Colbert's show aired for the first time on October 17, 2005, just 2 months after Mike and I moved into our suburban home with our 8 month old baby Baxter, and just 3 days before Mike would be diagnosed with the brain tumor that would ultimately kill him 9 months later.
If it seems incongruous to map the evolution of a comedy show onto the trajectory of a fatal brain tumor... it probably is. But, The Colbert Report wasn't just a random show - to either of us. Mike was a brilliant improvisor who respected Colbert from his days at Annoyance in Chicago to his work on Strangers With Candy. And in an odd way, Mike's physical presence on stage was very similar to Colbert's, something upon which many friends have remarked over the years. When Mike would run onstage during a ComedySportz Show, he did so with a kind of lightness on his feet that made it seem like he was floating. He bounced onto the stage. Much like Colbert's confident bounce across the stage to greet his guest for the interview segment of his show.
Stephen's story is also poignant given that his father and two closest brothers died in a plane crash when Stephen was just ten, leaving him to be raised by his widowed single mother, Lorna, whom Colbert touchingly eulogized on his show in 2013. As a 30 year old widow with a 1 year old baby boy, I found so much hope in the story of Colbert and his mom. If she could succeed in raising 8 children by herself after dealing with the loss of her love and two of her sons, surely I could too.
And then, of course, there's the crazy conversation that I had with Stephen in August 2000. I was 24, working as a temporary production assistant (for ten days) for The Daily Show while they filmed in Philadelphia during the Republican National Convention. The cast and crew was wonderfully accessible - and the Stewart version of the show was quite new (Stewart having taken over from Craig Kilborn in 1999). Backstage during one of the dress rehearsals, Mo Rocca and Stephen Colbert and I were chatting. They knew I was a graduate student at UPenn's Annenberg School and were asking what I was going to do with my life. I told them I wasn't sure. I was a year away from my Master's Degree, and after that, I would either continue on for the Ph.D. at Annenberg, or I was going to move to New York to try my hand at improv for a while, since I had done TheatreSports for four years at UNH and was in my second year performing with ComedySportz Philadelphia.
Stephen asked if it cost a lot of money to get a Ph.D. I told him that at Annenberg, assuming I was accepted the following year (which was likely given my standing in the program), there would be a full tuition waiver plus a research stipend.
He laughed, "You're telling me that an ivy league school is going to PAY you to get a doctorate and you're thinking of going to New York to do comedy?"
And in a very honest, but friendly way, he described how hard it was in the comedy business. "I've been doing this for a very long time and I've only just started to make it work. It's really hard." He said that if someone offered him a full ride to go get a Ph.D. and become a college professor, he would take it in a minute.
After their week here in Philadelphia, rooming in the graduate dorms and eating cheesesteaks between filming, the entire cast and crew of the Daily Show boarded a giant coach bus at 37th and Walnut Street to head back to New York. As they took off, Stephen leaned out the window and yelled bye and something to me about school... good luck in school? keep going to school? Whatever it was, Between Colbert's input, the urging of my advisor Joe Cappella, and falling in love with Mike Young here in Philadelphia, the NYC comedy path soon lost it's shine.
Side note: A few months after working as a production assistant on the show, I paid a visit to NY with my friend Afton to watch a taping of the Daily Show. I had contacted the producer, Jen, to let her know I would be coming and she said she would let folks know. I figured at that point that I was just a faceless name (just a dumb PA who worked for them for all of 10 days). To my surprise, after the audience was herded to our seats, I heard my name called from the corner where the head writers sit. It was Stephen, peeking out and frantically waving hi.
People often ask why I didn't stay in touch with Colbert. I wonder the same thing, myself. At the time, I was being trained as a quantitative social scientist, which means observing things while trying very hard not to affect them. It was all starting to feel too weird. Doing studies of the Daily Show audience, but knowing that I had this personal affection for people making the show. I felt that to do this whole research thing properly, I needed distance. So, I let the contacts go, and only maintained an amicable relationship with the communication offices at Comedy Central to let them know of recent findings regarding The Daily Show or Colbert.
Maybe it was silly to sever those ties.
After all, it doesn't change the fact that Stephen and his show played a large role in my professional path. It also doesn't change the fact that somehow, Colbert's show is all tangled up in my head with Mike and our personal timeline.
So now, as the show has ended, I just can't watch the finale. In the same way that I have films of Mike, (footage of him playing ComedySportz, videos of our wedding), and I can't bring myself to watch them. You see, if I don't watch them, then I can fool myself into believing that somewhere, in a shoebox in my closet, is an opportunity for me to have a new interaction with Mike. If I don't watch it, then when I do it will feel new, like he's back for a minute. Until the video ends and I realize that he's still not here.
So, illustrative of my delusional, parasocial, fucked up mind, I, Danna... will not have anything profound or academic to say about Colbert's final episode. Because, I'm saving it. Maybe forever and ever... and that's ok, too, because then it will never be over.