It didn’t take Stephen Colbert long to establish his new Comedy Central talk show as more than just a replicate of “The Daily Show.” By coining the word “truthiness” (defined as “a quality characterizing a ‘truth’ that a person making an argument or assertion claims to know intuitively ‘from the gut’ or because it ‘feels right’ without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts” by the word’s own Wikipedia page) in the series’ pilot, Colbert established his Republican talking head as a character winking at himself as much as the audience. He would not merely be ragging on the right-wingers who don’t know their ass from their arse, but he’d be doing so with such carefully constructed language it needed its own code words. “Truthiness” became a calling card for those wanting to join Stephen’s secret society. It was endorsed by The New York Times and awarded Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society and even Merriam-Webster, the very dictionary Colbert calls out in the segment. That’s one of the best qualities of “The Colbert Report,” and one that will be sorely missed: Even those mocked by the fake pundit have a hard time not joining in on the joke.
Kathryn Bigelow Interview on Torture
Colbert helped himself stand out from the pack by celebrating himself, rather than the guests he brought into the studio. Though he made a good joke out of it being an ego stroke for his character, in reality it kept audiences glued to their sets even when they didn’t know who they heck Stephen was talking to — he was the star throughout, so why worry? While this was not the case when Colbert brought on Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow in January 2013, his consistent refusal to cater to his guests’ topical needs helped make the interview relevant beyond the film in question. During their discussion, Colbert asks Bigelow if she was “duped” by the CIA, implying the information provided to her by government officials may have been self-serving. Bigelow responds that she doesn’t know, and maintains her position of backing the film based on the evidence provided. Though conducted nearly a year prior to now, the interview now speaks even more thoroughly to the nation’s perception of post-9/11 government thanks to the recent findings in the CIA torture report. What does it mean to trust anyone — how do we view the based-on-real-individuals in Bigelow’s Academy Award-nominated film, a year later?
What began as a carpal injury incurred during audience warm-up blew up into one of 2008’s funniest and best-sustained running jokes, as Colbert milked the sprain for everything it was worth. But it also proved to be an amazing example of a talk show stunt that became a bigger movement, with the Colbert team getting an impressive array of celebrities on board and using it as an opportunity to do real good in the world — specifically, raising over $170,000 for the Yellow Ribbon Fund (including $17,200 alone from the auction of Colbert’s cast). Tragically, WristStrong bracelets are no longer in stock. But maybe you can still find one on eBay.
At the White House Correspondents’ Dinner
You want “speak truth to power”? Here you go. The year was 2006, and Colbert had been tapped to host what traditionally has been a good-natured roast of the press corps as well as the sitting President. But George W. Bush was suffering from incredibly low approval ratings, and Colbert took the opportunity to go after the man — hard. Legendary zingers from the event include “This administration is not sinking. This administration is soaring. If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg!” and “reality has a well-known liberal bias.” What’s remarkable is how thoroughly Colbert stays in character for his speech, which could have, in theory, softened some of the body blows he dealt out. Instead, they gave them the ability to hit harder. We might worry about freedom of speech in this country, but the fact that Stephen Colbert is still walking and talking today? The vestiges, at least, are still here.
Tribute to Lorna Colbert
“When you watch the show, if you also like me, that’s because of my mom,” Colbert told viewers during the opening monologue for his first episode back behind the desk of “The Colbert Report.” Colbert had been absent from the show for a week due to the passing of his mother, but rather than push aside his grief upon his return to the show, he made the unique decision to incorporate the audience into his mourning process; a difficult feat that he managed to execute with grace, via a heartfelt eulogy incorporated into the introduction for “The Colbert Report.” While the prose is certainly moving, it is the moments where Colbert decides to pause to recollect himself that will fill your heart with emotion. His demeanor is perhaps the best example of how to carry oneself in the midst of mourning.
“I Enjoy Cocaine”
The interview segments on “The Colbert Report” use a formula first put into practice on “The Daily Show,” in which the interviewee generally plays the straight man in the face of a goofy interrogator. But the peculiarities of Colbert’s style often allowed him to manipulate his subjects instead of just dropping one-liners around their baffled reaction shots. This was never clearer than with his hilarious 2006 interview with Florida Congressman Robert Wexler for Colbert’s “Better Know a District” series, when Colbert tricked Wexler into saying, “I enjoy cocaine because it’s a fun thing to do,” followed by this jaw-dropper: “I enjoy the company of prostitutes because it’s a fun thing to do. If you combine the two together, it’s probably even more fun.”
The set-up was the mid-term elections, with Colbert asking Wexler about things a candidate might say that could destroy his chances. By pushing Wexler to speak in air quotes, Colbert delivered a wonderfully absurd depiction of the way media can manipulate any context to fit a prefabricated narrative. Though Wexler was the punchline, at least he took the gag in stride, appearing regularly on the show later on and committing a chapter of his book to the incident. With installments like these, Colbert managed to invade the news cycle and comment on its absurdities at the same time.
The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear
One could argue the goal of both “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” was to bring about more intelligent discussion in this country, or to use the words of a writer far greater than I, to create a well-informed electorate in a time when inaccurate information was rampant. By pitting themselves as faux-opponents of one another, the pundits aimed to attract a larger swatch of the country to engage in healthy debate. Never was this better visually illustrated than when Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity merged with Colbert’s March to Keep Fear Alive to create The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. Held at the National Mall in Washington D.C., as well as via satellite in more than 20 U.S. cities, more than 215,000 people showed up in our nation’s capital to see Stewart, Colbert and numerous guests perform and speak on October 30, 2010. (Colbert later stated it was closer to 6 billion, but even the statistic reported by CBS was nearly triple the total of Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally held a few months earlier.) That means a vast majority of rally-attenders responded more to the satirical hosts than Fox’s “real” one, illustrating the nation’s hunger for accuracy, intelligence, and, yes, sanity in these trying times.
Colbert’s Super PAC Exposes the Corruption of Super PACs
Before 2012, did you understand what a Super PAC was? I mean, did you REALLY understand it? Maybe. But there was nothing like the real-world example provided by “The Colbert Report” (well, “The Daily Show” also participated to some degree) when Colbert announced he had formed a Super PAC to create a unique assortment of campaign ads (some of which didn’t have anything to do with actual politics). Over the months that “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow” existed, the Super PAC raised over a million dollars from viewers, much of which was donated to charity, but the real gift received in return was a detailed analysis of how Super PACs function to hide money from the IRS and create incredible imbalance in our campaign finance system. “Colbert Report” won a Peabody Award for the series, and raised awareness of just how corrupt modern politics can get.
Suck It, James Franco
That smug James Franco. He thought, with all of his questionably earned degrees and Renaissance man persona, that he would actually succeed at making Stephen Colbert break character? The fool! As we all (or most of us on the left) know, there is a real Stephen Colbert under the conservative pundit character he plays, but he appears on camera very rarely, and only for powerful folks such as Oprah. So when Franco tried to inquire about the real Colbert’s 2015 gig (taking over for David Letterman as the host of “The Late Show”), he didn’t get the answer he wanted. When Franco asked, “Now are you gonna go Democrat when you go to this new show?” Colbert’s reply is priceless, and yes, still in character — offering Franco an important reminder of his place in the world (James Franco is no Oprah).
Tribute to Maurice Sendak
When children’s author and illustrator Maurice Sendack passed away back in 2012, Colbert honored the late author on his show by incorporating a never-before-seen segment from an on-camera interview he did with Sendak. Throughout the interview, Colbert and Sendak’s rapport is absolutely delightful, as they both seem to enjoy indulging the other person’s verbal shenanigans. At the same time, however, this playful back and forth between the two actually results in some incredibly teachable moments about topics such as childhood; there are moments that sit with you for a long time after you’ve finished watching.
Hanging Out With Smaug, Or Letting The Nerd Flag Fly
Colbert’s tough, no-nonsense persona has always had a gooey white chocolate center — and that would be his intense love of nerd culture, especially J.R.R. Tolkien and the “Lord of the Rings” universe. Because rather than suppress those instincts, Colbert has embraced them fully as a part of his character, and this has inadvertently made him a role model for anyone who might try to hide a secret passion for media and fail. (Not that we at Indiewire would know anything about that.) From cameoing in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” to defending a scientific basis for a new “Star Wars” lightsaber design, to interviewing Smaug the Dragon in studio, Colbert has used his platform as a way of saying to viewers he likes what he likes, and he doesn’t care who knows it. For those who have hidden in the geek closet before, it’s an empowering message.
Casey Cipriani, Shipra Gupta, Eric Kohn, Liz Shannon Miller and Ben Travers contributed to this list.