After nearly 10 years, 1,448 editions and an impact on the political zeitgeist that is well-nigh incalculable, the joke is finally over. "The Colbert Report" ends Thursday (11:30 p.m. on Comedy Central), much as it began -- the longest-running gag in TV history. It was a gag-within-a-send-up, directly inspired by another legendary media figure -- Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly, who got the joke but never entirely appreciated it. (O'Reilly once wryly suggested that his "next book" would be "Killing Colbert.")
We can all perhaps sit here today and say what "The Colbert Report" and its earnest, supercilious, vainglorious namesake host meant in words -- one word in particular, "truthiness" -- and deeds (the creation of his own satirical SuperPAC several years ago, as a prominent example).
But what did "Colbert" and Stephen Colbert really mean? That's where the truthiness gets tricky, and where the ardor of fan worship -- which has been intense -- meets the general indifference of the rest of America's viewers. As "Colbert" winds down, about a million viewers continue to watch, or roughly half the total for "The O'Reilly Factor." That suggests the impact on "Papa Bear" -- the host's term of endearment for O'Reilly -- has been negligible, at best.
In fact, this run -- which actually began as a character on "The Daily Show" long before the October 2005 launch -- was never about takedowns or the creation of a ratings juggernaut. It was about making fun of stuff, certainly, and inverting the notion of American triumphalism, which involved the creation of an "idiot" -- Colbert's term -- who embraced that triumphalism without fear of contradiction or fact.
Mostly, however, it was about Colbert's own personal interests, intellectual anchors and -- yes -- foibles. And that's where the truthiness -- a Colbert-in-character malaprop invented early in "The Report's" run as a poke at the then-president's malapropisms -- gets even stickier.
Born 50 years ago into a large, Catholic, staunchly Republican family in South Carolina, Colbert suffered great tragedy as a child -- the deaths of two brothers and his father in a plane crash. As he tells the story, on the way home from the funeral, one of his sisters made another sister laugh so hard that she fell onto the floor of the car. In the crucible of that tragic-absurd moment, he decided he wanted to make people laugh, too.
Along with his comedic soul mate, Amy Sedaris, he lurched into Dadaesque TV projects at Chicago's Second City, then went on to strange little series for Comedy Central like "Exit 57" and "Strangers With Candy," all seemingly predicated on the notion that the universe was mad and -- by association -- so were those who inhabited it.
The creation of bumptious Stephen Colbert -- the alter-ego of churchgoing, married and father-of-three Stephen Colbert -- just seemed like a natural progression: a character who believed all was right with the world, even in the face of all evidence to the contrary.
The notion of a blowhard fool certainly has had many famous precedents, beginning with "Candide's" dear empty-headed Prof. Pangloss and his "best-of-all-possible-worlds" worldview.
But the notion of a brutally funny satirist with a deep absurdist streak whose chief material was a popular president, George W. Bush, and a war that many Americans just wanted to forget about? Now, that was something different altogether.
In a bizarre transformation of comic tautology, Colbert became "Colbert," or someone who believed in what he believed with such utterly fervent bloviating conviction that some people weren't entirely certain where the one Colbert ended and the other one began.
For example, he testified before Congress -- in character -- and also addressed a quarter of a million people at a rally in Washington -- in character. He also addressed (or rather dressed down) President Bush at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2006 -- in character. That was in fact a watershed moment for both Colberts.
During a "Talks With Google" interview two years ago, he explained the bizarre balancing act: "I like to think of my character as a pebble I throw into the news, then report on the ripples."
He added that when "you put yourself in the story, anything that looks like me in that story is probably bull. It's satire by comparison, rather than by deconstruction. In other words, I'm falsely constructing something as opposed to deconstructing other people's behavior."
But after 10 years, the real Colbert -- and probably some fans, too -- thinks the deconstructing has finally run its course. Sometime in 2015, he will become the next host of CBS' "Late Show," succeeding another comic legend, David Letterman.
It is what makes this week's ending so intriguing, and next year's transition so exciting. After all, Stephen Colbert is about to play perhaps the hardest role of his life, or at least the one role he has never played before: himself.
Craig Ferguson leaving with candor, irony
Last month, Jimmy Kimmel paid a visit to "Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson," and -- naturally -- the host of "Jimmy Kimmel Live" wondered why the host of "Late Late Show" was quitting. Ferguson leaves Friday, the day after Stephen Colbert ends "The Colbert Report."
"I can't take it anymore," he shot back, and then -- just to elaborate on the comic-existential crisis that led to his departure: "It's a short time on this planet, man, [and] I'm not spending the whole [expletive] time talking to celebrities."
Admittedly, it's been a loopy few weeks on "Late Late Show," but in some ways, no more than usual. Ferguson does like to speak his mind, and has done so often with refreshing candor and comic effect for a decade. But he doesn't mention everything that's on his mind. He has a small, passionate viewer base, which esteems his brand of humor, but that base never entirely extended to his own employer.
As such, the host and his production staff often felt like foundlings -- never entirely appreciated by CBS, and when the time came to replace David Letterman at "Late Show," the call did not go out to that other CBS late-show host.
Ferguson -- who began January 2005 -- will be replaced by British actor James Corden on March 9. In the meantime, Ferguson remains gainfully employed elsewhere, although there is a touch of irony with his other job: He is host of the syndicated show "Celebrity Name Game."