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Stephen Colbert retires 'The Colbert Report,' and its mythical pundit, in bittersweet farewell

Host Stephen Colbert signed off for the last

Host Stephen Colbert signed off for the last time on "The Colbert Report" Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014. He will take over CBS' "The Late Show" next year. Photo Credit: Picturegroup / Scott Gries

The final episode of "The Colbert Report," number 11039, starring someone you will likely never see again, aired Thursday, and — just to take a wild guess — fans cherished every last second of it.

This one was so full of references to the past, and even past characters (Dr. Stephen T. Colbert, D.F.A.) who were subsets of the main one, and — indeed so full of real people from "The Colbert Report" past — that fans will need to watch it again, and again (and again) just to fully appreciate how completely and ridiculously self-referential the whole thing was.

In other words — and even in "The Word" -- the last "Colbert" was essentially a breezy, funny, and (yes) overstuffed tribute to the last nine years of one of the most unique satires in the history of American television: Itself.

"Folks," said the host at outset, "if this is your first time tuning into 'The Colbert Report,,' I have some terrible news. This is your last time — until ten years from now when it's rebooted by J.J. Abrams."

But while fans certainly cherished this last episode — and while those who actually did tune in for the first time probably felt like they stumbled into an alt-universe where very little made any sense at all — they also likely felt a keen sense of loss. That was intentional on Colbert's part. As he prepares to take over CBS's "Late Show" in 2015, losing the Colbert character is part of a necessary purging process  because the stage he is about to ascend at the Ed Sullivan is a vastly larger one, where he'll play to a vastly larger audience. The blowhard ninny host who just spent nine years confirming a dedicated audience's worst fears needs to go, for good. He did last night.

The finale set-piece, with piano accompaniment by Randy Newman, was a huge sprawling full-throated rendition of "We'll Meet Again," sung by dozens of Bold-Faced Names who have drifted through this show over the years. They spilled out into the streets, and even into the cellar of the westside studio. But to anyone of a certain age — admittedly an advanced one by now -- "We'll Meet Again" is freighted with sorrow and loss, and a real sense of life's brief candle, for this was the World War II standard sung as troops left for the war.

Nevertheless, Colbert, "Colbert" and the endless parade of faces — from James Franco (!) to Henry Kissinger and Patrick Stewart to Alan Alda and Arianna Huffington, to even Smaug (not in-studio, because the star of “The Hobbit” is otherwise engaged today) -- still managed to make it joyful. The segment went on for a full eight minutes and demonstrated that this was a show with real impact that offered a platform to a lot of smart, accomplished people who were part of the joke, but also in on the joke.

“We’ll Meet Again” was a classic moment, or eight of them.

In the final seconds, as the capper to an elaborately produced piece starring Abe Lincoln (as a unicorn — don't ask, because it's unclear what the answer would be), Santa Claus, and the real Alex Trebek, Stephen Colbert signed off "from eternity.”

"We've finally come to the end of 'Colbert,' " said Colbert, out of character for perhaps the first time since the show began. "Nine great years ... That was fun."

Sure was, and so was Thursday night.

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