Beth Greene. Oliver Queen. Charlie Skinner. Of all the deaths brought to us by the overhyped December finales of scripted television, none will be sadder than the coming death of Stephen Colbert. Oh sure, the real Colbert will survive to replace David Letterman on CBS sometime after May, but all signs point to the death of the persona that he created for his late night Comedy Central news show. And with that, one of the most brilliant performances in the history of comedy television will come to an end.
Back in 2005, when it was first announced that Colbert would be taking his wackadoodle right-wing Daily Show personality to his own TV show, I wondered how well Colbert’s over-the-top comedy would work without Jon Stewart to play the straight man. I was skeptical, and not even sure that I would watch. But Colbert succeeded. He made us all the straight man, and it has worked brilliantly.
It would be impossible to choose a single show or show segment that demonstrates the genius of Colbert and his writing staff. The Word. The ThreatDown. Cheating Death with Dr. Stephen T. Colbert, D.F.A. I can’t say I’ve ever seen one of these continuing segments that wasn’t hilarious. The brilliant impersonation of Dr. Strangelove that ended the above The Word segment has always stood out in my mind, although I’ve had plenty of opportunities to mutter ‘Colbert’s a genius’ over the last nine years.
The most amazing thing though is how Colbert’s persona has, over the years, become a deeper and much more fully realized human being than Bill O’Reilly, the Fox News crank and supposed actual human being upon which he is based. O’Reilly is as predictable as the tides that he fails to understand, where Colbert’s persona is often conflicted and complicated. And it’s the humanity that Colbert brings to Colbert that makes the end of this era so bittersweet. But like Charlie Chaplin in the century before him, the brilliance of Stephen Colbert will never be forgotten.