To watch a truly satisfying finale is that rare thing, like getting to see Abraham Lincoln’s unicorn horn.
Our expectations as fans are often so high, it’s almost impossible to meet them. And it seemed like Stephen Colbert was winking at that idea in the final, go-big episode of The Colbert Report, which featured an all-star singalong to “We’ll Meet Again” that included (among many others) Henry Kissinger, an astronaut, Big Bird, Bill Clinton, and Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan (who was still chained up in Colbert’s basement after his own finale) before its host flew off in a sleigh with three beyond-your-wildest-dreams, not-quite-real guests: Santa, Unicorn Abraham Lincoln, and, er, Alex Trebek.
It was the perfect send-off for Colbert, who is, of course, not quite real himself. Watching him play “Stephen Colbert,” one of television’s best characters, for nine years has been thrilling and a little surreal, especially since many of The Colbert Report‘s early reviews questioned whether the concept of a real news show anchored by a fictional blowhard was sustainable. Somehow, Colbert managed to keep that role fresh long after the popularity of punditry started to decline. And last night, he suggested one reason why his act still feels relevant. “Another Bush governor is running for the White House,” he said. “People on TV are defending torture. We are sending troops into Iraq.” When the show began in 2005, he said, “I promised you a revolution. And I’ve delivered. Because technically, one revolution is 360 degrees right back to where we were.”
He didn’t change the world, he insisted. He “samed” it. Though, for a fake news pundit, he got as close to real change as he could get, between organizing the Rally for Sanity And/Or Fear, founding a SuperPAC, and challenging John Edwards’ political views during his run in the 2008 South Carolina primary. “You, the Nation, did all that. I just got paid for it,” he said of the rally and the SuperPAC, not really joking. He even mentioned that his charity auction benefitting the Yellow Ribbon Fund and Donors Choose raised over $300,000 in actual, non-fictional dollars. And yet, Colbert wasn’t playing the Good Samaritan so hard that he couldn’t brag about his legacy, taking credit for everything from “saving the Olympics” to “Cat Stevens’ career” in a segment where he advised “the thinkerati” on how to remember him.
Of course, he’s not really going anywhere. He’s just taking over for David Letterman at CBS. Colbert joked about this with a Prescott Group-sponsored sketch called “Cheating Death With Dr. Stephen T. Colbert, DFA,” in which he murdered the Grim Reaper, earned the right to live forever, and tossed the gun to longtime Colbert Report favorite An Audience Member (played by executive producer Tom Purcell) who shot himself in the knee. (“My first impression of immortality feels okay,” Colbert said. “Kinda lonely, a little snacky.”) But hearing “We’ll Meet Again” at the end of the episode still felt a little melancholy, after nearly a decade of deliciously awkward interviews and inspired musical moments, a few deeply satisfying scenes of character-breaking, and one hell of a White House Correspondents’ Dinner. It was as if he were saying, “I’m leaving, but I’m not really leaving.” “This, in fact, is your last time tuning into The Colbert Report,” he announced, “until 10 years from now, when they reboot it, directed by J.J. Abrams.” A truly great fake news show deserves a proper fake goodbye, and Colbert got one last night.
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