#CancelColbert. The absurd, innocuous hashtagavism that began in the backlash to a poorly chosen, out of context tweet by the Comedy Central-run Twitter account associated with The Colbert Report, has succeeded. Colbert has been canceled.
Of course, it’s under the most coveted of circumstances. Stephen Colbert has the rest of the year to finish off his acclaimed, Emmy award winning run of The Colbert Report. Then, just as his contract with Comedy Central expires he’ll sign a new one with CBS, retire his ultra-conservative and narcissistic Stephen Colbert persona, and replace David Letterman as the new host of The Late Show – Stephen Colbert.
It’s a somewhat unconventional path from fake cable news host to sitting behind a late night desk at one of America’s reigning networks. (Though, it admittedly worked pretty well for Jimmy Fallon, who’s found himself hosting The Tonight Show after formerly helming SNL’s Weekend Update.) And it’s a move that will challenge both channels. CBS will need to quell the outcry from far-right Americans feeling slighted in their choice of such a left leaning entertainer, and work to establish Colbert as a broadly accepted host without relying on his already established pundit persona. Comedy Central, on the other hand, has the even harder task of finding someone or something to plug that Stephen Colbert-sized hole in their newly minted late night line-up. [Update: Enter Larry Wilmore and his new series, The Nightly Show.]
The addition of Chris Hardwick’s @Midnight has given the cable network a strong and competitive block from 11:00pm to 12:30am, of which the lynchpin really is The Colbert Report. As the only successful spin-off from The Daily Show, The Colbert Report has been following Jon Stewart nightly, but more often than not would eclipse its forebear in both laughs and witty criticism. Where Stewart has sat behind the desk of The Daily Show for 15 years (holy crap!), Colbert’s only had his show for nine. And while Stewart’s tenure on The Daily Show has been some of the finest comedy and political parody, in Colbert’s shorter time onscreen he’s achieved an unparalleled influence on our pop culture.
Most, if not all, is a self-made influence. Anyone familiar with Colbert’s schtick knows humble isn’t really in his vocabulary, and it’s through his often self-stated importance that he’s managed an actual, real world importance.
There is, of course, the “Colbert Bump”, a guaranteed surge in popularity after an appearance on the program. He pushed “truthiness” into our modern dialect where it’s now recognized by both the American Dialect Society and Merriam-Webster. Stephen Colbert has his own Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream flavor, Ameri-cone Dream (it’s delicious!); spoke at the White House Correspondent’s dinner in 2006; ran for President in 2008 (in South Carolina); has NASA equipment bearing his name; sponsored the U.S. speed skating team for the 2010 Winter Olympics; created his own Super PAC, demystifying the shadowy political action committees and the role they play in electing our officials.
Whew! And that’s only a brief account of only some of what Colbert has accomplished through playing the twisted, self-centered, far-right political pundit. (For more, Colbert’s cultural influence has been cataloged on its own Wikipedia page.)
Colbert the character has allowed Colbert the man to speak with far more “truthiness” about our political and cultural landscape than any comedian before. He – and his staff, because let us not forget he doesn’t do this show alone – have crafted an exceptional program built upon masterful satire.
For an example we don’t even need to look any further back than the same bit that landed Colbert in hot water for an ill-conceived tweet he didn’t even write. The tweet: “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever,” was grossly misconstrued as racist because, out of context, it sure appears to be. But obvious to the more keenly aware (read: those who understand satire and how 140 characters is damn short), the whole debacle only added further weight to the argument Colbert and his writers were making in the first place.
The quote is the punchline of much longer skit which aired on The Colbert Report. In it, Colbert made obvious the already pretty damn obvious racism and hypocrisy of the Washington Redskins owner creating a non-profit organization – The Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation – with his own (clearly fake) organization that also bore a name ignorantly unaware of its inherent racism. But y’know, once you take the time to explain a joke, it’s not all that funny anymore.
Those who didn’t get the joke are the ones really at a loss, because the segment – and in a way the fallout from it – only further highlights what an important voice Colbert has become in our national dialogue. By holding up a mirror to politicians, news anchors, C.E.O.’s, or just about any public figure out of touch with the times or current opinion, he’s exposed them for all their bigotry, ignorance, and hatred. The 1% look into a funhouse mirror and it’s Stephen Colbert staring out, like their own portrait revealing the truthiness behind their wicked behavior.
And that’s why I have mixed feelings about the announcement Stephen Colbert is moving to CBS to host The Late Show. Not because he isn’t deserving or capable – he is abundantly so – but because I’m going to dearly miss the absurdity of his Colbert character and the honesty he exposes. The Colbert Report began in 2005 during my freshman year of college and has since been a constant companion throughout these politically turbulent years, always a spot for not only laughter but reason in what is an increasingly confusing and irritating world.
I only wish the best of luck for Stephen as he embarks on this next venture, which must surely come as a relief after juggling one of the most impressive acts on television for almost a decade. From his earlier comedic work, out of character interviews, and the few opportunities where the real Stephen Colbert shined though the caricature, I know he has what it takes to be a welcoming, gracious, and exemplary host of The Late Show. I can only hope he sends The Colbert Report out with a bang, one large enough we won’t ever want or need that Stephen Colbert to return. (Unless he ever really, really wants to, in which case, how could we refuse?)