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Stephen Colbert Didn't Change the World, But We Wouldn't Have Survived the Bush Years Without Him

Comedy Central

Reports of Stephen Colbert’s death, it turned out, were greatly exaggerated. On last night’s “The Colbert Report,” the 1447th and final episode, Colbert didn’t kill off “Stephen Colbert,” the gonzo alter ego he has embodied for the past nine years. Instead, Stephen Colbert became immortal.

Most talk-show goodbyes don’t include the host accidentally shooting the Grim Reaper and defeating death. In other ways, though, Colbert’s finale was predictably sentimental. The final episode of a late-night show is guaranteed to be a mawkish, nostalgia-fueled paean to the comedian’s career. And so Colbert, poking fun at this tradition without turning up his nose at the pathos, convened a touching musical tribute. Jay Leno, after all, was serenaded out the door last year by Garth Brooks, Billy Crystal, Oprah, Carol Burnett, Sheryl Crow, Kim Kardashian, and Jack Black.

And Colbert, in turn, was serenaded by—well, by everyone. James Franco and Andrew Sullivan (Colbert’s most frequent guest). Sam Waterston, Neil Degrasse Tyson, and Mick Huckabee. I spotted Cory Booker shaking behind George Lucas and Grover Norquist swaying next to Big Bird. Katie Couric danced with an actual ballet dancer, and Samantha Power danced like nobody was watching. Hobbit Elijah Wood was hard to see behind the only-slightly-taller Henry Kissinger. Pleasantly unrehearsed, with guests awkwardly lurching and bumping into each other, it was a welcome reminder of the diverse, eclectic group of people Colbert hosted on the show—celebrities and TV actors but also authors and documentarians and columnists and scientists.

(Also spotted: Bryan Cranston; Jeffrey Toobin; a camera-shy Gloria Steinem; Doris Kearns Goodwin; Mandy Patinkin; Arianna Huffington; Christiane Amanpour; Andy Cohen, singing his heart out; Ken Burns; Eleanor Holmes Norton; Thomas Friedman; noted fan-of-Thomas-Friedman Matt Taibbi; Courtney Love; David Remnick; Cyndi Lauper; Nicholas Kristof; Toby Keith; Randy Newman; Stephen Pinker. Many, many other people.)

“We’ll meet again. Don’t know where, don’t know when,” they all sang. And while we do know where we’ll see Colbert the comedian again—next summer on CBS, weeknights at 11:35 p.m.— Colbert the character is a different story. Instead of dying, he rode off into eternity on a sleigh with Santa, Abe Lincoln, and Alex Trebek (who reminded us that all of life’s important answers must be in the form of a question). And in the final moments of the pre-taped segment, he slipped out of character to thank his crew, his family, his guests, the Colbert Nation. The real Colbert—earnest, kind, eager—broke through; even the Southern twang he worked so hard to bury started to creep back in. This was the sincere persona we’ll be seeing from now on. And then it was over, with Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Holland, 1945” playing over the credits. 

The vital moment happened earlier, though, when Colbert shifted from his warm, zany performance art back to political satire. “I am a transformational historical figure,” Stephen Colbert told us. It was classic faux-Colbert braggadocio, but it was followed by a more ambivalent legacy assessment. “I did more than change the world. I samed the world,” Colbert said in his final edition of “The Word,” the classic O’Reilly-style rant that birthed the term “truthiness” nine years ago. (Colbert coined “truthiness” in his very first episode—has any other show in history hit it out of the park so quickly?) 

The country isn’t so different than it was in 2005, he reminded us—we’re publicly debating torture, a Bush is running for president, and we’re sending troops into Iraq. Fox News is as strong as ever, and Bill O’Reilly still gets to say racist things on TV. “When this show started, I promised you a revolution, and I delivered,” Colbert quipped. “Technically a revolution is 365 degrees right back to where we were.” Couched in familiar bravado, it was a humble, appropriately sour recognition that for all his achievements, he was only ever a comedian with a late-night TV show. He helped us survive the Bush years and taught us how a Super PAC worked and made us laugh; that had to be enough.