Stephen Colbert leaves the pundit behind to play himself

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HARI SREENIVASAN: Finally tonight, there’s a finally tonight coming from late-night comic Stephen Colbert.

Jeffrey Brown looks at his run and what’s ahead.

STEPHEN COLBERT, “The Colbert Report”: Truthiness.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: He gave the late night world something called truthiness.

STEPHEN COLBERT: Now, I’m sure some of the word police, the wordinistas over at Webster’s are going to say, hey, that’s not a word.

JEFFREY BROWN: An approximation of fact that somehow captured the moment in American journalism and culture. He presented “The Word,” a circular monologue that began in one place, meandered through puns and sight gags, and ended back where it started.

Night after night for nine years on “The Colbert Report,” Stephen Colbert did it all in character, a character named Stephen Colbert, an excitable, hyperactive, brash, but also reasonable voice of conservative bluster, clearly modeled on the cable TV and radio styles of Bill O’Reilly and others, all played for laughs and lessons.

NPR TV critic ERIC DEGGANS:

ERIC DEGGANS, NPR TV Critic: I think we hit a media moment where people wanted major media to acknowledge the absurdities and some of the hypocrisies that we see in cable news coverage especially, particularly from pundits.

And so it felt very new and fresh for someone to come along and embody that in a character that he didn’t quite admit was a character. We weren’t quite used to seeing someone doing this high-wire act.

JEFFREY BROWN: Colbert grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, the youngest of 11 children, and was later part of Chicago’s famed Second City comedy troupe.

He joined “The Daily Show” on the Comedy Central network in 1997, and became a prominent member of Jon Stewart’s school of faux news.

JON STEWART, “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart”: Our own Stephen Colbert is down in Murphy, North Carolina, covering this story for us. We’re going to take you out to him now live.

JEFFREY BROWN: The two, with other members of the team, clearly tapped a nerve and gained a large following. Stewart and Colbert drew some 200,000 people to the comically dubbed Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on the Washington Mall in 2010.

ERIC DEGGANS: In general, these guys are able to step aside from the news flow and comment on the absurdities and the hypocrisies of both government, politicians and the news business and celebrities in ways that traditional journalists can’t do.

But these guys have that free rein. And then you add the fact that Colbert in particular understood media, understands media so well. He’s able to get to the heart of what we find so odd and so hypocritical about so much of what the news media feeds us.

JEFFREY BROWN: On his own show, Colbert’s brand of humor served to prod and poke a wide range of guests in a way that was unlike other late-night TV.

Colbert stayed in character off the screen as well at a White House Correspondents Dinner and with a fake, or was it real, run for the presidency in 2008. But he also broke character and showed some other sides of himself over the years.

At a congressional hearing, he advocated for migrant workers’ rights.

STEPHEN COLBERT: I like talking about people who don’t have any power. And this seemed like one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work, but don’t have any rights as a result. And yet we still invite them to come here and at the same time ask them to leave.

JEFFREY BROWN: And he campaigned for his sister this past fall as she ran unsuccessfully for a South Carolina congressional seat.

He’s now set to present another side altogether, perhaps the real Stephen Colbert, when he takes over for longtime late-night host David Letterman in the spring.

Eric Deggans thinks he’s been preparing himself and viewers.

ERIC DEGGANS: I do believe that he has slowly been dialing up his own personality on “The Colbert Report” show. And I believe that there are times when you can watch the show and you can see him flip between playing the character that he originated the show with and being himself.

He would ask a question that was a joke, and then he would follow it up with a serious question that would allow the artist to actually provide an answer that made sense. And so I think people are going to be surprised by how much of the real Colbert they have already seen.

And it will just be up to him to decide what that new framework is going to be on the CBS “Late Show.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Last night, there were the usual references to the day’s big story, in this case Cuba.

STEPHEN COLBERT: Bad nation.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: But Colbert also began to wrap up his show, selling off what he called nine years of collective crap and putting the rest out on the curb.

I’m Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And another note from the late-night airwaves. Comedian Craig Ferguson, host of CBS’ “The Late Late Show,” is also signing off tonight, after nearly 10 very funny years.

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