Last month, Stephen Colbert ended the nine-year run of his award-winning cable news-parody show, The Colbert Report. Colbert, a former correspondent on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, got his big break when Comedy Central gave him his own show in 2005. The Colbert Report was given the 11:30 pm slot, immediately following Stewart’s highly successful show. This ensured that The Colbert Report would have a sizable lead-in audience.
At the time, many observers were skeptical about whether The Colbert Report would last. Some critics expected that it would go the way of most comedy spinoffs, which are both short-lived and forgettable. Many predicted that Colbert’s audacious move—to play a parody of a pompous cable TV news pundit—would be unsustainable. But instead of Colbert’s act flagging, it became more and more popular with each passing show. The humble Daily Show spinoff soon took on a life of its own.
After a few years, Colbert stood next to Stewart as his equal—or, many suspected, his comedic superior. The South Carolina native came to be widely regarded as the most talented late-night TV comedy persona. Colbert’s interviews, in particular, were spectacular works of genius. His ability to match wits with writers, artists, intellectuals, actors, and politicians and to come up with bitingly sharp retorts—all while staying in character—was a spectacle to behold. His interviews with politicians were so brilliant in their ability to unmask the political veneer of false propriety that Nancy Pelosi sought to prohibit Democratic congresspersons from appearing on The Colbert Report.
But Colbert saved his most audacious move for the end. Speculation was rampant about how the fake cable news pundit would conclude his fake news show. Would he walk off into the sunset with David Letterman (whom he will replace on CBS’s The Late Show in September 2015)? Be chased out of the studio by a bear (his bête noir)? Or perhaps be struck down by the Grim Reaper (who was scheduled to appear as the show’s final guest)?
The Grim Reaper did indeed appear as Colbert’s guest—but instead of having his soul harvested by the Reaper, it was Colbert who killed him. “Oh My God! I killed Death!” exclaimed Colbert. When Isaiah prophesied that in the end of days, Death would be “swallowed up forever” (Isaiah 25:6-8), who knew that the vanquisher of mortality he foresaw was Stephen Colbert?
Some may have been surprised that a media personality known primarily for his satire of political and cultural conservatives would conclude his nine-year satirical news program with the decidedly conservative triptych of transfiguration, eternal life, and resurrection, yet this is precisely what the seemingly liberal television character did.
Longtime viewers of The Report, though—the “Colbert Nation,” if you will—were probably not surprised. The Colbert Report continually employed religious motifs and shone a spotlight on religion. Think of Colbert’s “War on Christmas-War on Easter-War on Thanksgiving” segment, or his “Atone-Phone” segment. In that one, which took place during the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jewish viewers were invited to call Colbert’s Repentance “Atone-Phone” hotline (1-888-OOPS-JEW, which hilariously happened to share the same number with 1-888-MOPS-KEY) and “apologize” to Colbert for any way that they offended or insulted him over the past year.
As hard as his character tried to conceal his love of religion, the man could never completely cover it up. For Stephen Colbert—both the character and the man—is a proud and outspoken Catholic. The actual Colbert is a Sunday school teacher at his local Church, and his biblical literacy can match that of almost any priest, minister, reverend, or rabbi. (Witness his recent interview with John McCain, in which Colbert schooled McCain by referencing the wedding at Cana.)
Because of his character’s—and his own—open religiosity, The Colbert Report will be remembered for much more than its politics. It will be remembered for the ways in which a star comedian was not compelled to conceal his religious observance. As an observant Jew who has admired hordes of Jewish comedians (Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Jerry Stiller, Rodney Dangerfield, the Marx Brothers, Jon Stewart, and countless others), none of whom has been religiously observant, it was refreshing to see a fully observant Roman Catholic comedian whose sincere faith not only did not detract from the hilarity of his comedy, but in fact enhanced the humor of his act.
Curb Your Enthusiasm star Jeff Garlin once facetiously remarked—at the 92nd Street Y, no less!—that “the Orthodox [Jews] are known for their great sense of humor.” (In all fairness, though, Garlin then stated, “I wear tefillin every day,” which drew a huge laugh, but then added, “I’m not religious, but I do Rosh Hashanah, Passover. I really love Purim. I love being a Jew. Let’s leave it at that.”) Now, Jeff, the Orthodox may not be known for our sense of humor, I’ll grant you that, but it doesn’t mean we don’t have one. I’ve done stand-up comedy myself, and some of my friends have as well. I mean, how can you observe ancient religious restrictions in the Twitter age and not have a sense of humor? No texting, facebooking, or emailing for a 25-hour period every week? No cheeseburgers? No Wendy’s, McDonalds, or Burger King? And no premarital sex? In the twenty-first century?! Insert punchline here! But seriously, folks . . . if a faithful Roman Catholic can be funny, than why not an observant Jew?
The fact that an openly devout Roman Catholic could wildly succeed in comedy—a medium long thought to be inimical to observant religionists—should give all people of faith cause to celebrate.
In the end, The Colbert Report will be remembered less for its politics than for its artistic, cultural, and religious contributions to public discourse. The legacy of The Colbert Report will rest not upon the piquancy of its political satire nor upon whatever political points its liberal writing staff scored, but upon the theatrical and artistic brilliance of Stephen Colbert. Watching Colbert perform his character on a nightly basis was the equivalent of watching a Tony award-winning actor reprise his role for a nine-year run on Broadway—if the actor had to work from a brand new script every night.
The Report will also be remembered for its philosophical and linguistic inventiveness. Who will ever forget “truthiness”? And who can deny that we do “feel truth” with our gut as much as—if not more than—we know truth with our brains?
The legacy of the show will also rest in part on its poking fun at religious conventions and its parodying of media depictions of religion (humor that was usually more in the “gentle ribbing” variety than it was stinging satire), and in part on its unremitting boldness. Colbert brazenly satirized every important figure he hosted on his show, regardless of whether the guest was Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, or Cardinal Timothy Dolan. He showed up in character to mercilessly mock President Bush at the now-infamous (or famous, depending upon one’s political orientation) 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, to run for president in the South Carolina Republican Party Primary in 2008, and to testify before a Congressional Judiciary Subcommittee in 2010.
But his boldest move was his final stroke: making himself—well, his character, that is—immortal. After Colbert defeated Death, he walked again with an impressive panoply of celebrity friends and favorite Colbert Report guests. The group included Colbert favorites like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Andrew Sullivan, and Ariana Huffington (an early champion of “The Report”), as well as a hundred political, journalistic, and artistic celebrities in between. Colbert led the resurrected group in a refrain of “We’ll Meet Again, Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When.” The entire scene was reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s cinematic depiction of resurrection and restoration toward the end of The Tree of Life.
After Colbert’s fulfillment of the Book of Daniel’s resurrection prophecy (Daniel 12:2), but before closing the Report by “tossing it” back to Jon Stewart (thereby framing the entire nine-year show as a very, very extended Daily Show segment), Colbert executed an even more audacious masterstroke: having himself carried up into heaven by a chariot—er, sleigh—driven by Santa Claus and carrying the great figures of American mythology: Abraham Lincoln (the mythical Lincoln, that is—Colbert’s Lincoln is a unicorn), Captain America, and Alex Trebek (don’t ask . . . but if you do, it must be in the form of a question, of course).
What message was Colbert trying to convey by carting himself—the still-living version of his character, no less—up into heaven? With this sequence, was he signaling that, like the biblical Enoch (Genesis 5:24), his character was being taken away before its time? Was he signaling that he, like Elijah (2 Kings 2:11), who ascended into heaven while still living on a chariot of fire and who, according to Jewish mythology, returns to Earth from time to time when people are in need, will bring the character back into our televisions from time to time when the political zeitgeist is in need of a dose of Col-BEAR? Or was he simply signaling that, like Captain America or our image of Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Colbert will go down in American mythology as one of the greatest characters that our culture has ever concocted?
Well? Will Stephen Colbert be remembered as one of the greatest television characters of all time? Will he take his place in American television lore alongside the likes of Cosmo Kramer and George Costanza? And will Colbert, like Kramer and Costanza before him, end up being unable to escape his own comedic shadow? To pose this query in the form of a classic Colbert Report question: “Yahweh or No Way?” The answer to all of the above is, for better or worse, “Yahweh!”