I didn’t really have an idea of what special stunt Colbert would do to say goodbye, but I was positive that Jon Stewart would be involved in some capacity. And when Colbert started to sing “We’ll Meet Again” with Stewart walking on midway through the first verse, I nearly lost it. But I don’t think anybody was prepared for what came next.
Dozens of celebrities who had been on the show over the years then popped up in groups to sing along, accompanied only by Randy Newman’s piano. With every new crop, you recalled their appearances over the years, from frequent guests like Neil Degrasse Tyson and Doris Kearns Goodwin to D.C. Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton to that time when Gloria Steinem did a cooking segment with Jane Fonda. The sheer number of guests became as deliciously over-the-top as anything that Colbert did in his nine-year history.
Vox has as complete a list as I’ve seen, which caused me to watch it a few more times to see how many I missed (“Ooh, Terry Gross!” “Wow, Jeff Tweedy looks horrible”).
UPDATE: Slate has annotated the video to show who was who (h/t Mike Carter).
I was so glad that he did it by singing, and not just because he has such a great voice. Early in the show’s history, whenever Colbert would sing, it was done in character, with him giving the camera a steely-eyed look that said, “That’s right, America. I can do this, too!” But as the years went on (apart from 2008’s hysterical A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All! special), he dropped that veil whenever he duetted with a musical guest.
Even his choice of song, Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again,” couldn’t have been more perfect. It worked on several levels that made The Colbert Report so successful. Its association with the World War II generation evokes both the “simpler time” that the conservative pundits he skewered like to say once existed, and also Colbert’s numerous fundraising efforts for veterans-based charities. But there’s a third layer in the song’s history — its use at the end of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb — that also draws upon the tradition of the absurdist political satire at which Colbert excelled.
Colbert has always balanced out his character’s arrogance with genuine humility in real-life interviews (most notably in David Plotz’s remarkable interview with him at Slate), and that extended to the last few months of the show. He drew many of his best-loved bits to a close, most hysterically with him overcoming his fear of bears and subsequently making out with a staffer dressed in a bear suit. He looked quizzically at guests who brought up him taking over David Letterman’s spot, and anytime he mentioned the show’s conclusion, the Grim Reaper would appear to remind everybody that the character of “Stephen Colbert” would die along with the show.
But after killing off “Grimmy” in the final installment of “Cheating Death,” when he declared immortality and had the perfect opportunity for the ego-stroking victory lap, he went in the opposite direction. As the song went on, Colbert all-but disappeared from the screen. There were cutaways to Esteban Colberto and Tek Jansen (a little-missed Colbert-as-animated-superhero bit from the early days), but the cameras were focused on the celebrities who had overtaken the stage. Look at the screen capture above. He’s not front-and-center; he’s still behind the piano, arm-in-arm with Stewart.
Now think back to how Johnny Carson closed out The Tonight Show, with everybody showing up to pay tribute to Carson and how much he had meant to them over his years. Its defining moment was Bette Midler singing “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road) directly to the host. As wonderful and moving as that was, the contrast between that and Colbert’s song was striking. Carson made it all about him; Colbert made it about the guests, his staff and his audience. At the very moment when he could have justifiably shown a bit of his character’s egotism in his real-life self, he retreated.
That was followed by the thank-yous, and even those had Colbert’s trademark warped sensibilities, with him delivering them on a sleigh ride with Santa Claus, Abraham Lincoln and Alex Trebek. I don’t know if Mavis Staples knew ahead of time that Colbert would single her out, but a few hours later, this appeared.[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/182213619″ params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true” width=”100%” height=”450″ iframe=”true” /]
Nobody knows how effectively Colbert will switch from character-based political satirist to a more conventional talk-show host. But we do know that, whenever he decides to move on from that job, he’s going to have to come up with a way to top last night. Here’s hoping he’ll have many, many years to figure that out.