Media Guy Bids Farewell to Beloved 'Stephen Colbert'

Satirical Pundit Skewered Media Culture; Real-Life Namesake Generated Joy

By Published on .

I can't quite imagine living without "Stephen Colbert."

Yes, we'll still have Stephen Colbert -- the actual human being who has been playing a blowhard pundit on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" for 10 seasons (and before that on "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart") -- when he takes over for David Letterman on CBS's "Late Show" sometime in 2015 (date TBD). But with the series finale of "The Colbert Report" on Dec. 18, we're losing Stephen Colbert's trademark "Stephen Colbert" character.

This makes my heart and my head hurt.

Credit: Kelsey Dake for Ad Age

It's obviously going to get kinda weird -- witnessing a sort of celebrity body-snatching, wherein a delightfully despicable television icon loses his signature "qualities": pomposity, self-absorption, anti-intellectualism and a gleeful air of condescension. Even if you have a general sense of Stephen Colbert, the real man -- he has occasionally broken character on camera, mostly notably in an in-depth 2010 interview with Oprah -- his "Stephen Colbert" has just been so brilliantly and consistently drawn, and has loomed so large in pop culture, that the fictional has all but eclipsed the factual.

It's hard to think of an exact parallel in TV history. Yes, there are plenty of comedic actors whose TV personas were as seamlessly conceived and performed (Paul Reubens' Pee-wee Herman comes to mind). And certainly some comedic actors have pulled off rather astonishing transformations and reinventions (e.g., Bryan Cranston going from playing an iconic father figure on "Malcolm in the Middle" to portraying a radically different and even more iconic father figure on "Breaking Bad").

But Stephen Colbert and "Stephen Colbert" not only share the same body, they share the same name. And they look and sound exactly alike -- while having entirely different goals.

"Stephen Colbert" -- channeling the spirit of the likes of Bill O'Reilly -- wants to shut down dissension and bully rivals into submission. Whereas Stephen Colbert not only wants to satirize the likes of O'Reilly and generally commit brutally incisive acts of media criticism and political deconstruction (while, yes, occasionally wryly selling stuff, from Wonderful Pistachios to his own Ben & Jerry's flavor, AmeriCone Dream), he also wants to spread joy.

As he told Rolling Stone in 2009, "I call the show, jokingly, 'The Joy Machine,' because if you can do it with joy, even in the simplest show, then it's 'The Joy Machine' as opposed to 'The Machine.' Considering the speed at which we do it, we'll get caught in the gears really quickly unless we also approach it with joy."

Colbert, who is famously a devout Catholic, expanded upon that point in his interview with Oprah a year later, citing a famous quotation (originally uttered by French philosopher and priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin) as words he lives by: "Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God."

It's actually pretty easy to square that POV with Colbert playing "Colbert." Because even though Stephen Colbert has, in essence, been engaged in a rather cruelly effective extended critique of the "Stephen Colbert" mindset all these years, he also obviously loves the character -- and clearly has a ridiculous amount of fun playing him.

It also helps to know how joy has factored into Stephen Colbert's personal life as a sort of antidote to awfulness.

Per the Splitsider blog's recounting of Colbert's appearance at a 2012 Fordham University event (he was interviewed onstage alongside none other than Cardinal Timothy Dolan):

"He recalled riding home from the funeral of his father and two brothers, all three of whom died in a plane crash when Colbert was 10 years old. [Colbert is the youngest of 11 children.] At one point during the somber ride, one Colbert sister cracked a joke that made another laugh so hard she fell on the floor. 'That's when I said, I want to do that,' Colbert explained, going on to say, 'If Jesus doesn't have a sense of humor, I'm in huge trouble.'"

Of course, you can be an atheist and still appreciate Stephen Colbert's moral universe -- and all of us, regardless of beliefs, have been beneficiaries of his desire to spread joy through his brilliant satire. I can't think of anyone who has made me laugh more, more consistently and harder than Stephen Colbert -- and "Stephen Colbert."

As much as I'm mourning the imminent loss of "Stephen Colbert," I really do feel blessed that "The Joy Machine" will live on in another form.

And I can't wait to see Stephen Colbert as Stephen Colbert every night on CBS.

Most Popular