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A look back at The Colbert Report

Stephen Colbert has been hosting The Colbert Report since 2005. In that time, the show has won two Emmys and been nominated for seven more. Colbert himself has had a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream flavor and a recently discovered species of spider named after him. He’s attended a White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner and testified in Congress about migrant workers.

It’s been a good run. On Dec. 18, it’ll end as Colbert prepares to host the Late Show on CBS starting in 2015.

The beginning of The Colbert Report was a bit rough, says Matt Meier, a communication professor at Notre Dame College, who focuses on shows like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show. “It took him about a year to figure out who the character was.”

I wasn’t paying attention to Colbert in 2005, and was probably unaware of his existence entirely. But that means the Colbert I’ve known always had his character [also named Stephen Colbert] figured out. The character has always been a privileged rich white dude who’s absurdly unaware of how good he’s got it—absurdly, because the things that come out of his mouth constantly make that status clear to everyone else. It’s that absurdity that makes the character a parody of all the privileged rich white dudes who don’t acknowledge how good they’ve got it.

That type of character is a great one to present news with. You get the exaggerated [or maybe it isn’t] point of view of out-of-touch conservatives who don’t understand what matters to average people. At the same time, the character’s complete insensitivity to others people’s problems tells you exactly what those problems are. And it doesn’t hurt that guests on The Colbert Report get an opportunity to tear down the character’s views, something more liberal viewers like myself only wish happened more often to the type of real people the character parodies.

Occasionally the satirical character didn’t quite hit the mark. Most notably, that happened when Colbert was discussing Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, the non-profit organization created by Redskins owner Dan Snyder. The character said he would create the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever, and some Twitter users responded with the hashtag #CancelColbert.

“Colbert thinks he’s making a joke, but it’s not a good joke,” Meier says. What separated this joke from countless others was that the funny part ended up being the racial comments, not the satirical comments that were actually meant to make a point. But even though the joke failed, “that doesn’t mean throw out all satire,” Meier says. Colbert’s satire usually does make the point it’s supposed to.

That’s why I’ve enjoyed the show: I like to be informed, but I like to laugh too. I’m not alone here; the show’s pretty popular with younger crowds.

Despite that popularity, it can seem like the end of The Colbert Report won’t be felt hugely by viewers. After all, we still have Jon Stewart and John Oliver for all our news-in-a-humorous-format needs. But, Meier reminds me, the three really are different. Colbert plays a character, a parody of pundits like Bill O’Reilly. Stewart’s show is a parody of news shows, but Stewart is being himself. Oliver is hilarious, but what he’s doing isn’t a parody.

Of the three, Oliver is perhaps closest to what we can expect to see from Colbert on the Late Show. Colbert is supposed to drop the persona he’s maintained for years on The Colbert Report and be himself on the Late Show, says Charles Coletta, a pop culture instructor at Bowling Green State University. But Colbert the real person is still smart and funny.

“He really is quick,” Coletta says. You can see when somebody says something that he doesn’t expect or is not planned out, he can keep up with them and keep the thing moving along.”

That’s not surprising; Colbert’s background is in improv comedy, Meier says.

That’s reassuring. No one’s sure what the Late Show’s new format will be, but with quick-witted Colbert at the helm it should turn out alright. I’ve never been one for the Late Show (or late shows in general), but on the basis of Colbert’s past work I’ll at least want to see how this goes.

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