The political conventions aren’t just a chance for the two parties to showcase their positions and/or break the ancient seals protecting us from an inter-dimensional apocalypse (“Buffy” warned us about this so many times, but we didn’t listen).
The conventions are also a chance for those in the late-night arena to solidify their followings or, ideally, ascend a few levels on the TV comedy food chain. The week often felt somewhat apocalyptic, and not in a “Supernatural”-finale sort of way, so it took real skill to wring jokes from it all, given the serious issues at play. Shows had to be topical and sharp and yet also acknowledge how odd and even disturbing so many moments were. The bizarreness of each passing hour of each of the last few days is hard to capture, let alone top.
With the caveat that this is only a partial list — it’s not possible to watch the conventions, see every late-night show and retain one’s sanity — some shows emerged ahead of the pack, while others didn’t take as much advantage of the opportunity presented during the Republican National Convention. In true Trump-ian fashion, let’s start with the losers.
“Saturday Night Live’s” Weekend Update
Picture this: Men at the Quicken Loans Arena were being verbally pelted by a garrulous, sandy-haired TV celebrity. Nothing about this surreal talking-head encounter was going well, but it was hard not to feel sorry for the victims, who looked as though they’d rather be anywhere but the state of Ohio.
For once, it wasn’t Donald Trump who was turning an on-camera appearance into a something from Fellini by way of “Dr. Strangelove.” Late Wednesday night — well, technically, early Thursday morning — MSNBC’s Chris Matthews “interviewed” Colin Jost and Michael Che, who looked about as comfortable as grim-faced convention attendee Paul Ryan. Many politicians held their noses and paid homage to Trump at the RNC convention (with the notable exception of soap-opera villain Ted Cruz) — and that’s about as relaxed as “Saturday Night Live’s” Weekend Update duo looked. Matthews’ digressive and increasingly unfunny banter rarely let up, and the guys finally came close to losing their composure when Matthews asked them what hotel they were staying at.
“Are you trying to get us killed or laid?” Jost replied.
That was less awkward than Matthews pressing them to say who was America’s funniest black guy.
At least there was one silver lining to the presence of the Weekend Update team at the convention. It wasn’t the actual Update segment that Che and Jost delivered; the most diplomatic way to assess that performance is to note that there have been much better teams who’ve taken on that job. Che-Jost is a ticket that still needs a lot of work.
But at least Kate McKinnon stopped by to do an electrifyingly goofy impression of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. As usual, through sheer presence and gonzo commitment, McKinnon made the bit work. Yet someone thought it made sense not to give the next 15 minutes of airtime to McKinnon, a breakout star of the biggest movie in America, but to have Matthews segue into that trainwreck of an interview with the Update guys. Whoever made that call, you’re fired.
HOLDING THEIR OWN
Trevor Noah is still playing catch-up in the late-night game. Samantha Bee, Stephen Colbert and John Oliver all have much higher profiles at the moment, and despite a respectable showing in two live “Daily Shows” from Cleveland, his version of the Comedy Central program is not yet solidly in the must-see camp.
Still, there’s been some improvement since the spring, and unlike Oliver, who excels at perfectly calibrated outrage, Noah is often at his best when dialing into his more serious side — and when the subject at hand matters to him. His conversation with former RNC chairman Michael Steele about whether Hillary Clinton is qualified to be president and whether he supports Trump were actually thoughtful and even a little dramatic. Noah was even more forceful after playing a clip of an African-American speaker at the RNC saying “All lives matter.” Thanks to how he incisively framed that and other racially charged aspects of the convention, he actually earned the right to his most memorable RNC-week punchline: “Get the f–k out of here.”
Noah’s weaknesses have included leaning into smugness and reeling off superficial, glib jokes without realizing that people tune into “The Daily Show” to see smart people use comedy to make substantial points and go for the political jugular. As Variety critic Sonia Saraiya noted on a piece on the show’s 20th anniversary, Noah too often seems “distant and uninvested in the material.” The good news is, old-school “Daily Show”-style research propped up some good RNC-week moments in which Noah showed Trump espousing positions the nominee later eviscerated Clinton for holding. A political show trial akin to the one Chris Christie bestowed on the convention Tuesday wasn’t necessarily a slam dunk, but it took a few steps in the right direction.
The most encouraging aspect of “The Daily Show” this week might be the excellent performance of the show’s deep bench of correspondents. Roy Wood Jr. remains the show’s secret weapon, and with his usual caustic ferocity, he incisively mined the experience of being one of the few black men at the RNC convention. Jordan Klepper was another standout, and his interview with a Trump-endorsing pastor was a gem that exposed the man’s pretzel logic.
Bee’s show on Monday was taped before the RNC convention really heated up, but TBS unleashed a mid-week special that was, to be honest, a little disappointing. Many shows struggled with the fact that so many fresh waves of surreal incidents kept rolling in that it was hard to keep up. By the time some late-night shows got to their Melania plagiarism jokes, several other weird events had already begun dominating the conversation. Hence watching a show about the “Full Frontal” staff’s bus trip to Cleveland felt anti-climactic, even though Bee and her field reporters wrung a few chuckles out of encounters with voters they met along the way. Regardless, “Full Frontal” is still must-see viewing, and this half-hour was clearly a holding action. If anything, it only increased anticipation for whatever finely honed wrath Bee will call down next Monday.
“The Late Show with Stephen Colbert”
If nothing else, I hope the past week has convinced CBS to Let Colbert Be Colbert. He doesn’t necessarily have to bring back the blowhard “Colbert” persona from “The Colbert Report” every week, but well-timed occasional visits would probably help the character retain his subversive effectiveness.
In any event, Colbert’s been on fire this week. Even his chats with celebrities promoting movies often touched on politics and current affairs, and throughout each hour, it certainly felt that Colbert was energized by having real targets in view. His Monday-night clip of Laura Benanti as a glazed Melania Trump denying plagiarism captured the bizarre nature of that controversy beautifully, and the rest of his live shows have similarly offered what many viewers need at the moment — comedic release during a scary, weird time.
Of course every week of 2016 won’t be this political, but in this election year, CBS would be wise to let Colbert be not just pointed but even merciless in his takedowns of current events and public figures. When Colbert is not just doing skits and interviews but also engaged in endeavors that have meaning for him, the show is transformed into something that is not only worth seeking out, it’s just funnier. His interview with an enraged Lewis Black this week was conducted with perfect pitch, and bits with Keegan-Michael Key and an on-location game of “Trump or False” with RNC delegates had a similarly almost-manic yet focused vibe. (It’s worth seeking out his entertaining interview with Key, who talked about the kinds of eye-rolls he hopes to see during the Trump-Clinton debates).
This week, “The Late Show” reminded me of the classic “Late Night” era of David Letterman. Not in delivery or vibe — Colbert and Letterman are very different personalities. But there was a sureness in Colbert this week, a feeling that he was hitting on most, if not all, cylinders. When Letterman was at his best, he did things that amused him and he didn’t care if anyone else liked it, which of course, typically made those offhand bits even funnier. Without breaking a sweat, he brought you into a fully realized comedic worldview.
Everything about Colbert’s energized RNC week has been carefully crafted, but also shot through with the immediacy and energy of a performer who’s doing what he wants to be doing, and doing it well. It’s the kind of confidence that was the hallmark of the best of the “Colbert Report,” which always was about something deeper and more important than just puncturing the egos of political windbags (though that was a priority, and a necessary one at that).
The skills Colbert sharpened during that time are on view this week, right when we need them. Colbert has a winning openness and curiosity, but he’s also a heat-seeking missile of highly focused, deeply amusing rage when he’s on his A-game. He can give viewers an aw-shucks, “I’m just a regular guy” talk-show host persona, and while he’s hosting CBS’ flagship late-night show, he’s got to supply that element. But when he combines that mode that with his curiosity, his intelligence and his willingness to follow a well-conceived bit to its lacerating conclusion, it’s really something to see. He’s an accomplished improviser who knows exactly where he wants his comedy to go, and that’s a rare thing indeed.