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Stephen Colbert’s Election Night Special Was Even Worse If You Were In the Room

Colbert's uncensored special was an awkward attempt to wrestle comedy out of a dark situation. Here's what it was like to be there.

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Stephen Colbert during the taping of his Showtime election special

Showtime

Stephen Colbert’s election-night Showtime special, “Who’s Going To Clean Up This Sh*t?”, provided an unwieldy subtitle for a humorless situation. It was a bewildering attempt at comedy, and even more depressing for those in the studio. Sitting with my partner in the audience at the Ed Sullivan Theater, the wannabe fun ride felt more like being trapped in an escape room without the proper key.

Liberated from the censorship constraints of his late-night CBS show, Colbert could swear as much as he wanted, but no language was extreme enough to convey the audience’s despair. In his Comedy Central days, Colbert excelled at transforming the inane means by which fear and anger mangle logic by coining the term truthiness, the tendency for something to seem right even if it fell short of the truth. At the Showtime taping, the prevailing mood was funereal uncertainty that felt wrong — and yet, in ways left mostly unspoken, the crowd agreed that it was just right.

Outside the studio, Colbert’s team assembled a “Screaming Booth,” where pedestrians popped in to holler away. Inside the theater, the atmosphere was eerily contained. Colbert struggled to find humor in an increasingly despondent situation and the audience slowly sunk with him. The fixed nature of the program — the guests, the sappy one-liners, Colbert’s occasional unbleeped f-bomb — felt totally out of sync with a combustible scenario that caught everyone by surprise. Being in a studio audience for a show watched around the country should feel exciting; instead, a claustrophobic gloom percolated for the duration of the night. 

Before the show started, Colbert held his usual Q&A with the audience. Trump was already way up in the polls. One woman asked, “Is crying allowed?” (Colbert deflected the question with, “There’s no crying in baseball.”) Another asked how he was holding up. “I’m fine,” he said. “I was there in 2000 with Bush and Gore, so…” And as he trailed off, words failed him. (Eventually he landed on, “Ask me in 32 days.”) It was an unsettling moment that didn’t make it to broadcast, but it defined the vibe for the rest of the evening. Even Colbert couldn’t wrestle punchlines from a train wreck.

Not that the audience asked much of him. Colbert’s greatest asset became his role as a court jester. Just before the show began, an audience member shouted, “Sing the song from ‘Hamilton’!” Not missing a cue, he delivered a snappy rendition of “The Room Where It Happens,” in which Aaron Burr expresses his deep-seated desire to participate in a momentous decision to move the location of the nation’s capital. Still, the jazzy tune didn’t lighten the air so much as tinge it with sadness. This room was bright and colorful, but the undercurrents of desperation meant it wasn’t the place anyone wanted to be.

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Jeff Goldblum and Stephen Colbert during the Showtime election special

Nevertheless, Colbert provided a welcome contrast to warmup comedian Paul Mercurio, whose frat-boy energy proved especially grating on the eve of a Trump victory. As Mercurio drew audience members to the stage for icebreakers, he pulled one young woman into the spotlight as she squinted and squirmed. “So, do you have a boyfriend?” he asked. “No,” she replied. “I’m a lesbian.” The audience, eager to celebrate something, briefly applauded; she looked ill. “Do you need to lie down?” Mercurio asked, and she briefly obliged, sprawling out at the base of Colbert’s desk for a brief moment while Mercurio took her picture.

For much of the evening, Colbert looked like he could have benefited from a similar break. As he barreled through one segment after another, he appeared baffled each time new results came in, struggling to find a way forward while thinking through ramifications in real-time. Clearly prepped to celebrate the election of the first female president, he was instead processing the rise of a buffoon he’d spent months lampooning to the point where the very idea of victory had been obscured by the refuge of satire.

While Colbert’s delivered a stellar performance with his old team at “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” on previous election nights, here they seemed ill prepared to adapt to the dark situation in real time. A crass bit in which an actress playing Melania Trump spoke to Colbert from Trump Tower had a resoundingly empty quality as viewers contemplated the real McCoy becoming First Lady. The show’s animated opening sequence, which positioned the rise of Trump in hyperbolic movie-villain terms, looked more like a statement of fact than an embellishment. 

As a result, the show brought the apotheosis of Colbert’s identity crisis in the public eye: More than a year after he retired the exaggerated neocon character he pioneered on Comedy Central, he was stuck between the role of a funnyman and the reality checks he clearly wanted to provide. Off-camera, his producers often tossed him updates, and the crowds kept reacting in horror. After his pre-show intro, however, he never acknowledged an electoral map projected on the ceiling of the room, hanging over all of us.

The one bright spot came from Jeff Goldblum, who surfaced early on to resurrect his character’s “chaos theory” from “Jurassic Park” in new terms. No longer would “life find a way;” now it was “Trump finds a way.” Goldblum’s majestic overstatement can often veer into camp, which explains some of his acting choices, but it turned out that his exuberance was exactly what the audience needed — an excuse to go down the rabbit hole to a world of ridiculousness that could shield us from the horrors outside.

Later, Goldblum returned to chat with Colbert. The actor lamented his efforts to get out the vote in Ohio and suggested that he found some solace in making the effort. Then he struck gold, recalling the Oscar-winning song “It Goes Like It Goes” from “Norma Rae.” As band leader John Batiste played along on the piano, Goldblum sang a few gentle lines, culminating with the tender lyric, “Maybe what’s bad gets gone.” It was the sort of sobering, cathartic moment that only pure beauty can provide.

We needed that — especially after political experts Mark Halperin and John Heileman came out to provide grim results as they came in. (Halperin struck the scariest note of the program when he called Trump’s inevitable election “the greatest catastrophe since 9/11.”) The show ended with an unseemly panel that included Heileman alongside comedians Charlemagne Tha God and Jena Friedman, all whom sounded angry, baffled, and basically incapable of expressing a cogent thought. “Get your abortions now,” Friedman said, rolling her eyes.

Irony was sputtering, and Colbert did what he could to make the most of it. He delivered a sweet but rambling monologue about the school near his home where Buzz Aldrin grew up, then he returned to his desk for a more pointed closing speech that briefly excelled at expressing the emotional tenor of the night with a mixture of terror, surprise, and a touch of irreverence.

“By every metric, we are more divided than ever as a nation,” he said. “We now feel the way Rudy Giuliani looks.” And then, a shrewd metaphor. “How did our politics get so poisonous? I think we overdosed this year on too much of the poison. You take a little bit so you can hate the other side. You like how it feels … and you know you’re right, right?” Having diagnosed the problem, he resorted to a series of cheeky jokes (“Everyone agrees, work email sucks”), offered a few patriotic words of encouragement, and called it a night.

With the script gone and the audiences filing to the door, Colbert took a feeble stab at rousing the audience one last time. “I meant what I said. I wasn’t just trying to be a positive person,” he said. “This is a beautiful country. We’re all going to be all right. Good night.”

Still, blunt compassion can go only go so far in the midst of a catastrophe. My partner and I wandered through midtown in a daze. Once home, we sat in silence in our living room. It was getting late, but we couldn’t sleep. On a whim, we turned on the television — and there, found the catharsis that had eluded us all night: PBS had made its two-part series “The Story of Cats” available to stream.

We cackled at the show’s dramatic portrait of adorable felines — cat people, you have got to make time for this thing — particularly one pivotal moment when a tiny Pallas cat creeps on the terrain of a hulking snow leopard. For a fleeting moment, our deep-seated frustrations melted away. We were finally amused together.

I was reminded of the scene in Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels,” when a group of downtrodden prisoners crack up as the wardens play a cartoon. The role of entertainment can be easily dismissed in light of dreary circumstances, but at its best it has the power to give us exactly what we need. When culture does its job, it can inform, console, distract, or catalyze an evolution in our relationship to the world. But more than anything else, it unites us in difficult times. Whistling past the graveyard has its appeal, but with the right company we can stay outside its clutches altogether.

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