At first I felt bad for myself. Well, bad in general, but there was some definite self-pity in there. How in the hell, I thought, am I going to review this? How on Earth do I summon objectivity? Then something even more rotten occurred to me:
If I feel this terrible about even having to engage with comedy right now, how does Stephen Colbert feel?
The good news, and also the bad news, is that Colbert doesn’t really aim to make a comedy show with “Stephen Colbert’s Live Election Night Democracy’s Series Finale: Who’s Going To Clean Up This Shit?” He certainly intended to, or at least it seems that way. Over the course of the episode—both entirely too long and far too brief, depending on one’s mood at any given moment—several pre-scripted moments come across as though they were somehow transplanted here from an alternate universe, and that’s likely because they were written for an audience not existing in a state of shock.
It opens with a nightmare-fuel cartoon laying out President-Elect Trump’s rise to power, painting the whole sordid story as an affair spurred by Obama’s sick burns at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner and rooted in his daddy issues. At the end, the animated Trump stands at a podium, promising a screaming crowd that there’ll be “no more Mexicans, no more Muslims, no more losers!”
Cut to the animated Obamas, watching the speech on the couch. Michelle shoots Barack a look, and he mumbles, “My bad.”
On the kind of night most pundits thought we’d see—the night Colbert and his team clearly expected—that joke might have killed. So, too, would a fake Nick Offerman-starring ad for off-season yard signs, or a bit where a naked man came out bearing news about the election in the form of a notecard taped to his penis. But none of the prepared stuff lands—not the Jeff Goldblum Jurassic Park jokes, nor the Nate Silver bit, nor the montage of Colbert swearing on The Late Show. They neither obliterate the darkness nor acknowledge it, and more importantly, they don’t feel the least bit genuine.
Colbert’s obviously unsettled, and it’s not clear how much news he’s heard. The only thing that’s certain is that he’s got some idea that something big is happening, a fact made clear in the single most honest moment in the episode’s first third: After a joke about the naked man’s ass, Colbert shoots a frantic glance offstage and blurts out, “keep it light!”
It’s a futile mission, and one abandoned fairly early. After an early behind-the-desk segment with some well-written jokes that simply don’t seem very funny at the moment, Colbert interviews Mark Halperin and John Heilemann of The Circus (synergy!) and gets no share of bad news. This is when it gets painful, compelling, and not particularly funny. Watching the faux commercial Colbert’s team created for The Circus, one gets a sense of what such an interview might have been like, all odd anecdotes and horserace drama. Instead, a clearly stunned Colbert hears Trump called the frontrunner, that he’s on track to 270. Colbert calls Florida, and the audience gasps.
When we look back on November 8, 2016, it’s likely some—me among them—will remember this particular interview. In response to a question from Colbert about exactly where Trump’s victory falls on the scale of bizarre things in this election cycle, Halperin drops this gem:
Outside of the Civil War, World War II, and including 9/11, this may be the most cataclysmic event the world has ever seen.
It stuns Colbert for a moment. You can see him reel a bit on the spot. A few moments later, he addresses the two, then the camera. “I’m so glad you guys are here,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to be alone right now.”
This isn’t a typical election, so it’s perhaps not surprising that, at the end, jokes would fail us, and they’d fail even someone who has so masterfully used them to get us through heartache and division in the past. All the trappings are there, Laura Benanti’s Melania Trump impression included, but in choosing to acknowledge the doom—to let it ruin the jokes if need be—Colbert didn’t create an election-night comedy special. He created an hour-long record of what it’s like to see your faith disappointed and your heart broken while millions watch.
That choice seems to echo throughout the rest of Colbert’s guests from that point on, particularly in the case of comedian Jena Friedman (“I feel as if I’m about to give birth to a baby that’s already dead,” she says, to not one laugh) and the aforementioned Jeff Goldblum. Goldblum joins Colbert at the desk and the pair abandon the prepared questions from moment one. The interview, appropriately odd but also touching, culminates in Goldblum singing a few lines from “It Goes Like It Goes” from Norma Rae. At the last moment, the band picks it up too, but it’s too late, and they never quite get it together. That, too, seems appropriate.
Its in the final moments that this odd, frustrating, but strangely beautiful hour of television comes into focus. They’re comprised of a final monologue from Colbert, and are better seen than described.
He paces. He rambles. He bounces back and forth between ideas that seem to have been prepared in advance and heartfelt, broke reflections on what’s just happened, and has been happening for months. He speaks about his mother, how she, a lifelong Republican, wanted to vote for Hillary before she died. It’s a disjointed appeal for basic decency, but one tinged with despair. Colbert urges us all to get back to our lives, to stop drinking in the poison we’ve been served for months, and then he attempts—“I’m gonna try,” he says—to inject just a little silliness into the proceedings. “You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time, and the devil cannot stand mockery.”
You can tell he wants to believe that, but maybe it’s just no longer true. Not for everyone. He seems to know that for some, fear will now play a much larger role in day-to-day life. “Keep it light,” he muttered at the top, but even our most reliable satirists occasionally accept defeat. In letting this thing be nearly as heavy as it was, he didn’t keep it light, but he did keep it real.
On a night like this, that’s not nothing. And it’s not as if Colbert will never be funny again. As Goldblum sang: “And maybe what’s good gets a little bit better, and maybe what’s bad gets gone.”
- Poor Elle King was there to sing “America’s Sweetheart,” and clearly wasn’t prepared for it to feel anything less than jubilant.
- Credit where it’s due: Colbert and his writing team wrote some great jokes. Benanti’s Melania monologue had some great moments, as did the segments where Colbert called states (“New Mexico: Experts are crediting the win to the ‘Mexico’ part of that one.”)
- “While we were gone, my producer took away my shoelaces and my belt.”