When the cameras turn off at The Colbert Report, a strangely compelling show begins. I’ve witnessed it myself. During the shooting of The Report’s St. Patrick’s Day episode in 2010, I became transfixed by Stephen Colbert during the commercial breaks. While the show’s staffers swarmed the set—even while they spoke with Colbert—he couldn’t stop moving. Like a bouncing kid on a sugar high, he danced in his seat, he lip synced to songs, and he fired “Wriststrong” bracelets into the crowd. Then, as the set cleared and the director queued him, Colbert harnessed all that energy, turned it inward and he became the bellicose, right-wing blowhard he will retire this Thursday, when the final Report airs.
For the last nine years Colbert has turned in one of the bravura performances in comedy history. It wasn’t supposed to be possible. When The Report began, doubters abounded. How could the man maintain the character? Jimmy Kimmel admitted his early doubts to The Times’s Bill Carter in an article published this week. “I remember pleading with [James] Dixon [Kimmel and Colbert’s mutual agent] to tell Stephen it was a terrible mistake to do a character the whole time,” Kimmel told Carter. “It wasn’t going to last.”
But on that night in 2010 I saw exactly why Colbert had been so successful. He displayed the energy, commitment, curiosity and intelligence to execute his transcendent political and media satire. It’s a performance nearly every other late night host before him from Steve Allen to Johnny Carson to David Letterman to Jimmy Fallon couldn’t have pulled off. Because unlike his peers, Colbert didn’t merely present a show, he marshaled a massive performance. He had to understand, digest, then express the tics, idiosyncrasies, and inversions of logic central to any egomaniacal pundit. As he told ex-Slate editor David Plotz recently, “I embody the bullshit.”
And to do so, Colbert voraciously consumes politics, culture and history. “The show is a shadow of the news, so I have to know which way that shadow is casting so I can distort it in my own way,” he said to Plotz on Slate’s “Working” podcast.
When he wakes up he immediately begins to read the news. As he heads to work he consumes media summaries prepared by his staff, just as Brian Williams or Scott Pelley would in prepping for their nightly broadcasts. Throughout the day he scans numerous media outlets—from The New York Times to Drudge, and even dives into Reddit to get a finger on the pulse of what people are reacting to. Listening to Colbert intelligently deconstruct his character and preparation, you quickly appreciate why his satire is so razor sharp—he’s not only well-informed, he’s astute enough to make connections between disparate threads in the media. He then combines that level of preparation with an unrivaled energy to become the character.
It’s that energy that leaves him without peer. I’ve seen many greats perform live for TV cameras. In the first season of Louie, I’m in the crowd at the Comedy Cellar when he’s performing all of his interstitial stand-up sets for each episode. And for Conan O’Brien’s final night of his return NYC engagement at the Beacon Theater for TBS, I watched as that night Triumph the Insult Comic Dog went to Occupy Wall Street, Louis CK sat on the couch and Conan officiated America’s first televised gay marriage with Bravo’s Andy Cohen standing witness. And while both experiences were memorable and entertaining, neither of those personal comedic heroes of mine could match the magnetism I saw in Colbert.
There’s a focus and stamina required to commit to a character, which Colbert has hinted at, “Performing the show is athletic and intuitive, it’s autonomic,” he told Plotz. “I get so keyed up at the end of the day I have to relax the rest of the day.” And in 2006 he reached the pinnacle of that performance. There’s no discussing Stephen Colbert the character without mentioning the 2006 White House Correspondent’s dinner. It’s one thing to embody a fictional character in the confines of a TV set you control, but taking that character out into the real world—into a room you know will be hostile to what you’re saying—was a jaw-dropping piece of performance art. He pulled no punches, and only broke character once (when he accidentally inverted the setup of a joke). Colbert took the most biting criticisms of an insulated presidency and feckless press corps and laid them at their feet in such a ballsy way that it nearly stunned Jon Stewart into awed silence.
When Colbert ends The Report tomorrow night, we’ll still have plenty of politically astute comedy to watch—thanks to an era that Colbert and Stewart have ushered in. Stewart will remain by the Daily Show desk for a while, John Oliver will have his epic editorials on Sunday nights and SNL’s Weekend Update will hopefully pull out of its recent doldrums soon. Yet, those will be merely comedic takes on the news. They won’t live inside the news to help us understand the silliness of Super Pac Laws, or testify to Congress that the way to solve the immigrant worker problem is for Americans to stop eating fruits and vegetables.
We’ll still have people to comment on the bullshit, but no one will embody it like Colbert did.