Stephen Colbert's scheduled guest for the final edition of "The Colbert Report" Thursday is his “colleague and lifelong friend,” known as "Grimmy” – as in the Grim Reaper.
That's a sign Colbert is ready to kill off the conservative blowhard character he embodied for the past nine years – 17 years counting the embryonic iteration that began as a "Daily Show" correspondent in 1997.
But there's nothing to be sad about: It’s time to give Colbert's bloviating alter ego a sendoff as big as his ego. Colbert, who created the character as a takeoff on Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly, pulled off the amazing feat of becoming a bigger TV icon than the figure he satirized.
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From the start, Colbert's run defied and exceeded expectations. As previously noted, he set the bar high on his first show on Oct. 17, 2005, when he introduced "The Word" segment and the concept of "truthiness" – something that feels or sounds true, but might not be.
Few would have guessed that Colbert could keep up the quality, especially considering his disadvantage compared to his Comedy Central colleague Jon Stewart and other late night hosts who essentially play themselves as they play off the news of the day. Colbert dug in a level deeper, reacting to the news as, well, a reactionary rather than a straight-out joke teller.
Colbert took his act on the road early on, serving up his most daring moment in 2006 when he roasted then-President Bush at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in the guise of a supporter. “I stand by this man, because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things, things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares,” Colbert said, with Bush just feet away.
Along with Stewart, Colbert blurred the lines of comedy and activism when they took to the Washington Mall for their 2010 “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” which wasn’t as much a parody of Glenn Brock's supposedly nonpolitical “Restoring Honor” rally as a rebuttal.
Colbert bounded over lines when he testified – in character – before Congress in 2010 on the plight of migrant workers, and when he started his own PAC to protest the power of PACs.
But no matter what side of the Fox-MSNBC divide you sit on, it's difficult to argue with Colbert’s support of veterans, which, as previously noted, made him the Bob Hope of the era of comic irony. Colbert mounted a week of shows from Iraq in 2009, backing the troops while mocking the war through his hawk persona.
By making fun of self-styled patriots of the right, he became, in the eyes of fans, a patriot of the left whose quick-witted comedy proved his devotion to a nation worthy of his love and his parodist's critical and clever eye. Or, as he put it in the title of best-selling book, “I am America (And So Can You!)”.
Colbert's lived his shallow character so deeply, he could out-O'Reilly O'Reilly – his "Papa Bear" – in their face-to-face TV powwows. Their first meeting, in which O’Reilly suggested that just maybe some people were taking him too seriously, ended with a classic Colbert quip: “If you’re an act, then what am I?”
Colbert faces a new identity crisis as he gives up his character and replaces David Letterman on CBS's "Late Show" next year, presumably as himself. Grimmy might take away the version of Stephen Colbert that we've learned to laugh at and with over the last nine years. But we're left with stellar performer and satirist, who is ready for a new phase in which truth just might finally trump truthiness.
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multimedia NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.