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Everything that happened on the Colbert Report finale

Stephen Colbert introduces the final episode of The Colbert Report.
Stephen Colbert introduces the final episode of The Colbert Report.
Comedy Central
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The final episode of The Colbert Report aired last night, and though it wasn't the show's finest episode ever, it was a fond, surprisingly moving farewell to one of TV's most ridiculous — and memorable — characters.

"Stephen Colbert," cable news blowhard, bid farewell the only way he possibly could — by riding off into the darkness in Santa's sleigh. If all you want to see is the one moment everybody is talking about, look over here.

But if you want to know everything else that happened, keep reading.

What was the big moment?

Colbert was joined by Jon Stewart, whose Daily Show brought him to prominence, to sing "We'll Meet Again." They were promptly joined by every celebrity and media personality in existence (including Big Bird!), in a sequence seemingly designed to gently mock other talk-show send-offs that, nonetheless, managed to achieve a sentimentality of its own.

And that helped build perfectly to the show's excellent, never mawkish climax. Colbert even did a direct, to-camera list of thanks to the people who worked on and watched the show, without breaking character. And it worked.

Who were some of the celebrities in that musical number?

It would be impossible to list all of them. A short list of our favorites, however, would include Doris Kearns Goodwin, Smaug, George Lucas, Paul Krugman, and Sam Waterston, which should give you some idea of how eclectic the lineup was.

If you want more names, we've made you a thorough, though still incomplete, list over here. And if you just want to watch them sing and dance awkwardly, we made you some gifs, too. You're welcome.

I've gotta see this! Can I watch the whole episode?

Sure. It's on Hulu and the Comedy Central website.

Did Stephen Colbert kill off "Stephen Colbert"?

Despite rumors that the man behind the fake host would be ridding himself of that persona entirely (since said persona won't be turning up on his upcoming CBS show), Colbert instead did the opposite. "Stephen Colbert" actually killed death in the final installment of the recurring segment "Cheating Death with Dr. Stephen T. Colbert, D.F.A." This, naturally, resulted in his immortality.

"Cheating Death" is a segment Colbert hasn't done in a while. Was there a lot of that?

Yep. In the grand tradition of series finales everywhere, Colbert nodded toward some of his show's greatest hits over the years. He opened with The Wørd, a long-running segment that used to be a staple of the program but has been used less and less in recent years. In it, Colbert talks to the audience, with a sidebar offering sarcastic text commentary.

It was a fitting way to lead off the final episode of the show, though many of the jokes fell flat. (This is actually a common occurrence for late-night shows that are ending their runs.) It gave Colbert a chance to riff on his history, while also mocking the persistence of the political world that gave him so many jokes over the years.

In the segment's best riff, Colbert said that he had "samed" the world from 2005, rather than "changed" it. After all, another governor named Bush is running for president, people are defending torture on TV, and American soldiers are going into Iraq. The Colbert Report was always at its best when pointing out the dark absurdity of modern life, and this was a pitch-perfect joke in that vein.

It sounds like a lot of the rest of this was more like a sitcom, though.

You're probably not a regular Colbert Report viewer, it would seem. Unlike its parent series, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report has always had a bit more of a sketch comedy mentality, occupying a constantly shifting space between sitcom and late-night news parody and hitting that mark over and over again with surprising accuracy.

Colbert has always featured not just recurring segments but recurring characters, and he's turned things like his presidential run, or even his inability to get Daft Punk to play "Get Lucky" on his show into something very like story arcs. Yes, all late-night talk shows have their running gags, but The Colbert Report's genius was in wedding those to the current excitement for all things serialized. No, it was never Breaking Bad, but the show's gentle experimentation with the late-night talk show format seems like something the host can push even further with twice the running time on his CBS show, launching next summer.

Santa's sleigh? What's that all about?

The episode ended with the now-immortal Colbert meeting Santa on the roof of the building where his studio is located. Santa was joined by Abraham Lincoln (revealed to be a unicorn) and "the man with all the answers," Alex Trebek. Colbert climbed in the sleigh with them and flew off into the night, later delivering his heartfelt thanks with Alex Trebek sitting right there next to him.

It was, ultimately, an elegant way for Colbert to say farewell to "Colbert," without actually bumping the character off. "Stephen Colbert" still exists. He's just now a completely separate fictional entity from the man who played him.

How did Jon Stewart fit into this?

Colbert was already on The Daily Show when Jon Stewart took over hosting duties in 1999, but under Stewart's tutelage, Colbert became the absolutely perfect parodist of cable news's faux seriousness. Yes, he parlayed that into his own show, but Stewart and Colbert have always been joined at the hip in the public consciousness, and not without good reason.

So the final Colbert Report paid suitable tribute to its parent show. It all began with Stewart handing off hosting duties to Colbert one last time, then saw Stewart join Colbert for "We'll Meet Again." And Stewart closed out the episode with one last, "Thanks for the report, Stephen."

The final tribute was an outtake from 2010, of the two just goofing around, trying to get away with a half-assed handoff as the one that would actually make it to television. It was sweet and funny and everything you'd want it to be.

How does this fit into the history of television finales?

The Colbert Report has always been a show that is capable of earnest sincerity but doesn't want to go to that well too often. And yet the TV series finale — even for cynical shows — is almost always a place to be as sincere as possible.

This goes for late-night talk shows, too. Who could forget, for instance, Johnny Carson's heartfelt farewell from Bette Midler (technically in his next-to-last episode, but close enough)? Or Conan O'Brien saying farewell to his brief tenure on The Tonight Show with a deeply felt speech about following your dreams? Or even Jay Leno bringing out everybody who worked on his version of The Tonight Show?

So Colbert and his team had a tough balancing act. They could skew toward sincerity and throw off the mix that had made their program so beloved, or they could skew toward sarcasm and perhaps not allow their most faithful fans a little time to grieve the end of a show they loved.

Truth be told, the writers didn't exactly nail this mixture. The "immortality" gambit was shoehorned into the proceedings, and the jokes could have been sharper. (The bit about the plumber whose truck turned up in the hands of ISIS felt a little too tossed-off.) But roughly everything from "We'll Meet Again" through the ending was so perfectly pitched that nobody's going to care how shaky some of the early material was.

And given the way so many series finales have completely bungled the landing, a mostly successful one is more than welcome.

What was the song that played over the closing credits?

That bit of wondrousness was Neutral Milk Hotel's "Holland 1945." It's a great song, and you should check it out.