WATCH: The Colbert Report's Ridiculously Perfect Finale ... With Star-Studded Musical Interlude

Much like hosting the Oscars or being a designated driver, taking a final bow on a late night talk show is a thankless task. The show will inevitably differ from the format that viewers know and love, so the last one has to be indelible. And how do you do that without cloying emotion or pandering to nostalgia? You do it like Stephen Colbert, on his final episode of The Colbert Report, which aired on Thursday night.

The other problem for most hosts, like Johnny Carson or Jay Leno (both times), is that this is their final moment on the public stage. They’re saying goodbye to their careers on the way to retirement. However, we all know that Colbert will be taking over CBS’s The Late Show when David Letterman steps down in May next year. Colbert is going to have a platform again, so how should he go out? Well, with a whole lot of weird, apparently. 

Maybe he was just getting it out before submitting to the constraints of network television, but Colbert’s final sketch was a kind of death scene for his alter ego, the egocentric blowhard “Stephen Colbert”. First we see him murder Grimmy, the Grim Reaper, and declare himself an immortal god. With his new-found powers (and taking a page from Chelsea Handler’s farewell) he assembled a group of stars and former guests so massive it was barely contained in the studio, all singing We’ll Meet Again. The gathering included Colbert’s most frequent guest Andrew Sullivan, Jon Stewart (duh), Michael Stipe, Arianna Huffington, Gloria Steinem, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Tom Brokaw, James Franco, Katie Couric, and Big Bird and a host of other muppets (including Cyndi Lauper and Barry Manilow). Mostly it was a bunch of old white dudes, but just imagine how old and white Bill O’Reilly’s sendoff is going to be.

It’s what came next that was really odd. Stephen Colbert, now immortal, got into Santa’s sleigh with Abraham Lincoln (our country’s first Unicorn-American president, apparently) and Alex Trebek and rode off into the great beyond. It’s as if he were dying and going to heaven, someone outside of the realm of the living now that he achieved immortality.

That’s the funny thing about Colbert, though. For all his bluster, standing on the roof with a sword and Captain America’s shield, you know he didn’t really feel that way about himself or his show. Yes, it was grandiose and bizarre, but the earlier segments showed how he really felt.

He started the show with a quip: “If this is your first time tuning into The Colbert Report, I have some terrible news.” He never assumes that everyone knows who he is, or that they should be aware of this finale, no matter how big it might seem. His final segment of The Word – which introduced us to “truthiness”on his first episode in October 2005 – was about the word “same”. He doesn’t cop to changing the world, as many people in his position would like to. He joked that all was still the same in the world. “When this show started, I promised you a revolution, and I delivered,” he said. “Technically, a revolution is 360 degrees, right back to where we were.“

That joke is the quintessence of Colbert, taking credit for something as huge as a revolution but simultaneously admitting that he accomplished little more than making people laugh at the end of a hard day. He revisited his accomplishments on the show – raising money for his Super Pac, getting a mascot named after him, running for president – but said he owed all that to his fans who donated the money, voted in the polls, and signed the petitions. “You, the nation, did that. I just got paid for it,” he said.

What has always made Colbert stand out from other political comedians is that he is a master at blending irony and sincerity. He never champions a point of view or a system of belief. He never claims that anyone is right or wrong (except his character, of course, who is hilariously infallible), instead presenting a case and letting the audience peek at the truth. But you feel his heart, how he brings the best out in every guest, how he seems more concerned about showing the public a good time than taking the acclaim for himself, how he sometimes lets the real man under the American flag pin shine through.

That’s what Stephen Colbert has always delivered on the show and, as he promised, we got more of the same during its swansong. It was the perfect way to say goodbye, with his narcissistic character riding off into the great beyond, to live forever in the minds and actions of his fans. Rather than beating us over the head with what his legacy should be, he let us come to the right conclusion on our own. Yes, bidding adieu is hard, but just a few blocks away from his studio, CBS is hoping that he’s going to bring more of the same to them very soon.

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