On paper, Stephen Colbert taking over The Late Show from David Letterman in 2015 is a fan's dream.
It means an hour of Colbert instead of a half hour, five nights a week instead of four. He'll be out of character, which we love. And we'll get to watch how he takes the traditional talk show format and make it his own.
But among his fans -- the truly hardcore ones -- the smiles seem forced. Even in online fan discussions these past few weeks, talk of the future is restrained and the unbridled exuberance usually displayed in honor of Colbert's professional victories is absent.
When pushed, many of us will admit we're "still processing," unable to cite what, exactly, requires processing.
The standard TV show mourning checklist doesn't provide the answers. Sure, it's sad to lose a high-quality program and sad to lose a well-developed character, but those logical drawbacks still make this a worthy tradeoff.
So what's our problem?
It's simple: Our scene partner is abandoning us.
The Colbert Report is an improvisation between Colbert and his audience. He assumes the role of the "well-intentioned, poorly-informed, high-status idiot," and we play his obedient followers.
Every night before the cameras roll, he reminds his studio audience that he's one character, and they are another.
"So have a good show," he says, "and I'll see you on the other side."
The dynamic extends to us at home, even though we don't stand and chant "Stephen! Stephen!" in our living rooms. We give his character the rabid devotion he so desperately craves in other forms, applying the golden rule of improv: yes, and.
Colbert, a Second City alum, taught us how to put that rule into action, and we've "yes anded" each other around every major creative corner the show has turned in the past nine years.
Hungarian bridge? Yes, and we'll vote for you. Green Screen Challenge? Yes, and we'll make videos for you. Presidential run? Yes, and we'll cheer you on. Colbert Super PAC? Yes, and we'll donate $1.4 million, no questions asked.
For all our contributions to the game -- financial or otherwise -- we're aware of how utterly outmatched we are as improvisers. We don't always get it right. Our representatives in the studio audience will forget that we're supposed to agree with "Stephen Colbert" and disagree with the guest, and they'll cheer or clap at the wrong time.
But Colbert doesn't flinch. He immediately justifies our choice, like by turning it around and implying that we were applauding what he was about to say. He always supports his scene partners, and keeps our game on track.
If you've ever done improv yourself, even if just in a classroom context, you know how quickly you bond with your fellow improvisers. Improv is so much about trust, support and learning how to be okay with failure (both your own and others'). It forces you to tune out your hangups and fears, and focus purely on creating moments with other people who are painting on the same blank canvas you are. It's an intimate collaboration.
At its root, that's what makes Colbert's relationship with his Report viewers more substantial than the standard comedian/audience dynamic. He's the best -- and for most fans, the only -- improviser we've ever played with.
He and his audience spent nine years in a joyful conspiracy, and fans are fully aware how unlikely it is to ever be replicated. We can already perceive the inevitable change in our role. Whenever The Colbert Report has made headlines, the fan base has been part of the story -- until now. Learning of the show's demise via a press release was an apt reminder of how television operates in the real world (that being "without us").
We trust Colbert to make these final months of the Report fun, and to give us offers for games that we'll accept with as much enthusiasm as ever. And we will get increasingly excited about his Late Show transition. He'll be great, and he'll find new and creative ways to get his viewers engaged.
But when December comes, and his character makes his final ego-fueled jog across the stage to the interview table, he will be sweeping our scene. As for the next one, we assume we'll be just be watching it from the audience.
For now, you can forgive our reluctance to say "yes" to that.