For 10 seasons, comedian Stephen Colbert’s alter ego, the bloviating neoconservative host of the Comedy Central talk show “The Colbert Report,” has perfectly spoofed the fundamental absurdity of American politics. Colbert signs off tonight from his show and, presumably, also from regularly performing the role he’s played with such commitment that he once testified in front of Congress in character.
The pressure of expectations on a series finale is immense, especially for a show as consistently good as Colbert’s. Given the number of memorable TV moments he’s given us over the run of the show, expectations are certainly high. So here's some of what we hope the finale of "Colbert Report" manages to deliver.
The perfect Wørd for our current times
The recurring linguistic dystopian segment launched during the show’s 2005 pilot with “truthiness,” a neologism that captured perfectly the surreal Bush era-approach to knowledge and how we manipulate it. It sounds a little wrong, like one of George W. Bush’s famed malapropisms, and yet also like the slippery cousin of truth that wouldn’t appear out of place in a Donald Rumsfeld memo. Over the years, Colbert has contributed other great Wørds, like the 2012 NCLB-panic term “Meducation” (doping kids in low-scoring schools with Adderall even if they haven’t been diagnosed with ADHD in order to boost academic performance). Hopefully, he will leave us with the perfect word to sum up our current times.
A new endowed foundation
In 2011, Colbert actually filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission to form his own super PAC to pay for political ads and other luxury expenses. The first commercial for "Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow" took outrageous way political ads -- paid for by vaguely sinister-sounding PACs that can twist brief sound bites out of context to paint their opponents in negative light -- to its most illogical extreme: “If Mitt Romney really believes ‘corporations are people, my friend,’ then Mitt Romney is a serial killer.” That sums up everything that’s awful about the money-and-panic-fueled American political machine while showcasing Colbert’s expert manipulation of the act of political performance. For the finale, he could announce his endowed foundation to protect the Constitution from North Korean hackers.
More holiday hysteria
From his Blitzkrieg on Grinchitude to Easter Under Attack, Colbert has consistently lampooned the persecution complex that some more paranoid strains of American evangelical Christianity hold dear by juxtaposing violent pro-gun and -war imagery with sacred symbols. In 2010, he declared he wouldn’t stand for taking the Christ out of Christmas and would, indeed, wish everyone “a Merry Christ Christmas Christ.” In the 2011 “Egg Edition” of Easter Under Attack, he tells footage of a little girl that participating in a secularized “Spring Egg Hunt” will send her to hell. Colbert’s an equal offender, though, as the annual Atone Phone hotline he sets up during the Jewish High Holidays shows, and an inventive “Yahweh or No Way” Christmukkah send-up would work for this late-December finale.
A surprise interview
Colbert’s in-character interviews walk the line between legitimate talk show and court jestering, never completely dipping too far to one side. The 2007 interview with his artistic progenitor Bill “Papa Bear” O’Reilly is a perfect example of how deftly Colbert can knock even an experienced entertainer off his script while maintaining the illusion of obsequious idol worship. At one point, O’Reilly protests that his public tough guy persona is all an act. “If you’re an act,” Colbert marvels, “then what am I?” In his softer pop culture interviews, Colbert’s dimwitted persona can bring out the best/worst in a prickly guest.
In his 2012 interview with CNN chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour, Colbert plays his bullheaded hawk character to the hilt. Colbert puts on the belligerent mask of a petulant talking head, demanding over and over “you’d rather have Saddam Hussein in power, yes or no?!” Every time Amanpour tries to give a serious answer, Colbert shakes it up with a ridiculous distraction, like the feasibility of motorcycle-driving Israeli-weaponized delivery men. The extra layer of meta-comedy that occurs when Colbert interviews people who actually do report the news is magic.
Colbert will be interviewing Grimmy, a grim reaper character who reminds Colbert of how many shows he has left. But some of Colbert’s most memorable moments are his unannounced interviews. Since Obama and Hillary have already made recent appearances, who’s a big enough surprise? A torture report interview with Dick Cheney, maybe.
A show-stopping musical number
Colbert’s character often misses the point on pop culture through a combination of straight-faced sincerity and undermining snark, exposing the inanity of the celebrity talk show circuit in the process. He has a Ronald Reagan/Chris Christie-level understanding of Bruce Springsteen, for example, thinking “Born in the U.S.A.” basically means “get out of our country, illegal immigrants,” and once called the Beatles one of Paul McCartney’s side projects. But even Morrissey agreed to perform after Colbert baited him over the royal family. (“Horrible, arrogant dictators,” according to the Moz.)
And when Colbert himself sings, he creates fantastic musical comedy moments. From the cowboy-hatted “Oopsie-Daisy Homophobe,” his brilliant parody of Brad Paisley’s idiotic “Accidental Racist” featuring Alan Cumming on the guest-rap verse, to his vintage synth-pop stalker anthem “Charlene (I’m Right Behind You),” Colbert’s musical stylings are always good for a left-field laugh. When Daft Punk canceled an appearance last summer to perform the “Colbchella” Song of the Summer segment, Colbert started a feud with MTV and more than made up for their cancellation with a lengthy dance number to “Get Lucky” guest-starring a phalanx of famous partners, from Henry Kissinger to Matt Damon. With Springsteen on the finale in a rapid-fire musical rundown of all of the lawmakers that didn’t make it into Better Know a District, the interview segment would kill. But a dance number with Beyoncé might also do the trick.
A memorable sign-off
Relaxing in front of the fireplace, Colbert almost signed off for good on Nov. 4, after his final election night “Report,” with a surprisingly comforting reminder about the inevitability of election coverage: “Someone’s always running against someone, somewhere else or another. One of them wins, the other loses. Some are too close to call.” His finale is going to demand the sign-off of all sign-offs. Maybe the late-night host club — Fallon, O’Brien, Kimmel, Meyers — could show up to carry Colbert off to his new life. Colbert, ever the paranoid dimwit, will think he’s being kidnapped by secular progressives, and only Papa Bear O’Reilly can save him.