Goodbye Stephen: The brilliance of the breaks
This isn’t a think piece about the Colbert Report’s final episode. Not another one. Not another summary of Stephen Colbert’s impact because we get it. He meant a lot, and, man, looking back, he did a lot. There was nothing like him, like that character. Sharp and cutting and rippling beneath the surface, sending out some kind of sonar to the audience. We all grinned, sly, because together we were in on it.
No, this is an emotion piece. With Stephen, and if you watched enough, we can do first names: the devil was always in the details. The reason this whole thing worked, the whole premise of the show, was based on the rolling boulder force of the host. His inflections, his bluster, his gusts of bravado, they carried the whole thing past sarcasm. It was endearing.
But the true devil, the real detail was in the breaks. Or the knowing, I guess. Below the surface of the feigned, crusted-over image of the world was the real man poking through the wrapping. That’s the dirty little secret of Colbert’s success; his true self was the sunlight that kept the whole thing powered. His knowing glances, the wry smiles, the feeling of: “Can you believe, I can make you believe that people believe this”—try to follow—that was the heart of it. We could all laugh at the ridiculousness of Stephen Colbert and by proxy laugh at the ridiculousness of the world outside our window.
I realize here that I’m bordering on a think piece. Let me tell you how I watched the final episode: sadly. Hell, I am going to miss those laughs, the knowing laughs of being in on the madness.
But I watched the episode waiting for the break. Waiting for Stephen Colbert to become the normal man, the man we will now know on late night television. The man who pushed the light into a show that could have become cynically dark in season one. But, true to form, Stephen held. And it was hilarious and touching and yeah, perhaps foolishly, I felt some kind of teary sadness. But the episode made sense.
He boisterously talked about people discussing his impact because he never took it so seriously; after all, he’s a comedian (even though, come on, we all know better). He referenced an obscure, hilarious Shakespeare line. He sang a song with a million famous past guests because for sure the man loves singing. Also because the guests were always a major player in the show’s orchestra—they were willing victims, taking his stinging, blow-hardy vitriol because his target had to keep moving. And he swung arm-in-arm with Jon Stewart, the person to whom he will be forever linked.
The best moment, however, was at the very end, almost a postscript. It was a clip from 2010. As always, the devil was in the details, the devil (the real man, the reasonable man he so demonized) showed in the breaks of his host character. It always did. This particular clip showed a never-aired transfer from the Daily Show to the Report. Stephen was goofing off and had Jon Stewart in stitches. The two chums wished they could use that take. But they knew better. And snap, they said something like I guess we have to play our funny characters. And Stephen playfully shuffled papers in a one-man game of chess. He said, all puffed up, with a haughty, exasperated tone, I’m getting angry at liberals, and the laughs broke out again.
I’m at home, watching this. My remote frozen. That was it and it was perfect, I thought. That final moment made it for me. The slight break. The hint at the truth, the man behind it all, the ghost in the machine. It took Stephen to carry that show. It would have been cheap to rob us of that wonderfully ignorant character in the final episode. But it would have been a shame to rob us of seeing the real man. But, as always, Colbert played it perfectly. He never broke the ridiculousness. He only hinted at it with a few frames from the past. And we all felt in on it.