After December 18, the Colbert Nation will have to go on without its leader. The Colbert Report will air its final show that day, drawing the curtain down on one of the great political satires-cum-secret variety shows ever. You may be asking, "How will we remember this program and its brilliant faux-conservative host Stephen Colbert?" Well, Greg, by counting down the show's 30 greatest recurring segments. From big gay roundups to the difference makers around us, these deadpan, fake-news flashes of comedic genius will endure long after Stephen starts playing himself on his CBS show in 2015.
An occasional segment where Colbert investigates unexplained phenomenon of the distant past, "Mysteries of the Ancient Unknown" peaked with his pseudo-hard-hitting 2010 report that looked into the strange disappearance of King Tut's penis. Despite some spectacularly stereotypical Egyptian music that was used to score the segment, the host never really came close to cracking the case of the pharaoh's pilfered phallus. But it did inspire this great throwaway line: "Speaking of ancient shriveled kings, Larry King is retiring!"
Long before he wrote three New York Times bestsellers, the show's namesake fantasized of having his 1,800-page sci-fi tome published. Instead, he animated it in a series of mini-adventures that starred the sexually potent, super-confident interstellar hero Tek Jansen (voiced, naturally, by Colbert) who had a predilection for shouting "Solar plexus!" or "Astro glide!" when something shocking happened. An adorable sendup of dorky fan-fiction, "Alpha Squad 7" spotlighted the star's talent as a voice actor, which he also displayed on shows like The Venture Bros.
The Right's smug disdain for science — mixed with Colbert's geeky love of science fiction — paved the way for the enraged host's aggrieved assaults on Stephen Hawking, complaining that, if the acclaimed astrophysicist could travel back in time, he'd hang out with Marilyn Monroe rather than kill Hitler. "Such an A-Hole" only aired a few times, but it did introduce the hilarious mascot for the future Cleveland Humans, who was basically a person wearing a gigantic fake Colbert head firing a T-shirt cannon into the audience.
No true conservative wanted the Cold War to end: Once the Soviet Union went down, who would we rattle our sword at? In that spirit, The Colbert Report launched this rundown of every Communist threat still out there, including Rocky IV's Ivan Drago and former NBA star Yao Ming. Ironically, "Cold War Update" became an accidental record of just how bad Obama's relationship with Russia got. As the President's first term began, he naively promised new progress with America's former enemy. "I want the old progress," Colbert whined in rebuttal, "where they go bankrupt and we watch new episodes of Cheers."
Yes, the concept is a little dated now, but "The DaColbert Code" gave the host the opportunity to nerd out on pop-culture detritus. Inspired by Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, the segment found Stephen predicting future events by following a giddily dopey "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon"-like association between different celebrities and events. Turns out that the comedian is a pretty good Oscar prognosticator — and although it just about killed him, he correctly called Obama's 2008 presidential election.
In its first few years, the show's writers seemed to relish any opportunity to explore whatever goofy idea came their way. They even managed to turn painful accidents into comedic possibilities. In the summer of 2007, Colbert broke his left wrist before a taping of the show, requiring a cast and a healthy dose of Vicodin. Out of it came "Wrist Watch," a somber attempt to bring awareness to this serious health issue — and another chance to scold Hollywood's flaunting of wrist violence. [Cue Luke getting his hand cut off in The Empire Strikes Back.]
A dig at Mad Money, "Bears & Balls" reduced the entirety of TV's can't-miss investment-advice programs to a cheap-looking red button that Stephen would hit for pointers on where to put his money. Whereas Jon Stewart dealt with the 2008 financial meltdown by lacerating Jim Cramer to his face, The Colbert Report went slyer, showing the ludicrousness of so-called experts while noting the bankruptcies of failed companies like Circuit City, Linens N Things, and Circuit N Linens, "which makes bedding for your DVD player."
An early sign that Colbert was the spiritual descendant of David Letterman, this silly, totally non sequitur bit featured Law & Order's ramrod serious Sam Waterston making ridiculous straight-faced statements in that soothing, confident voice of his. ("It's okay, I've had a vasectomy. I swear.") The whole thing was dreamed up as a response to the actor's Law & Order costar Fred Thompson's ill-advised 2008 presidential campaign. "I think [Colbert's] the funniest man on the planet," Waterston said in 2012, "and also the bravest."
Who would be intelligent enough to square off with Colbert in a debate? Only one man, of course: Stephen Colbert. In each installment of "Formidable Opponent," the host literally took on both sides of an issue, like Pakistan or offshore drilling, with the help of a green screen. It's a testament to the Report's pleasure in being technically innovative — but not at the expense of laughs — that the segement was both how-did-they-do-that? fun and insightful. And it gave Colbert a chance to show off his performance chops, alternating seamlessly between the two positions in the debate as the cameras cut from one side to the other.
In 2012 to promote his ostensible children's book I Am a Pole (And So Can You!), Colbert launched this brief series where he interviewed renowned kids' authors Maurice Sendak and Julie Andrews to get their advice. Sendak, who died just a few months after the segment aired, was particularly wonderful, revealing a lot about his creative process and being eminently quotable. (Asked by Colbert for guidance on what's required to be a good children's author, Sendak warmly replied, "You've started already by being an idiot. That is the very first demand.")
It's tricky to play a vain egomaniac: How do you separate yourself from your character's unstoppable self-regard? Stephen licked the problem with these interconnected segments, which celebrated the institutions smart enough to pay homage to him while scorning those who took umbrage with the character. One of the Report's best running jokes was that everything in the show's universe operated as if there was no such person as Stephen, just "Colbert." In the process, Stephen became incredibly famous, but we always thought it was "Colbert" who wanted the spotlight.
It's always fun when the Colbert character's ineptitude was unleashed upon the commonwealth, such as during the series of remote segments in the lead-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics when Stephen auditioned for different U.S. teams. "Fallback Position" gave him his best platform for this talent: Colbert researched different jobs he might want to pursue if Comedy Central fired him. He'd make an incredibly terrible NFL quarterback, but his 2010 investigation into being a migrant worker became part of the real Colbert's campaign to raise awareness for immigration reform that led to his testimony on Capitol Hill for the cause.
One of the Colbert Nation's dirtiest secrets is that, while they see through this conservative blowhard, its members are not immune to America's capitalist and culinary excesses. How else to explain the popularity of "Thought for Food," where Colbert runs down disgusting food innovations, like KFC's Go Cup, Doritos Tacos and "second breakfast"? A very funny salute to gluttony and additives, the segment constantly reminded us how evil the country's corporate food providers were — even if, OK, Doritos Tacos do sound kind of amazing.
Colbert's TV persona was created to satirize right-wing pundits and loudmouths, so the Fox News outrage over the so-called "War on Christmas" played perfectly into the Report's mock indignation. But perhaps no gag in "The Blitzkrieg on Grinchitude" was ever as funny as the opening graphic, in which the Red Baron (for some reason) shoots down Santa's sleigh, St. Nick saved from plummeting to his death by the inexplicable appearance of Jesus in another plane. (Also great: the sister segment "Easter Under Attack," where an animated Jesus is resurrected and starts exchanging gunfire.)
Each time it aired, "Big Gay Roundup" was guaranteed hilarity because of its opening titles, which featured longtime buddy Steve Carell in cowboy hat, suit, and holster shooting fake pistols while making "pew pew" noises. Colbert utilized the segment to bemoan the latest gay-ification of good ol' fashioned American values. But, sneakily, the show's chronicling of the country's rising social acceptance of same-sex marriage was reflected in the character's reluctant admittance that, fine, gay weddings are pretty fabulous.
It's a bit where the entire concept is right there in the title: "The Craziest F#?king Thing I've Ever Heard" tracked down the oddest, vilest news items from around the world and then stared in slack-jawed astonishment. Plants that grow tomatoes and potatoes (or "TomTatoes")! Parasites that eat their victims' tongue and then become a new tongue! Plenty of Colbert fans probably never knew the segment was a spoof of Bill O'Reilly's "The Most Ridiculous Item of the Day." But then again, Papa Bear's show never featured a look at the reanimated severed ear of Vincent Van Gogh.
Few in the show's audience enjoyed the life of the One Percent — which, the comedian always liked to point out, included him. But we could pretend for a few minutes with this segment that spotlighted the latest ridiculous luxury being offered to the filthy-filthy rich. "Colbert Platinum" was the Report's very funny way of skewering economic inequality by making the character a figure of unfeeling, unearned privilege. But here's the thing: He's such a charming asshole we never seemed to mind how much better off he was than we were.
Spoofing tawdry real-life crime shows such as Dateline, "Nailed 'Em" addressed the most egregious cases of over-the-top punishment for incredibly minor offenses, like the Pennsylvania boy who had to give up his beloved library card because he technically didn't live in the library's district. Not that the host noticed the unfairness, narrating these video segments with a cold, vengeful, judgmental glee — and plenty of "Nailed" graphics splayed over the subjects' faces. The hook was obvious (blasé on-camera subjects are juxtaposed with melodramatic music and editing) but The Colbert Report nailed it.
Akin to Nixon's enemies list, Colbert's "On Notice" board was where people and things that angered the host were immortalized for eternal contempt. Jane Fonda, limey squirrel eaters, Barbra Streisand, the Toronto Raptors, OK Go, business casual … they all know what they've done. And in a sign of the Report's importance to the young voters he was trying to reach, Barack Obama put in an appearance during the 2008 campaign to request that "distractions" be added to the board.
The Colbert Report proved that any holiday, no matter how holy, could be an excuse for the host to focus on his own bottomless self-importance. "Atone Phone" would show up every year around Rosh Hashanah — or, as the pseudo-pundit would say it, "Rosh Hashashashashanah" — so that Jewish celebrities who had wronged him could call and apologize. (Folks like Jeff Tweedy and Gilbert Gottfried duly obliged.) Now that the show is ending, hopefully 1-888-MOSS-LEW won't have to worry about getting 1-888-OOPS-JEW's messages anymore.
Reminiscent of "Nailed 'Em" in construction and tone, "Difference Makers" was a series of deadpan video segments where the producers would interview everyday individuals who were under the mistaken impression that they were making principled stands. Draping his subjects in faux glory, Colbert let his clueless on-camera participants — whether it be a self-righteous task force harassing meter maids or Canadian authorities cracking down on local bong-like mascots — provide the unintentional laughs. Weirdly, though, the segment never seemed cruel: As always, Stephen's inherent kindness kept the bits from becoming mean.
Declaring himself "America's most famous Catholic," Colbert the character has been a subversive way for Colbert the person to demonstrate his faith with more humanity and less dogma than is displayed by the Religious Right. (It's a toss-up between Stephen and Pope Francis for Best Catholic Rebrander of the 21st Century.) "Yahweh or No Way" was one-stop shopping for recent religious news, with the star divining God's stance on everything from Christian Mingle to the new English translation of Catholic mass introduced in 2011. No program has made deep-cut Bible passages so damn funny.