Colbert promised, “Some of you may not trust your gut, yet. But, with my help, you will. The truthiness is, anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news ‘at’ you.” It was absolutely perfect satire, summing up in a single made-up word the anti-intellectual, facts-are-what-my-gut-says-they-are attitude that permeates so much of American culture, politics and journalism. “Truthiness” caught on so fast that Merriam-Webster named it the 2006 “Word of the Year.”
Colbert followed up with some of the most brilliant on-screen pranks ever committed to video. Like his “438-part series, Better Know a District,” in which “Colbert” interviewed a congressman or congresswoman from some district, always referred to as “The Fightin’ [district number]!” He would then proceed, with a totally straight face, to tie the hapless lawmaker in such verbal knots that eventually Nancy Pelosi and Rahm Emanuel began warning members of the Democratic Caucus not to go on the show (a prohibition which Pelosi later lifted).
Then there was the time when Colbert discovered that the Hungarian government was holding an online poll to name a bridge over the Danube River. “Colbert” urged his followers (aka “The Colbert Nation”) to go online and vote to name the bridge after him.
After 17 million votes were cast for “Colbert” (7 million more than there are actual people in Hungary), Hungarian Ambassador András Simonyi appeared on “The Colbert Report” and announced that “Colbert” had won the vote, but unfortunately could not have the bridge named after him because he was (1) not fluent in Hungarian; and (2) not dead. He then gave “Colbert” a consolation prize of a 10,000 forint bill (about fifty bucks American) — which “Colbert” promptly tried to use as a bribe.
Colbert didn’t even break character when he was invited to be the featured entertainer at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, which was attended by President George W. Bush and the first lady, as well as a variety of other VIPs. “Colbert,” in the guise of a glowing tribute, delivered one of the most scathing critiques ever delivered to a sitting president’s face.
“There are some polls out there,” he said, “saying that this man has a 32 percent approval rating. But guys like us, we don’t pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in ‘reality.’ And reality has a well-known liberal bias.” He went on to say of Bush that: “You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday.”
He didn’t spare the members of the press corps for their lazy acceptance of everything that came out of the Bush White House: “Over the last five years you people were so good, over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, and the effect of global warming. We Americans didn’t want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out.”
It was brave, and brilliant, and boy, did it make some people angry, even as it made many more laugh. That, my friends, is the purpose of great satire.
Can Colbert the comedian deliver the same bite and sting to a mainstream late night talk show on stodgy old CBS? I have my doubts. But then again, I’ve learned not to bet against him. RIP “Stephen Colbert.” Long live Stephen Colbert, America’s greatest living satirist.