The funniest and most incisive show on television is ending this week -- so let's look back at how it began. On October 17, 2005, a power-suited Stephen Colbert furrowed his eyebrows and showed off highlights of his new set. Red letters above him shouted, "The Colbert Report." The title of his show was silhouetted in back of those letters, so it appeared twice. The host's last name was also proclaimed by a plasma-screen on the front of his desk, and it flashed four times on a ticker that ran below it, and was even spelled out on either side of that desk -- "which," he pointed out, "is itself shaped like a giant C." There were nine "Colbert"s in all, not counting the initial he sat in.
"But this show is not about me," the host insisted. "No, this show is dedicated to you, the heroes. And who are the heroes? The people who watch this show.
Here was Colbert teaching us how to watch him. Fake news usually succeeds by doing things the real news never would. But by aping an essentially absurd TV format -- personal-editorial shows like The O'Reilly Factor, with a little Sean Hannity thrown in -- Colbert could stretch the veneer of believability without shattering it. He could widen the gap between what the host said ("this show is not about me") and what the viewer took from it (the nine "Colbert"s on his set) just enough that most people saw right through it -- and laughed. (I say "most" because I know a few late-middle-aged liberals, fans of Jon Stewart and generally smart people, who never quite got the way jokes work on Colbert, and never found it funny.)