The Colbert Report catapulted Stephen Colbert to international fame—but as its nine-year run drew to a close, lots of people speculated about whether the real Colbert had become nearly as famous as that series’ fictional host. So much of Colbert’s star power rests, after all, with the over-blown conservative persona he honed on the Report.
When he takes over the Late Show next year, though, Colbert will drop that act. Now that the Report is finally over, review these seven clips, both funny and serious, to recall the times he’s done that before.
Saturday Night Live‘s The Ambiguously Gay Duo, 1998
Most people remember Robert Smigel’s hilarious “TV Funhouse” segments from the late ’90s. Fewer people know that Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell voiced a few of his best-known characters: the Ambiguously Gay Duo. “They’re extremely close, in an ambiguous way,” the segment’s theme song explains as its heroes drive a phallic race car—and that’s just the beginning. The bit’s twelve installments packed gay innuendos mocking the homosocial relationships between many superheroes (particularly Batman and Robin). In 1998’s typically vulgar “A Hard One to Swallow,” Colbert’s character Ace presents Carell’s Gary with a long, pink crystal, telling him that “new knowledge is always a little frighting and painful—sometimes the best thing to do is to not think and just put it in.” The Report‘s Colbert would not approve.
Strangers With Candy, 2005
Along with Amy Sedaris, Paul Dinello, and Mitch Rouse, Colbert helped write the Comedy Central series Strangers With Candy. The show aired from 1999 to 2000 and later developed a strong cult following, thanks in part to Colbert’s off-the-wall high school teacher, Chuck Noblet. The show presented warped moral lessons, like an episode about body image that suggested bulimia is an acceptable way to get noticed. In 2005, Colbert reprised his role for the silver screen, where he helped Amy Sedaris’ character with a science fair project. “As many of you know, this is a very special time for me,” Noblet tells his class in one scene. “It was one year ago that I hit rock bottom, discovered God, and realized that evolution is a farce.” (Sounds like something his Report character would say.
The Second City’s “Maya,” 2009
Colbert and his Daily Show buddy Steve Carell began their careers at Chicago’s Second City improv theater. One of their most famous sketches while there was “Maya.” The absurd bit—which the comedians recreated in 2009 for the theater 50th anniversary celebration—follows the duo as they return to Colbert’s Southern home, where characters welcome him as “Shirley Wentworth” and shower him with praise. When Carell inquires about Colbert’s strange behavior and alter ego, he pauses and says, “Oh, I forgot to tell you—when I’m home I’m an old black woman.” It gets stranger, with one character reminding Colbert that he hasn’t “let the barriers of color or sex stand in [his] way.” Colbert can work a script, but he’s also a practiced improvisor who can carry weird comedy as well as anyone.
Stephen Sondheim’s Company, 2011
Colbert played recovering alcoholic Harry in a 2011 staging of Sondheim’s classic concept musical at the New York Philharmonic. Supported by stars like Neil Patrick Harris and Christina Hendricks, Colbert’s dialogue predictably shined. But Colbert also sings—and he’s not bad! The character Colbert played on the Report sometimes restricted his comedic palate, but as Jimmy Fallon has proved, jacks-of-all-trades make the most successful late night hosts. Expect to hear more of Colbert’s singing voice in the coming years.
Northwestern University commencement address, 2011
Stephen Colbert’s amped-up persona often masked his wisdom, but his thoughtful side emerged when he gave commencement addresses—the best of which was to his alma mater, Northwestern University. “My name is Stephen Colbert, but I also play a character on TV who is named Stephen Colbert—and I don’t always know which of us has been invited someplace,” he told graduates in 2011. “Today I’m fairly confident that I’m me, because I went to Northwestern and my character went to Dartmouth.” Colbert mixed his signature wit with valuable insight. “You are what some have called ‘the greatest generation,'” he said. “Not many, but some. So far, just me. I’m counting on you to not make me look like an idiot for saying that. So be great—no pressure.” He also poured on the snark, warning graduates that “we are now entering the meaningful part of the speech: Those of you who already have enough meaning in their lives can go do something else. Maybe try to remember where you parked the rental car.”
Out-of-character interview on Meet the Press, 2012
Satire requires innate and thorough topical knowledge. Political pundits often wanted to hear what Stephen Colbert—the real one—had to say about politics, because playing his character required detailed understanding of the news. In 2012, Meet the Press‘ David Gregory got Colbert to drop his act. In turn, Colbert explained why the presidential election benefitted him as a performer and how he prepares guests for his interviews. Colbert said that he told guests his character was “willfully ignorant” of what they know and instructed them to “honestly disabuse” him of his ignorance. Beyond comedic process, the interview proves that Colbert can make great wisecracks about politics and life even when out of character. That bodes well for his tenure as Late Show host.
Rookie‘s “Ask A Grown Man,” 2014
Earlier this year, Colbert appeared on Rookie‘s “Ask A Grown Man” series, in which the publication’s mostly young, mostly female readership sends in questions to male celebrities who then respond on film. Colbert, who has a daughter himself, provided a series of out-of-character, heartfelt answers. The questions weren’t lightweight, either: From the get-go, Colbert addresses misogyny, cat-calling, and rape. “For this sort of thing to stop, boys have to be educated,” Colbert says. “Does our society educate boys to be misogynistic? It probably doesn’t value girls and women as much as it should. And boys probably see that as a signal that they can get away with things.” When answering one reader’s question about how to deal with a father who doesn’t support her having sex, Colbert asserts his inner dad flag and refuses to side with her.