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Sending off ‘The Colbert Report’ at just the right time

The end of “The Colbert Report,” Stephen Colbert’s long-running satirical news show, Thursday night is the close of an era, and not just in the sense that it’s breaking up the long-running one-two punch of Colbert and “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart.

During the nine years that Colbert has been inhabiting the persona of a right-wing, slightly dim and extremely confident anchor, American politics and discussions of comedy have shifted dramatically. Given these changes, Colbert’s move to “The Late Show” on CBS comes at the perfect time. He’s opening up a slot for the brilliant writer Larry Wilmore, whose new show will premiere Jan. 19. And Colbert himself will get to shed his phony fictional persona at a moment that snark is losing its cachet and sincerity is ascendant.

The #CancelColbert kerfuffle earlier this year never seriously threatened either Colbert’s current job at Comedy Central or his move up the ladder to one of broadcast television’s prized late-night spots. But the incident, in which Colbert was criticized for a bit that invoked anti-Asian animus to mock Washington football team owner Dan Snyder’s attempts to buy off opposition to his team’s name, signaled a shift.

“The Daily Show” (once Stewart arrived at the anchor’s desk) and “The Colbert Report” became hugely popular precisely because they were insurgent voices, aiming Rube Goldberg-style verbal slingshots at the George W. Bush administration, conservatives in Congress and on the Supreme Court, and emerging powerful right-wing donors such as the Koch brothers. Whatever differences existed on the left (or in the frustrated center), viewers could unite around the genius of a concept like “truthiness.”

But as the Obama years have faded into frustration and obstructionism, the left has turned inward. #CancelColbert grew out of the idea that no matter how much Colbert had done to target racism on the right, he didn’t have standing to employ anti-Asian sentiment, even in jest and even in service of a larger point about the continuing cultural and material discrimination against Native Americans.

This is a difficult environment for a satirist of good will to operate under, though the turn toward sincerity has produced plenty of other pieces of great pop culture. One of the biggest hits of 2014 has been the breakout podcast sensation “Serial,” in which Sarah Koenig struggles to be fair in her assessment of an old murder case. In superhero movies, the wisecracks of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) have given way to the moral meditations of Captain America (Chris Evans) and the unabashed enthusiasm of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), who goes by the decidedly unselfconscious moniker Starlord. Lorde’s achingly direct album “Pure Heroine” continued to be a refuge from the wearisome posturing of rapper Iggy Azalea. And rather than be rendered irrelevant, Colbert is in a strong position to fit right in.

He may have spent the past nine years inhabiting a glorious creation. But the moments when he broke character and spoke to us directly could be astonishingly beautiful, as when he returned to the show after his mother’s death last summer and delivered a eulogy to her that was utterly snark-proof. “It may sound greedy to want more days with a person who lived so long,” Colbert told the audience. “But the fact that my mother was 92 does not diminish it; it only magnifies the enormity of the room whose door has now quietly shut.”

(When he responded to #CancelColbert on air, Colbert employed that same welcome directness in telling Colbert Nation that it shouldn’t harass anyone in his name or in his defense.)

The finale of “The Colbert Report” had plenty of hilarious gimmicks, from a super-size edition of “The Word” to a unicorn Abraham Lincoln. But it was just as frequently nakedly emotional, an illustration of how real feeling and commitment can elevate even the silliest gag.

Bringing out an enormous cast of famous people to sing “We'll Meet Again” is a goof. But the extent to which all the participants were utterly themselves, from Ken Burns’s white-guy shoulder bob, to Katie Couric’s willingness to be swept into a dance, to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s earnestness, to Bravo’s Andy Cohen, as NPR’s Linda Holmes put it, “selling it like the rent is due,” reflected a sincere enthusiasm about being a part of Colbert’s sendoff.

Similarly, only Colbert could be roused from his slumber in the back of Santa’s sleigh by Alex Trebek and make it the perfect setting from which to express his gratitude for: “Nine great years, 1,447 wonderful episodes. I just got too many people to thank. First and foremost, everybody who worked so hard every day to make something special. All of our friends and family for putting up with our long hours.”

Colbert ended the night on a simple note, telling us: “That was fun! Okay. Okay, that’s the show. From eternity, I’m Stephen Colbert.” It was, and he is. And when Colbert returns as host of “The Late Show” late next summer or early next fall, he will have a chance to give us the sincerity with a hint of steel and a finely tuned sense of the absurd that we need so badly.

Alyssa Rosenberg writes The Post’s Act Fourweb channel covering culture and politics.

© 2014, The Washington Post