“Are you on edge tonight?” Stephen Colbert knew the answer to the question even before he asked it.
As a jittery and clearly pro-Hillary Clinton crowd wrung its collective hands over early election results, the late-night host tapped an arsenal of sharp jokes, animation, profanity – and even a little nudity – to keep a nervous audience laughing, all part of an intriguing experiment that put Colbert on the air via Showtime even though his “Late Show” was pre-empted on CBS.
It turned into the late-night equivalent of a national wake. Colbert launched a live special on the CBS-owned cable network, telling viewers at one point that he found it hard to put a “happy face” on a Trump victory. “And that’s my job.”
Producers’ intentions were noble. With rivals like Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel known, respectively, for celebrity antics or sardonic laughs, CBS has worked to establish Colbert as a newsy humorist, someone whose take on events is something audiences will seek out. The host has put on a series of live broadcasts – tricky and ambitious for a program that needs to generate fresh material on a constant basis – that have garnered him compliments and appeared to focus his performance.
On Election Night, however, Colbert had to alternately entertain and soothe a live crowd that began gasping in real time as the host and his guests provided updates on the election. Suddenly, it became hard to laugh.
“Outside of the Civil War, World War II and including 9/11 this may be the most cataclysmic event our country has seen,” said John Halperin, the political journalist who was one of Colbert’s guests.
“It feels like an asteroid has smacked into our democracy,” said comedienne Jena Friedman, another guest. “Get your abortions now,” she urged the crowd.
To be sure, Colbert came prepared with an arsenal of jokes. He unfurled a reel of uncensored bits from his CBS broadcasts, using his premium-cable Showtime perch, where profanity is allowed, to its fullest advantage. He even brought out a nearly nude male actor to deliver election news. Laura Berlanti, the actress and singer who has won some renown with a caricature of Melania Trump, who is likely to be First Lady, reprised the role during the program. And Colbert launched the show with an animated short suggesting the seeds of Trump’s victory were sown a time the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner, where a rebuke from President Obama may have sparked a desire for comeuppance.
The events of the night overtook the mission. Colbert bravely soldiered on as the fears of his audience and guests became palpable. Indeed, his show, which is set to be rebroadcast later this week on CBS, ran well over an hour – without commercials.
He tried to offer viewers lessons and hope. “This is a moment for people to understand that political involvement is a responsibility,” he said. “You can opt out of voting, but not the effects.’ And he urged people to take comfort in being together, pressing everyone to focus less on divisive politics. “Let’s vote unanimously on things that bring us together.”
What joined Colbert’s audience on this evening were concerns that most late-night hosts can’t soothe so easily.