Appreciation: The man who was 'Stephen Colbert'

A Farewell to Stephen Colbert
A Farewell to Stephen Colbert

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    A Farewell to Stephen Colbert

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A Farewell to Stephen Colbert 02:07

Story highlights

  • Stephen Colbert wraps up "The Colbert Report" Thursday night
  • Colbert's blustering "Stephen Colbert" character has made him famous
  • Real Colbert is a soft-spoken family man
  • Colbert will take over for David Letterman in 2015

(CNN)Goodbye, Stephen Colbert. We hardly knew you.

In fact, that was the idea, wasn't it?
Colbert -- the pugnacious, "nation"-inspiring champion -- hosted his last "Colbert Report" on Comedy Central Thursday night. About six months from now, he will take a new role as host of CBS' "Late Show."
    It will be like Superman changing into Clark Kent -- or, perhaps, into Kal-El.
    For the Colbert we've been watching bears only a tangential resemblance to the real thing. The real Colbert, as revealed in profiles in the New Yorker and The New York Times, is a modest family man, a devout Catholic with three children who's "extremely normal," one of his neighbors said.
    The Colbert of the "Colbert Report" is bombastic and ironic, equal parts Bill O'Reilly (who's referred to as "Papa Bear" on the show) and David Letterman, the man the real Colbert is replacing.
    Nevertheless, it's worth noting that bombast and irony have paid off handsomely for the onetime "Daily Show" correspondent and "Strangers with Candy" actor. In some ways, he has become the power he's ridiculed.
    Without Colbert, we wouldn't have a word for what's now called "truthiness," the concept that if you feel it in your gut, it must be true. (It was Merriam-Webster's word of the year in 2006: the power of Stephen at work.) We wouldn't "Know a District" and the sometimes humorless people who are elected to them. And we wouldn't understand how to turn the other cheek to Internet activists who wanted to #cancelColbert.
    Yes, occasionally the Colbert alter ego pushed boundaries a little fiercely. When he was the featured entertainer at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner, his scathing jokes about President Bush, the Bush administration and the news media -- delivered with all mere feet away -- hit close to home. (So close, in fact, that the entertainment for the 2007 dinner was provided by the much safer Rich Little.)
    And then there was the Colbert super PAC, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow. Colbert thought it would show the absurdity of campaign finance laws. It did -- but mainly because both Democrats and Republicans were willing to go along with it. Anything for money, it seems.
    It's a funhouse mirror that Colbert's partner in crime, Jon Stewart, has willingly supported. Both have found comedy gold through mockery, but if Stewart is the exasperated uncle, Colbert has been the mischievous nephew. By questioning reality through a character, Colbert has actually shown how absurd real reality often is.
    No wonder he'll be missed. Who else can symbolize America with a Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavor, a NASA device and a minor league hockey mascot? Colbert IS the Real America. Even President Obama paid tribute.
    Occasionally he's shown us who he is underneath the character, of course. He answered a Reddit AMA very much as himself, and took the time to be a grown man for a Rookie magazine feature. He may be that guy when his "Late Show" stint begins.
    But we don't know who the new Colbert will be. Will he be full of smarm, like a Martin Short parody? A puckish intellectual, a la Dick Cavett? A rollicking Steve Allen type? Whatever he is, he's said he's leaving the "Colbert Report's" Colbert behind.
    Colbert's time slot will be well-cared for, thanks to Larry Wilmore and the "Nightly Show," which will follow Stewart's "Daily Show" starting January 19. But his impact may never be equaled.
    Surprisingly, Colbert was worried that the character wouldn't sustain. As he told The New York Times, "I thought topical stuff had an ephemeral quality -- it would be meaningless in a week. I wanted my character to be eternal."
    No worries there, Stephen Colbert. We'll always remember.