I suppose I'll throw my paean onto the fire along with all the others.
It seems strange to think of it, considering his near-total pop culture ubiquity now, but when Stephen Colbert first came on the air no one knew what the hell he was doing. I mean, some people knew. The writers and producers, presumably, but the average viewer tuning in was flabbergasted.
I remember watching the first episode of The Colbert Report. My wife and I had recently moved to Oklahoma as part of my job (I was an army officer.) I grew up in the suburbs of Philly, a place so liberal we didn't really even realize there was another option. And we had both just graduated from college, again, not exactly a bastion of rightist thought. Moving to a red state - perhaps the red state - and being exposed to genuine, I'm-not-shitting-you conservative Southerners in the army was a bit of a culture shock for us, to say the least.
My wife got fired for her outspoken liberal views. I got told by a Texan First Sergeant that the North was "all just pretty much one state up there anyway." But I don't mean this post to be some kind of gripe-fest. We adjusted, as best we could, just agreeing that as soon as we could we'd get back home where we were more comfortable. Nevertheless, our one oasis in the vast Red Desert of Middle America was The Daily Show.
This was nine years ago and neither Jon Stewart nor The Daily Show were the institutions they are now, but at about the halfway point of the Bush administration something electric was happening. People were discovering this weird, honest, crude form of criticism. And this was all being broadcast out of New York City, not unlike Philadelphia in that Stewart probably isn't even aware how left-leaning he is just by default. For my wife and I it was like a panacea. And when they started talking about having their best correspondent, Colbert, have his own show, we sort of shrugged and, like everyone else, assumed it would be yet another failed experiment in the wreckage that is Comedy Central's attempts to capitalize on their four or five mega-hits.
(Brief aside: Ah, Kröd Mändoon. How I miss you.)
So this show came on, and this is the part that everyone forgets: no one got it at first. We had watched Colbert - who we now know, since it has been repeated ad nauseum by those trying to explain the show, is a character - with a cracking voice and almost palpable lack of confidence say the sorts of crazy things that Bill O'Reilly was saying on Fox News.
There were more than a few times in those first few weeks when either I or my wife would turn to the other and say, "Is he serious? Or is he playing." We just didn't get it. There had never been anything like this on television before. We were the dedicated fanbase and it took us a few months before we fully "got" the game. When Jon Stewart put on a character, he immediately broke it to tell us what he really thought. With Colbert, the character never broke and everything had to be picked up through innuendo. Imagine trusting your audience enough to literally have to pick up on what's not being said. I'm sure part of the appeal for watchers like myself was feeling oh so incredibly smart to be able to read between the lines.
It took the non-watchers quite a while longer to figure it out. I have no idea what it's like to be a guest (or target, as it were) on Colbert, but watching the discomfiture of people like Barney Frank in those early years was amazing. One had to wonder if some producer, or maybe Colbert himself, off-camera had to eventually start clueing in the poor people to the game. It was many years before guests started coming on fully aware of what they were getting into, that they were going to be forced into the "straight man" role while Colbert danced to the interview table every night and bloviated. No, in those early years it was uncomfortable to watch, and visibly uncomfortable for the subjects. This was groundbreaking stuff.
Now the ground is broken and I don't even know if it can ever be done again. I guess Sacha Baron Cohen has a somewhat similar shtick. But we haven't seen a glut of imitators or pretenders. Could the right pull off a reversal and have a faux-liberal Colbert-type? I dunno. They sure haven't tried it. It's kind of surprising, in a sense. I mean, almost any kind of success in show business leads to imitators and fakers, usually of varying degrees of quality. Stephen Colbert has none that I can think of.
Was he unique? Certainly. Was he positioned in a unique time of history to do what he did? Maybe. Can it never be repeated? I dunno. Maybe Stephen Colbert the performer was just so uniquely talented that nobody else will ever be able to pull it off again. I find that hard to believe, but so far it seems to be the case.
One thing that's sad for me, in a sense, is the mayfly nature of a news show, even a satirical one. I've never popped in an "old fave" of Colbert or The Daily Show and watched it. Would a show from 2005 or 2007 still be amusing, even assuming I'd forgotten all the jokes and content and was coming to it essentially "fresh?" I doubt it. There will be, I suppose, a few immortal moments that stand the test of time. Maybe the "Truthiness" Word segment or his interview with Jane Fonda or something will become clip show fodder in the future.
But for the most part The Colbert Report is dead. My kids won't watch it. I won't be able to explain to them the frenetic power it had, the way I tuned in every night without fail to watch my favorite fake blowhard skewer things in a way that nobody who even aspired to be taken seriously could. In a whiff, it's gone, lost behind the couch cushions like a teenager's heartbreaking poem scrawled on looseleaf paper.
You can't recreate the magic of a topical show, feeling like you had a friend who you could see every day, even if maybe he didn't respond to you. So that's all gone. And Colbert the character...well, he'll be back, no doubt, periodically. But an era is over. And I'm deliberately avoiding talking about how wretched last night's finale was, because I don't want it to sully the otherwise good memories of nine years.
I've probably pontificated on long enough. Time to pull the plug. Good night, sweet pundit, and flights of Bud Light Limes sing thee to thy rest.
"Manuscripts don't burn"
- Mikhail Bulgakov
Hi, I'm horror and science fiction author Steve Kozeniewski (pronounced: "causin' ooze key.") Welcome to my blog! You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Amazon. You can e-mail me here, join my mailing list here, or request an e-autograph here. Free on this site you can listen to me recite one of my own short works, "The Thing Under the Bed."
Enter your e-mail address in the box below and click "Subscribe" to join Stephen Kozeniewski's Mailing List for Fun and Sexy People. (Why the hell would anyone ever want to join a mailing list?)