Late night TV got a gift Tuesday night -- a big beautiful gift full of found comedy and easy targets in President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech.
“The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” both had live editions, while “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” was live to tape, but also had a few hours lead time to carve up the speech. “Late Show” and “Daily” had just minutes.
So, who won?
Each show took a different approach, but essentially the same – call it “Mystery Science Theater,” cutting to a pull-quote from the speech then a spitball follow-through. Some spitballs hit the mark. Some were way off the mark. (One or two even managed to hit the audience.)
So, who won?
Let’s start with “Kimmel.” This was a huge night for the resurgent ABC talker -- resurgent largely by following the “Late Show” game book of targeting Donald Trump every night. Kimmel got a comedy coup when he booked adult film star Stormy Daniels on the show, who reportedly had an affair with the president a decade ago. She was laced into the opener (watching the SOTU with Jimmy, while each held a Stormy and Trump puppet respectively.)
After he got the setup out of the way, Kimmel settled into a sharp, funny monologue -- the best of the big three of the night. “Remember when it was a big scandal when the president snuck a cigarette while the wife was digging in the kale garden?”
The best line: “Donald Trump taking credit for lower black unemployment is like Ryan Seacrest taking credit for the new year.”
“Kimmel” also had the best prepared pretaped bits of the three: An inspired-if-obvious skit on the sergeant-at-arms (an actor, of course) announcing the “commander in chief, and CEO of Trump Hotels International ... and the most stable genius in the history of the world ... and like really smart person, Donald J. Trump.”
Good joke, made better by the cutaway: Bernie Sanders, clapping softly.
But this “Kimmel” win was promptly soured by the Daniels’ interview -- a bona fide late night TV disaster that hurt Kimmel while doing wonders for Daniels.
Arriving with a nondisclosure agreement in hand -- literally -- she could say nothing about the alleged affair, which forced Jimmy to do the talking. The result was leering and almost creepy, or in her perfectly accurate phrasing: “It’s an unpleasant picture you’re painting.”
He pushed on and she pushed back. After a while, she finally threw up her hands: “What is wrong with you?” It was meant in jest, but it really wasn’t meant in jest. A good opening monologue was spoiled by a seamy interview. Too bad.
So, who won?
“Late Show” easily had the highest SOTU joke count, numbering a couple of dozen, at least.
The worst had all the bitterness of a cheap shot or low blow; in the bit on black unemployment, for example, Colbert cited a moment in American history when black unemployment was “zero” -- a joke by the way, that’s already made the rounds, including on “Saturday Night Live”-- then capped it with “only half of Trump’s base wants to go back there.” The audience shuffled. “I said only half!”
OK, so who won?
This was a big night for Noah, too – also resurgent and also the millennial late night favorite.
The first few jokes landed and landed cleanly – cut to photo of Ted Cruz dressed as the Phantom of the Opera, cut to Ben Carson, floating deep in the Sunken Place, obviously referring to Oscar nominee “Get Out.”
He then hit a wall. Cutting to a picture of boycotting Democrats, many of them African-American women, he said, “so many black women” were not at the speech that “Boko Haram took credit for it.”
The audience ooooo’ed, which is the same thing as booing in late night TV terms.
So, please, who won?
Drum roll . . .
The winner: It was a tie.
Sorry to disappoint, but the overall strengths were considerable, the weaknesses, too. “Kimmel” had the best overall monologue and pretaped bits, but the Daniels’ encounter (woven into the monologue) flopped badly. Colbert had the best ratio of good jokes-to-bad jokes, but there was a rushed quality to his monologue and -- not infrequently -- a mean-spirited tone as well. “Daily” started off strong, flagged, then ended strong.