Last night's final episode of The Colbert Report concluded with a musical medley that found Colbert—the character and, of course, the guy—accompanied by a staggering collection of celebrities, among them Jon Stewart, Willie Nelson, Katie Couric, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, JJ Abrams, Tom Brokaw, Big Bird, Keith Olbermann, Jeff Bridges, Sam Waterston, Ken Burns, Andrew Sullivan, Gloria Steinem, Samantha Power, James Franco, Cindy Lauper, David Gregory, Randy Newman, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Yo-Yo Ma, Grover Norquist, Norm Ornstein, Mandy Patinkin, Ric Ocasek, Michael Stipe, Kareem Abdul Jabar, Barry Manilow, Emily Bazelon, Jimmy Wales, Ray Odierno, Bill de Blasio, Jeff Tweedy, Patrick Stewart, Stone Phillips, Andy Cohen, Christiane Amanpour, Ariana Huffington, Alan Alda, Cory Booker, Tim Meadows, Charlie Rose, Cookie Monster, Howard Stern, Bryan Cranston, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Maureen Dowd, Elijah Wood, Mike Huckabee, Bob Costas, Nate Silver, Dan Savage, Thomas Friedman, Matt Taibbi, Mark Cuban, Paul Krugman, Pussy Riot, Henry Kissinger, and Smaug.
Whoa, right? This was meant to be astounding in a delightful way, and it was—a kind of live-action Where's Waldo? where every single person is Waldo. It was the basic-cable equivalent of the Oscars or Live 8 or Love Actually—so many stars in one place!—and it was also extremely, aggressively charming. (Did you see Henry Kissinger near Big Bird near Booker? Did you see a wandering Gloria Steinem totally block the camera for a few seconds? What a world.)
It was also, for Colbert, a distinct change in concept, if not in tone, from what the show normally embraces. The whole thing—a long segment that anchored the rest of the episode—had overtones of the Late-'80s Telethon. Can I admit that—recognizing that no conclusion to a show is ever going to satisfy its fans, and also that anything that puts Mandy Patinkin in the vicinity of an enormous yellow bird is going to be, on some deeply cosmic level, awesome—the whole thing felt ever-so-slightly like a cop-out? In spite of, and actually because of, the fact that it was so studded with stars?
I know, I'm the worst. Because the segment, ultimately, was joyful and wacky and awkward-in-a-wonderful way: the stuff of Colbert, and TV in general, at its best. (That Steinem thing! So utterly charming!) And, really, no ending would have satisfied. That is, as a rule, one mark of a great show. So.
That said, though, the song—the "I'll Be Seeing You"-esque "We'll Meet Again"—and its performance were notably lacking in ... well, wit. Or satire. What was present, however, was the star-gazing stuff that is so extremely typical of most late-night television: Look at all those celebrities! On one stage! Singing!
You could read all that as Colbert bidding a fond farewell to irony as he leaves Comedy Central for the warm embrace of network TV. But it's hard not to note how starkly it contrasts with the thousands of episodes of Colbert that preceded it. The Colbert Report, show after show, celebrated its own scrappiness—and, by extension, scrappiness as a general state of affairs. Sure, when it comes to writing, the show has been, consistently, the stuff of sophisticated literature—the concept of "truthiness" alone will birth many a Ph.D dissertation—but in every other way, it has been the stuff of comedy shabby-chic. That dinky set! Those wonderful-because-terrible eagle graphics! Colbert occasionally breaking character to winkily fourth-wall the whole satiric enterprise! All those intentional flaws suggested the ultimate conviction of the scrappy: Heart and wit will help you win, in the end. The targets of Colbert's satire may have had lavish sets and fancy clothes and (relatively) high production values; Colbert had piercing jokes and the love of his audience and, he argued, truth on his side—and once you have those, you don't need much else.
The other bit of scrap: Colbert has been rightly celebrated for his support of authors—particularly those of Hachette, the scrappy-by-comparison publishing house that waged war against the very much unscrappy-by-comparison Amazon. This summer, he bestowed the storied Colbert Bump upon fellow Hachette author Edan Lepucki and her debut novel, California. (Lepucki, The New York Times put it, "won the literary Lotto"—the Lotto in this case being attention from Colbert.) It wasn't just Lepucki, though: Show after show, Colbert brought on up-and-coming authors to discuss their works. He was, basically, the anti-Oprah. He wasn't afraid to go niche. He wasn't afraid to go nerd.
The implicit suggestion of all this was that ideas—the things that change minds and make progress and also democracy—are their own kind of celebrities. Or, at least, they should be. Even if you're a first-time author, or a non-famous author, if you write something worth paying attention to, you have the chance to be on Colbert. And to share your work with the Nation.
Which was awesome.
The final scenes of the show, however, suggested a slight-but-revealing reversal of all that: The point of the whole thing was the facial-recognition side of celebrity. The singers—the fellow members of Colbert's barbershop multi-tete—were also guests of the show, and there was a meaningful, nostalgic sweetness to having them share his stage. This was the show's way of saying "thank you" to them, and of suggesting—against everything Colbert-the-character would say—that it's the guests who made the show what it is. It was gracious. It was entertaining. But there were also so many of those guests that, in the real-time of TV, it was almost impossible to make out the individuals within the crowd. It was a mass of famous and semi-famous faces, all jumbled together on a sound stage.
And that was the point, the big-ness of it all.
And that, in turn, hints at Colbert's move to the stuff of standard late-night: celebrities on couches, publicist-approved anecdotes, banter. Celebrity for celebrity's sake. Last night's episode, as we knew it would, marked the end of an era (or, if you will, a Colb-era)—not just for Colbert, but for his guests. And, by extension, for the rest of us.