"Stephen Colbert" is dead, long live Stephen Colbert!

As he heads to a more traditional role, we mourn television's greatest blowhard

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published April 11, 2014 2:36PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
(Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Brothers and sisters, we are gathered here today to bid farewell to a great man. A legendary entertainer. A dedicated newsman. And the world's staunchest defender of truthiness. Oh, "Stephen Colbert," you leave us too soon.

In the end, he was not done in by spurious charges of racial insensitivity. His tenure as the boldest voice on television outside of Camp Bill O'Reilly would not end because of low ratings or moral outrage or simply running out of creative gas. No, instead, "Stephen Colbert" is departing this plane of existence so he can climb to the next one. And when he does, he will be reborn. As Stephen Colbert. Of course, we've seen glimpses of this other Colbert before. We've seen him lovingly pay tribute to his late mother and go all in for a Daft Punk dance extravaganza. This is the kind of man we'll likely see more of and soon. But the "Stephen Colbert" we've grown to love over nearly nine years of "The Colbert Report" will likely cease to exist when the show's run ends in eight months and Colbert takes over the reins of "The Late Show" from David Letterman.

Of all the smarmy, condescending, boneheaded conservative middle-aged white men on the airwaves -- and they are LEGION -- there's none who can hold a candle to "Stephen Colbert" -- a man who in the earliest days of his show easily created chaos by inciting viewers to creatively edit Wikipedia, a man who offered women the dating advice to "Maybe, stop voting, or stop talking, that's mysterious!" and who recently urged viewers to "send photos and/or videos to Steve King, proving that you are gay." He was extreme and irrational. Who else but "Stephen Colbert" would threaten a mob of thousands of fans with the promise of peanut butter-covered bees? And what will we do without him?

The Stephen Colbert who will emerge in 2015 as a considerably more traditional late night talk show host will no doubt be brilliant and subversive – as, for over three decades, Letterman has been. But he'll still be a man who makes chit-chat with movie stars who have projects to promote. He will not be the creator of a super PAC that promised to make "a better tomorrow, tomorrow." He will not be the man who glowingly referred to Bill O'Reilly as "Papa Bear" or casually called Rosa Parks "overrated" or did a full week of Operation Iraqi Stephen. And it's a good bet he won't be starting any Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever. For nine years, it has been that "Stephen Colbert" who's insightfully skewered the rabid nonsense of conservatism by just being a rapid, nonsense-spewing conservative. Every night, he's been a week's worth of "Fox and Friends," rolled up into one man. He's been the perfect counterpoint to Jon Stewart's earnest liberal outrage – a character made entirely of arched eyebrows and hubris.

One can understand how being "Stephen Colbert" might become wearying for a nice Catholic family man who lobbies on behalf of migrant farmworkers and fundraises for public schools to spend the bulk of his public life in the persona of an arrogant blowhard. But that arrogant blowhard has been one of the most consistently insightful, inventive and flat-out hilarious characters to grace late night. Writing in Vulture Thursday, Jesse David Fox praised him as "delusional, narcissistic, rigid, and daft, with flashes of the real man's incredible sweetness." Sure, not everyone got the joke of a man who once said he wouldn't mention any African-American women as he honored "Womyn's Herstory Monstration" because "You already had your month; don't get greedy," but for plenty of us, he was the world's greatest secret agent, exposing arrogance and privilege by looking the part of arrogant and privileged so flawlessly. The sweet, silly man who was adorably terrified singing with Dolly Parton and who regularly broke into girlish giggles will no doubt be a blazing bright spot as the host of "Late Night." But the guy who could go on national television and say that maybe Hitler had some good ideas will soon no longer be with us. He was an incendiary, outrageous, entirely unself-aware jackass. And Lord, how that guy will be missed.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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