On “Jimmy Kimmel Live” Tuesday, no Trump. On “Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” all Trump. On “Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” Alicia Keys. Under normal circumstances -- or superficially these ones -- Fallon did appear the better bet, except Tuesday was far from normal, and late night was not on automatic drive either.
Kimmel earlier declared a “no Trump” edition, saying at outset, “I need a break from (him), to be honest, so if anyone says the name of the orange colored man with the Russian boyfriend, they’ll have to put a hundred dollars in that jar Guillermo is holding.”
But the big news, and night, was on “Colbert,” which was live for the first time since election night -- when the host and show did a figurative free-fall dive out of a 10-story building into a baby pool with three inches of water.
Election night was a disaster for “Colbert,” but for viewers the best live train wreck imaginable, and unmatched for sheer entertainment value until just this week, when Carly Simon’s onetime boyfriend messed up the announcement of best picture winner at the Oscars. (OK, to be fair, blame the accountants.)
Colbert and “Late Show” were taking no chances this time. If President Trump, in his first appearance before a joint session of Congress, did a repeat of his news conference two weeks ago, then this live edition would write itself. Colbert would just have to sit back, kick up his feet, pop open the beer and run the tape.
In the event that President Trump actually appeared “presidential,” and offered a straightforward, and otherwise adult address before Congress, then that would be harder.
In fact the president delivered a well-received address.
Chris Licht, “Late Show” boss and showrunner, confirmed earlier Wednesday that the show got a copy of the speech at 9:10, or ten minutes after the start. So at least there was a little extra time to think,prepare and react. (The speech ended just after 10 p.m., which gave Colbert a little more than an hour to throw something together by 11:35.).
It showed in a good, smooth, often amusing monologue that nearly erased the memory of election night. Example: When the show ran the clip of Trump’s insistence that gainfully employed immigrants be allowed entry to the country, Colbert in his monologue went to a quick shot of the “plaque” at the Statue of Liberty, which read: “Give us your poor, your tired, but not so poor they can’t afford a Mitsubishi...”
Colbert got off shot after shot. An early one scored, which set the tone for the rest of the night. CNN, he said, “ just trolled the nation with this caption ...”
He went to a clip of the president heading out of the White House for the speech, with a caption reading: “Trump leaves White House soon.”
He later made a quick one-off on the sartorial choice of female Democrat members of Congress: “Women wore white in honor of women’s suffrage, while the Republicans were white in honor of who elected them.”
Next came the best line of the whole darned night:
Colbert: “And then came the big moment..”
Cut to the clip of the president entering the Capitol, shaking hands members of Congress ...
Cut to a wincing Colbert: “Any chance there’s a mistake and ‘Moonlight’ is the president?”
Colbert scored a number of one-offs other lines that also seemed to write themselves. When Trump spoke of creating a task force to study how to reduce the government payroll, the host couldn’t help but observe: “We’re gonna reduce government by adding people to to the government ... that’s like saying the key to not getting hung over is to never stop drinking.”
To the clip of Trump declaring he had implemented a hiring freeze of “nonessential Federal workers,” Colbert delivered his second best line of the night:
“Non essential Federal workers? So Kellyanne Conway is out, just gone?”
Or this. When Trump was extolling Thomas Edison’s accomplishments, including an “electric pen,” Colbert easily found the obvious comic entry point, as any good late night host would:
“Electric pen? Imagine the wonders our country could offer on the 250th anniversary ... Who knows, maybe a cordless pen?”
Next, this was cued up: “When Trump says ‘electric pen,’ that means where he plans to keep the immigrants ...”
There were a few duds. A line about Trump “inheriting millions” was a re-tread; I guess it’s OK if comics pilfer their own material. The joke about Nancy Pelosi “restarting the engine” -- then cut to the explosion in “Godfather 2” -- was meh. When Colbert pulled up the clip of Trump saying “we must support victims of crime,” Colbert managed this: “Unless they’re victims of me. Those women are lying.”
The joke felt moldy. It was the audience’s turn to wince.
Why was Tuesday arguably the most important night for “Late Show” since the election? Because -- unless you are not aware -- this is now the most viewed late night TV show on television. On Tuesday, CBS announced that “Late Show” had beaten “Tonight” four weeks in a row, which means that if this were a horse race (it is), then Colbert has pulled a body length ahead of Fallon. NBC is nervous, or should be. Colbert -- who flailed so bad and valiantly his first year on the air -- has finally found his sweet spot.
Who knew Donald Trump would be Colbert’s Santa Claus? An early Merry Christmas to you, Stephen.