It’s going to be hard to say goodbye to The Colbert Report this Thursday—mostly because it’ll mean saying goodbye to “Stephen Colbert,” the ruthlessly ignorant, hilariously pompous, utterly indelible faux conservative pundit that the real Stephen Colbert has been playing on late-night TV for over a decade (if you count the Daily Show years). “Colbert” isn’t a great creation just because of all the jokes he’s told and the absurdities he’s exposed via satire—he’s also a character for the ages because of the many ways he’s had an impact on the real world.
What kind of impact? Start with these 15 actual things accomplished by a fake man—and know that they’re just the tip of the iceberg.
He invented a word: truthiness. “I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books,” Colbert boasted during his very first show in October 2005. “They are elitist, constantly telling us what is or isn’t true, or what did or didn’t happen…I don’t trust books. They’re all fact, no heart.” Enter the character’s first and perhaps still most famous coinage: “truthiness,” a state of veracity that’s felt or wished for rather than backed up by empirical evidence. Colbert scoffed that the “wordinistas” at Webster’s would dismiss it as a fake word, which they probably did… until the American Dialect Society voted it Word of the Year in 2005. Merriam-Webster’s followed suit the next year.
He ran for president… twice. First as the Nacho Cheese Doritos 2008 Presidential Candidate (read more about that here), then as a candidate totally not affiliated with his million-dollar-raising Super PAC… a.k.a. the “Definitely Not Coordinating With Stephen Colbert Super PAC.” Colbert never made it to the ballot, though by throwing his support to Herman Cain in 2012, he did help that onetime candidate earn 1.1 percent of the primary vote—enough to help Cain surpass Rick Perry, Jon Huntsman, and Michele Bachmann.
He opened a real Super PAC that raised millions of dollars. Mentioned in that last blurb, but this one bears repeating: Colbert’s political action committee, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, inspired tons of very real people to donate tons of very real money—$1.02 million, according to its filing with the Federal Election Commission. (Alas, you can no longer donate to the PAC: Since November 2012, its website displays only a memorial message for Colbert’s advisor and chief strategist, “Ham Rove.”) The stunt also helped millions of Americans better understand the Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United ruling, illustrating the role Super PACs play in electoral politics so well that Colbert and his show earned a Peabody Award for these segments in April 2012.
He got his portrait into the Smithsonian. As the National Museum of American History itself explains: “A series of segments on The Colbert Report in 2008 depicted comedian Stephen Colbert’s quest to have his portrait accepted by one of the Smithsonian’s museums. The portrait hung in the National Portrait Gallery through April 1, 2008.” The painting was subsequently moved to the National Museum of American History, remaining on public display until September 2009. The point: Colbert can now legitimately claim that he’s been declared a national treasure.
He sponsored an Olympic speedskating team. After America’s speedskaters lost their most important corporate sponsor—Dutch bank DSB—in 2009, Colbert stepped in, urging his viewers to donate money to support the team before the Vancouver Olympics. The drive was a success; the Colbert Nation raised $300,000, enough to make up for the hole left by DSB. (Speedskater and Olympic gold medalist responded by, uh, calling Colbert a “jerk.” You can’t please everyone!)
He testified before Congress on immigration. In character, no less. Colbert appeared before a House subcommittee, delivering a satirical but searing testimony about his “experience as an entertainer-turned-migrant worker.” (The migrant worker stunt was filmed for the episode of the Report that debuted a few days before his Congressional visit.) He also tried to submit his colonoscopy video into the Congressional record and also declared his desires not to eat a tomato that had been picked by a Mexican: instead, he said, “want it picked by an American, then sliced by a Guatemalan, and served by a Venezuelan in a spa where a Chilean gives me a Brazilian.”
He has his own Ben & Jerry’s flavor. And it might be the most delicious Ben & Jerry’s flavor of all. (P.S. Proceeds from Ameri-Cone Dream go to a fund that supports several of Colbert’s favorite charities.)
He’s had an eagle, a (female) leatherback turtle, an elephant seal, a Virgin America Airbus, a peregrine falcon, and a new species of spider named after him. Not to mention a hockey team’s mascot: “Steagle Colbeagle the Eagle.”
He got a bridge in Hungary named after him…almost. The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Transport of Hungary held a poll to determine the new structure’s name in 2006; Colbert won handily with millions of votes, but was eventually disqualified from the contest because, as Hungary’s ambassador to the U.S. explained on an episode of the Report, the bridge could only be named after someone both fluent in Hungarian and deceased. Missed it by that much.
And he almost had a wing of the International Space Station named after him as well. Another year, another naming poll attacked by the Colbert Nation—but this one was in space. In 2009, NASA asked for naming suggestions for a node on the International Space Station; Colbert was the top vote-getter Wing of the International Space Station. Though the space nerds decided to call the module “Tranquility” instead, they did give Colbert a sweet consolation prize: news that the treadmill on the space station would now be known as the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill, or COLBERT.
He had his DNA shot into space. As EW wrote in September 2008: “Space tourist and video game designer Richard Garriott will deliver Colbert’s digitized DNA to the International Space Station this October for an ‘Immortality Drive.’ ‘In the unlikely event that Earth and humanity are destroyed, mankind can be resurrected with Stephen Colbert’s DNA,’ Garriott said. Colbert graciously accepted the honor, announcing, ‘I am thrilled to have my DNA shot into space, as this brings me one step closer to my lifelong dream of being the baby at the end of 2001.'”
He got a first-time novelist’s book to be a bestseller during his feud with Amazon. Edan Lepucki’s California shot to number one on the bestseller list at independent bookstore Powell’s in Portland after Colbert plugged it on the show—and, as Lepucki herself told EW, reached number three on the New York Times bestseller list as well. The Colbert Bump is real!
He started Bill Clinton’s Twitter account. In April 2013, during a conversation filmed at the annual Clinton Global Initiative University; Colbert decided to go with the handle @PrezBillyJeff, and the former president dictated his very first tweet to Colbert from the stage. (Alas, he subsequently decided to change his Twitter name to the much less interesting @BillClinton.)
He guest-edited Newsweek. In June 2009, then-editor Jon Meacham tried to spice up the weekly magazine by inviting Colbert to do a guest-editing stint. Response from subscribers was… mixed. Wrote reader Donald H. Crosby of Springfield, Va., in a letter published the following week: “Who the hell is Stephen Colbert? And who cares?”
He insulted President George W. Bush to his face. We just can’t say enough about Colbert’s 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech, a 17-minute feat of comic chutzpah that left nothing but scorched earth (and a lot of very unhappy journalists and GOP insiders) in its wake. Eight years later, it’s still incredible that this happened—and it’s still the main reason the retirement of “Stephen Colbert” is such a huge loss to the comedy community.