What do live late night comedy shows do when the very prospect that they had dismissed, mocked, ridiculed and otherwise essentially milked for comedy the past 18 months suddenly, shockingly becomes true? Laugh, cry (a little bit of both?). With last night as evidence, actually a little bit of the latter.
When “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” began these periodic live editions during last summer’s conventions, the prospect of a Donald Trump victory — at least to them — seemed as remote as it had seemed Tuesday morning. So for their final live editions of this 2016 election, “laugh” was certainly Plan A. Then at 11 p.m. in New York, when they both began airing, just as the election was firmly and conclusively swinging in Trump’s direction, they had to switch to Plan B.
For “Daily Show,” there would be a plan, but for Colbert’s live special, there would not. The result would comprise some of the most unusual 60 minutes of television this entire year — also alternately grinding, then passionate, and finally conciliatory. But “funny?”
During the nine-minute opener of the special airing on Showtime --- “Stephen Colbert’s Live Election Night Democracy’s Series Finale: Who’s Going To Clean Up This [expletive]“ -- the host dumped whatever victory monologue he had prepared on the cue cards, and went straight to his cri de coeur.
“I don’t think I’m gonna sit down,” he began — as if the act of sitting would be too painful.
“How did our politics get so poisonous? It’s because we overdosed. We drank too much of the poison — you drink a little bit of it so you can hate the other side, and it tastes good, and you like how it feels. There’s a gentle high to the condemnation, and you know you’re right.”
It was almost as if Colbert in that moment was conducting an interior monologue because — indeed — his “Late Show” had launched more nightly broadsides at Trump over more months than any of his rivals. Had he, too, apparently overdosed?
Colbert’s monologue was also emotional. He said that his mother, Lorna Colbert — who died in 2013 at the age of 92 — had once confided to him that “’I think I would vote for Hillary.’ And she had only voted for one Democrat and that was (John F.) Kennedy because — spoiler alert — we’re Catholic.”
He tried to pull this intense moment back into the realm of comedy, but the effort seemed wan, halfhearted. In a riff that clearly had been pre-written, he spun off a series of “things that bring us all together. “ Those included a unanimous agreement between both Republican and Democrats on matters like “Jeopardy:” “Deep down Americans believe Alex Trebek will never die because it wasn’t in the form of a question.”
Or bipartisan agreement on this: “That the first person to get up for seconds at a wedding buffet is a (gosh-darned) hero.”
That brought some levity which almost instantly evaporated, like a brief summer shower on a broiling hot road surface.
Finally — remarkably — Colbert did something he had almost certainly had never done before in his career, and is unlikely to repeat either: He demanded that the studio audience get on its feet, then follow him in a rendition of “My Country, ‘Tis of thee.”
The rest of the Showtime special did include some prepared bits — including an animated short of Trump, while Laura Benanti revived her Melania Trump impression (which originated during the GOP convention, in the hours after the next first lady cribbed some lines from the convention speech by Michelle Obama four years earlier).
Jeff Goldblum — a staunch Hillary Clinton supporter — had the unfortunate role as first guest. “I can’t believe it, I’m in shock. I’m trying to navigate (the thought) of how, look — horrible things will happen to all of us.”
Colbert then offered some solace, as only a devoted “Lord of the Rings” fan could: “Frodo and Sam didn’t think they’d be able to make it up Mount Doom” either.
In sharp contrast, Trevor Noah’s “Daily Show” had clearly prepared a live edition that reflected the unthinkable. But neither host nor correspondents relished the task before them.
“It feels like the end of the world,” Noah began. “I don’t know if you’ve come to the right place for jokes tonight.” Noah, a South African by birth, then added: “I don’t understand how America can be this disorganized or hateful. “
He did quickly segue to a joke — a good one: Noting that the Mexican peso had collapsed over the past hour, he quipped, “which means that even if Trump does win, Mexico can’t afford to pay for the wall.”
He was joined at the news desk by Roy Wood Jr., a “senior correspondent,” who was noisily sucking on a bottle of Pepto-Bismol and who lamented a recent loss in Ohio: “I thought LeBron (James) was going to deliver this for Hillary. It shows how much Ohio hates Hillary. He gives them a championship, and still ...”
The host then threw over to another correspondent at Trump headquarters, Jordan Klepper, who then threw it straight back to Noah: “I didn’t prepare anything for this alternative horrific scenario, so back to you!”
Noah had two guests. First up was presidential historian, Douglas Brinkley, who reached back to an old Bob Dylan song to explain what had just happened in the country. Citing 1964’s “Ballad of a Thin Man,” he then quoted a line or two (“something is happening and you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?”) and explained that “the alternate right” had also “stolen the tricks of the ‘60s counterculture movement.”
“The real story tonight is how Trump took the Barry Goldwater right and morphed that with the segregationist/racist views of George Wallace, and then grabbed Ross Perot’s anti-NAFTA position ...”
Brinkley was followed by comedian Keegan-Michael Key who was just about as funny: “We have to look at it in an objective way, but right now, it’s very emotional.” Key however did suggest that for his next career move, he will leave comedy and “make a good hard turn to drama.”
Noah wrapped the live edition for an appeal to “stay strong, stay positive.” But a minute before that, Wood got in the only genuinely mirthful line of the entire night, on either “Colbert” or “Daily Show.”
Is there any good news, Noah asked him?
Wood: “Yeah, you can smoke weed in Massachusetts.”