Stephen Colbert predated Jon Stewart on The Daily Show by two years. He joined in 1997 as “the new guy,” and 18 years later, he’ll take over for David Letterman. He’s one of the most unlikely success stories in late night.
Stephen had briefly been a correspondent for Good Morning America, but they didn’t like any of his stories. But it was a bit with Steve Carell called “Waiters Who Are Nauseated by Food” on the short-lived Dana Carvey Show that got him the job:
This joke alone is so good that you could get a laugh with it in any language:
He attracted further attention as the hilariously rigid teacher Chuck Noblet, alongside Amy Sedaris, on the cult Coemdy Central sitcom Strangers With Candy.
And he made a bit of coin for Mr. Goodwrench. Here you can see the beginnings of what Sarah Palin would later call, “Gotcha journalism.”
But somewhere, something wonderful happened.
Jon Stewart took over The Daily Show in 1999. It didn’t go well at first: “I walked into something that someone else had built,” Stewart said. “It was a factory that made widgets and I was coming in saying, ‘We could make gaskets?’ and they said, ‘Why would we want to make gaskets?’ The effort it took to retool that factory was grueling.”
Luckily, Colbert wanted to make gaskets.
His popular series “This Week in God” paved the way for The Colbert Report’s regular features like “Better Know a District” and “Tip of the Hat/Wag of the Finger.”
With a pre-Office Steve Carell, Colbert kept us laughing, even as the country’s economy went to hell and we became tangled in two wars. In this unbelievable gem, the duo faked a pre-taped interview about debating the Iraq war from before it began on St. Patrick’s Day 2003. (The joke being that there had never been a debate).
The segment proved the two actors were fantastic together. But could Stephen handle it alone?
On October 17, 2005, Colbert broke off to start The Colbert Report. He had always based his character on the gravitas of the made-for-TV stylings of Stone Phillips. (Asked why he picked Stone Phillips: “Because his name is Stone.”) But a big part of the Stephen persona is not laughing at people, but with and for them. Especially those who take themselves too seriously. For this reason, he had Stone on the first episode.
People worried at first that the spinoff might wear the fake-news brand a little thin. But Colbert hit it right out of the park. His introduction of “The Word” not only was hilarious, but the word itself: truthiness. “Now I’m sure some of the world police—the wordinistas—over at Webster’s are gonna say, ‘Hey that’s not a word.’ Well, anyone who knows me will now I am no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They are elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true.”
That year Merriam-Webster listed “truthiness” as its word of the year.
By 2006 Colbert, was hosting the White House Correspondents Dinner, roasting President Bush. It was an unfuckingbelievable performance that could have been career-ending. As an aside: the video is even better online. Colbert is in a room of 3,000 young drunk journalists, none of them mic’d. He got thunderous laughter, but none of it was recorded because the microphones were all on stage. Even though it should have looked like he bombed, it reinforced his deadpan humor and brought in new viewers.
And who could forget the time Colbert ran for President?
And he always had a way of poking fun at “Papa Bear,” Bill O’Reilly.
Thursday is the end of The Colbert Report on Comedy Central. Stephen, thank you for cracking us up. You entertained us and helped give us things to laugh and think about while our country went insane. But thanks especially for these five times that you cracked yourself up:
P.S. I happen to know this isn’t actually the last time we will seen Stephen Colbert the character, but I promised not to give away details. I was invited to be a special audience the day they filmed Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood (below). I don’t have a lot of facts, but the truthiness of the matter is, they only aired this part. But he used the same studio audience to tape a couple of other segments and then brought Kevin Spacey out the back in disguise. Next season of House of Cards is gonna wail.
P.P.S.: In case there’s bad weather up Comedy Central’s own ass, check out their free app. All the Colbert gems are available there for free.
(Top image by Todd Lockwood)