The most extraordinary thing about Stephen Colbert’s 9-year run as the fictional, conservative host of a Bill O’Reilly-inspired satire was Colbert’s acting. Sure, there were occasional moments when his character’s sublime bravado and buffoonery lapsed–and he’d end up singing a song with Julie Andrews. But the great thing about watching The Colbert Report consistently was seeing an airtight impersonation by a consummate performer, one who could trade wits with Nobel Prize-winning economists and cosmic astrophysicists without ever coming out of character. A monologue is one thing, but to remain in character throughout interviews with some of the smartest people on the planet–to prick and pummel, joke and jab, without ever betraying his character’s bone-deep belief in American Exceptionalism–that was the beauty, the art. Captured spies can usually respond to any question appropriately in their adopted language–they are caught only when asked to perform an exercise that requires arithmetic. We count in our original language. Something similar can be said of actors: good ones can stay in character through most any plotted scenario, but only great ones can inhabit their characters so deeply that they can conduct interviews using that persona. And not just be interviewed, but conduct interviews. Conversation, the off-the-cuff back and forth, is the arithmetic of acting. And the Stephen Colbert who played Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report was a master at it. Having him leave now to host The Late Show–where he’ll presumably play a version of himself, rather than this exquisite pastiche of Sean Hannity/O’Reilly/Glenn Beck/et al–is a tremendous loss.
This question remains, though no one’s talking about it yet: will the Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report be played by someone else? Presumably the character and the show are, at least in part, the intellectual property of the producers and Comedy Central. And they’ve invested a lot in making the name a valuable television entity. Will it become, for instance, The Colbert Report with Andy Samberg? And will Samberg play the character named Stephen Colbert–the one currently being played by Stephen Colbert? Isn’t the character too good to discontinue just because the man who–as they say in the biz–originated the role chose to leave it? It’ll be interesting to see. Because people love the character that Stephen Colbert created. They might even love the character if it’s inhabited by somebody else. You know sometimes in TV they kill off a character and replace him with another one–just ask Charlie Sheen and Ashton Kutcher. And then other times they just slide in another actor–James Bond knows this, and so did Darren on Bewitched. They might take The Colbert Report to Broadway too, where the same character is routinely played by somebody new with each revival. Whether Colbert Nation–that SuperPAC-launching legion of dedicated fans–belongs to the character and show, or to the man who played him, we’ll soon find out.