The End of Truthiness: Stephen Colbert’s Sublime Finale

The man behind the desk is a fictional character—a ferocious patriot exposing the limits of rigid ideology. But the real Colbert has always been on that stage too.

After nine years and 1,447 episodes of The Colbert Report, this is how it ends: with Stephen Colbert grabbing his Captain America shield, climbing into Santa’s sleigh next to Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek and a vaping Abraham Lincoln, and flying off into eternity. Does a fake news program need a series finale? In the case of The Colbert Report, absolutely. But then, this show has always been more than just the parody of right-wing cable punditry it was originally made out to be. Nearly everything that made The Colbert Report special was evident in the last episode, which reminded the millions of members of Colbert Nation that political commentary is all about establishing a narrative. For nearly a decade on Comedy Central, four nights a week, a late night talk show host told a story. Last night, he finished it.

This is an under-acknowledged aspect of Colbert’s genius, that he didn’t take the easy route and merely carry over the smug, opinionated faux-populist character he introduced on The Daily Show. If spoofing Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity is all The Colbert Report had ever been about, the show would’ve gotten old quickly. Instead, Colbert kept building out his character’s backstory, turning a single-panel cartoon into something more like a long-running comic strip, with a myriad of subplots.

The final episode nodded to a lot of what could be called The Colbert Report’s “mythology.” Over the course of the half hour, there was a joke about bears, and a segment sponsored by the grossly irresponsible pharmaceutical conglomerate “The Prescott Group.” Colbert also brought up some of the little campaigns that became running storylines on the show over the years: such as him sponsoring Olympic speed-skating, or starting his own Super PAC. These recurring bits are what kept a lot of viewers’ attention, for weeks on end. A typical episode of The Colbert Report might start out with the host riffing on the day’s headlines, but at any moment Colbert could drop in an animated segment adapting his ridiculous Tek Jansen science-fiction novels, or he could spend a month or two raising awareness of wrists after accidentally breaking his own. In its own weird way, by the end, The Colbert Report was as densely serialized as Lost.

The finale followed the show’s usual form, for the most part. Colbert came out, openly basked in the crowd’s applause, made a wry joke (“If this is your first time tuning in… I have some terrible news”), and reported on an odd little news item. Then he shifted to the Report’s longest-running bit, “The Word,” a twist on The O’Reilly Factor’s “Talking Points Memo,” in which the text that pops up on the side of the screen undercuts and needles what Colbert says.

After a commercial break though, the episode took a turn. While setting up another regular segment, “Cheating Death with Dr. Stephen Colbert, D.F.A.,” Colbert actually killed the living embodiment of death (“Grimmy”), becoming an immortal. He quickly took another commercial break, and then came back to tell the audience how it felt to be a god (“kinda lonely, a little snacky”), before launching into the song “We’ll Meet Again.” The chorus repeated for minutes, as Colbert was joined by an all-star cast of background singers, including his old boss Jon Stewart, Randy Newman, Willie Nelson, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Mandy Patinkin, Keith Olbermann, Andrew Sullivan, Ken Burns, Katie Couric, Ric Ocasek, Cookie Monster, James Franco, Jeff Tweedy, Patrick Stewart, Arianna Huffington, Alan Alda, George Lucas, and more.

Colbert has interviewed nearly all of the above on the show before, and if there was one major element missing from the final Colbert Report, it was an interview. While Jon Stewart has often fumbled the “talk” part of his talk show, Colbert has been remarkably skilled at getting real answers to fake questions. It’s become a reliable bit of late night theater these past nine years: Colbert jogging around in front of the audience to get them to cheer for him, while his guest sits and waits for him to pop by and pretend to be hostile. It’s a shame he couldn’t have done that one last time on his farewell episode.

The night before the finale though, Colbert did interview author and Iraq War veteran Phil Klay, and while talking about Klay’s National Book Award-winning fiction collection Redeployment, Colbert suggested, straight-faced, “You can be more truthful by making things up.” He didn’t wink at the audience or acknowledge the irony. The larger meaning of what he was saying hung in the air for a split-second.

When Colbert takes over for David Letterman on CBS’ Late Show in 2015, he’ll have to find out if he can be truthful by not making things up. Given his skills as an actor and comedian, he’s probably not going to have much of a problem. His fans, however, may find the adjustment difficult. The end of the fictional Colbert means the end of the flashbacks to his early days in local news (when he pined for his true love “Charlene,” mentioned briefly in the finale), and the end to all his alter-egos. The Colbert Report has been as cogent a statement about the personality-driven modern media as Broadcast News or The Newsroom, and a big part of that critique has been bound up with all the details about the host’s past and personal life. All the looks back at this Colbert character have been a clever way of pointing out that some of the most trusted names in politics today are little more than escapees from some local radio station’s Morning Zoo. That sharp end of the Report’s main point was mostly missing from its last episode, and will be missed in the months and years to come.

Also lacking last night: Any sense of optimism for the world outside the show’s comic universe. Early in the finale, Colbert made a joke about how when The Colbert Report began in 2005, the U.S. was mired in Iraq and arguing about torture, and how nothing much has changed. Back then though, the hour-long block of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report served as a kind of oasis to moderates and leftists who were tearing their hair out over the mainstream press’ unwillingness to push back against the Bush administration’s cockiness and obfuscations. Lately, Stewart and Colbert have been skewering a Democratic president over the same, which has made the shows’ core audience more uncomfortable. In that sense, the last Report was mildly unsatisfying as a conclusion, in that it left so much unresolved.

But as far as closing the book on a piece of make-believe though, the finale was sublime, and as tricky as The Colbert Report has always been. Ever since Colbert announced in April that he’ll be taking over for Letterman, some have wondered whether he can host a show as himself, without the “Stephen Colbert” persona to hide behind. Yet anyone who’s watched The Colbert Report faithfully for all these years knows that it’s been a mix of the phony and the sincere all along. Both Colberts are Catholics, family men, and total nerds. Neither Colbert is pretending to geek out about Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, or faking being awestruck by a rock ’n’ roll legend, or has tongue in cheek when raising money for teachers or wounded servicemen.

The man behind the desk is a fictional character—a ferocious patriot who exposes the limits of a rigid ideology with every half-thought-out proclamation. But the real Colbert has always been on that stage too. For a character who’s meant to embody the worst of 21st century broadcasting, this Stephen Colbert has been so easy to like—which made it all the harder to watch him fly away.