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As Trump’s Victory Loomed, It Was Hard to Find Much to Laugh About on Late-Night TV

UPDATED: The slow unfolding of Tuesday night’s election results caught late-night television a bit flatfooted. Perhaps it was to be expected; at 11 p.m. EST, when both Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah fired up their election night specials, California had only just closed its polls. But the narrowness of the returns, and the direction they trended, tripped up the gaiety of both hour-long specials, as the left-leaning “The Late Show” host and “The Daily Show” anchor found themselves relating very different news from what they intended to.

For most of the chattering classes, it was a sobering night. The vast majority of the media-entertainment complex had come out in favor of or outright endorsing Hillary Clinton, including, of course, this magazine. But as the night wore on, Republican nominee Donald Trump had secured a lead that surprised even the news anchors who had been covering this election all along.

Colbert — who decamped “The Late Show” to Showtime for an evening uninterrupted by commercials and peppered with the swear words he can’t use on CBS — was particularly flummoxed. The comedian had put together a special that resembled a variety show, with a musical number, an impersonation of Melania Trump, a panel discussion, and a few lighthearted interviews with celebrity friends. Nick Offerman even stopped by to star in a fake ad spot about campaign yard signs. But Colbert’s program had not factored in creeping dread. His attempts at lightheartedness felt desperate and contrived, especially as panic seemed to rise behind his own eyes. The program aimed for evenhanded revelry, but there was very little of that to go around.

By contrast, “The Daily Show’s” election special was surprisingly satisfying. Perhaps that program thrives on the disappointment of liberals. But the show’s combination of snark and frustration and detached horror — as depicted by both Roy Wood, Jr. drinking Pepto Bismol straight from the bottle and Desi Lydic interviewing, with admirable icy calm, an actual American neo-Nazi — hit the exact mood of its audience, even if they seemed just as surprised by the results as we did.

The special was also a hosting high point for Noah, who has struggled to find the right combination of gravitas and humor in the role behind the chair. He has had a tendency to be either juvenile or detached. But in this case, he was just the right amount of empathetic and grave, tweaking comedy out of his correspondents while searching for the emotional narrative with his interviewees. And while Colbert’s show reflected a kind of vanity list of guests — Jeff Goldblum, country singer Elle King, Offerman — Noah’s was a semi-substantive mix: Keegan-Michael Key, who played President Obama’s anger translator, commentator Ana Marie Cox, and CNN presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, who amidst the shifting election results was able to offer some context and insight.

Elsewhere on TV, other experiments dominated election coverage. The Weather Channel, anticipating chaos, aired nothing but pretty scenery and muzak from 4 p.m. to midnight. (It wasn’t bad, but the music got grating after a while.) “The View” also hosted an election special, which was a strident, over-produced affair — less comic than loud. Nearly every other channel fielded some version of election coverage.

Altogether, very little of the non-news election coverage on Tuesday night offered a positive path forward after Trump’s win — neither volume nor pretty pictures seems like a viable four-year strategy — and particularly marked was Colbert’s struggles to find a rhythm with which to comment upon Trump. In more ways than one, this election season is a reminder of 2000; then as now, “The Daily Show” seemed to be the only television show that understood what it was like to feel so disappointed.

Correction, 10:30 a.m. ET: An earlier version of this piece mentioned Patton Oswalt and Katy Perry as being guests on “The Late Show’s” election special. The performers were originally supposed to appear in pre-taped segments, but those segments were cut as the mood of the evening changed.

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