Tim Goodman: Colbert Will Continue to Thrive After 'Colbert Report' 

THR's chief TV critic makes the case for why Stephen Colbert is just getting started
Stephen Colbert

Stephen Colbert doesn't need a sendoff or an appreciation — heroes never do. Besides, the man will be back on TV next summer to take over CBS' The Late Show from the legendary David Letterman.

No, tonight is just the last night of The Colbert Report on Comedy Central. The world doesn't lose Stephen Colbert tonight, just his persona. And really, way back in 2005, the idea that said persona was going to be able to maintain a show for more than a couple of weeks was truly up for debate.

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If you've got a calendar, you know it's 2014 now, and the Colbert persona has made The Colbert Report iconic television from the jump. In the summer of 2015, when Colbert the man, not the persona of the same name, takes over the Late Show from Letterman (I called that way back, by the way), what will change?

Everything. And nothing.

What we'll get from post-Report Colbert is pretty simple — fine, deceptively simple. Though fans aren't used to seeing him out of character, the man who made up that character is one of the fiercest, smartest and fastest-thinking in all of television.

It’s his superpower.

When the Colbert Report started, it was basically a one-joke riff on Bill O'Reilly and right-wing smugness. But that wasn't the entire joke, it was a vehicle that would allow Colbert to tackle everyday idiocy in much the same way that The Daily Show did, but with an inverted twist.

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In 2005, a legitimate concern was whether that was really a premise that could sustain show and how long it could possibly last. And now we know.

(By the way, back in 2006 ,when Colbert was taking off but had not reached the heights I'm about to fondly remember, I interviewed him live on stage in San Francisco in a fun, revealing little talk that has that before-they-were-huge feel to it.)

But the Report and Colbert himself as a celebrity (and, yes, he would cringe at that, so how about "entertainer" instead), burst from the shackles of the original conceit by a very simple method. Drumroll: Colbert just came up with something. Let that sit there in all of its obviousness and simplicity for a second. He had an idea that solved a problem. Simple.

Because what Colbert does all the time is make rapid-fire decisions inside his brain, which, when fired off and routed down to his mouth, produce bits that are both hilarious and insightful, true and scary (the "truthiness" told with a wink), profound and silly, base and intelligent, stretched out to connect with something silly and balled up like a brick that eventually hits your head. In short, that brain of his can come up with a lot of stuff. It's what it does — all the time.

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So the breakthrough wasn't earth-shattering or replete with a backstory that makes it something you'd retell at a cocktail party. It was just a normal development in Colbert's working-incessantly brain. He just came up with an idea that changed the course of the show and, given this new road he's about to take, the course of his life. And the idea (no doubt percolating for long stretches as Colbert imagined how he could keep the joke going in new ways) was this: As a persona, the face and character of the Colbert Report, whatever I deem interesting to "me" will therefore be interesting to "the nation."

He was, of course, circling back to the lemming-like quality of the agitated base of the right, the Fox News crowd (which, Colbert knows all too well, is mirrored on the left by the same kind of choir that's accepting of whatever is preached at them so long as it keeps on message). But that breakthrough — anchor-leader-father-God —of being an entity that refuses to question whether his interests will be interesting to others because of course they will, allowed Colbert the person to let Colbert the persona do virtually anything. There was no tether.

The future could be anything.

That's why early-days Report went from rigidity to latter-day absurdity (and, in the process, genius). It's how interviewing daft politicians morphed into having Daft Punk on, and then not, which begat a brilliant video. It's what allowed fear of bears to become a love of George Lucas and all things Star Wars and all things nerdy. It's what allowed the persona to run for public office —stretching the initial conceit of the show, its main joke, until it was so meta that it obliterated our brains.

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Being untethered on what the Colbert persona could be interested in led from "Better Know A District" to having ice cream named after you, from pitching products to active philanthropy.

Whatever Colbert did, under the guise of his Report persona, worked. Simply because, yes, a clueless egotist would absolutely think everything that popped into his brain was interesting. Luckily for the audience, the real brain it popped into was Colbert's. And it was always interesting. It was hilarious. It was ingenious. Its lack of boundaries perfectly mirrored the fact that Colbert's imagination ran wild and couldn't be contained, and that his joy about going on the journey was giggly and enticing, which made fans want to go with him.

And so we did. For all these unexpectedly creative years. Thanks to the miracle of technology, we can dive down the digital rabbit hole and relive all those moments any time we want.

As for the future — Stephen Colbert as Stephen Colbert, real person, sans Report — have no worries. Hell, you worried about John Oliver, too, and look how great that turned out. Colbert has a lightning storm of reactive synapses blowing up in his brain. He's going to turn that into something brilliant and funny when he takes over the Late Show. So no, tonight is not an ending. It's another beginning.

You're an American. Have some faith and stay positive.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine