It became a cliché during the primaries and the general election that Donald Trump had stumped comedians. He was too outlandish, too unpredictable, too unreal to mock. Any absurdity that a comedian could dream up and then deliver in a Trumpian drawl would be outdone the next day, by Trump himself. Since mockery didn’t really work, some shows like SNL and Jimmy Fallon resorted to flattery, inviting Trump on their shows and allowing him to appear as something like a standard, self-aware candidate.
It was during this period that Stephen Colbert became host of the The Late Show, following the end of David Letterman’s 33-year reign. Colbert had left behind the overblown caricature of a conservative pundit that he had played for years on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report — a character also called “Stephen Colbert” — and he was struggling to find his footing on the new show. He was a familiar face, but no longer a familiar personality. After years of cultivating an audience that expected sharp-edged, unrelenting irony, he had to figure out how to sell himself without a smirk.
It didn’t work, and his ratings were beginning to call his job stability into question. The turning point was election night, when Colbert performed a live show, surely expecting a Clinton victory. As it became clear that Trump was going to win, Colbert stopped trying to deliver jokes and instead communicated his confusion and anxiety. He ended with a powerful monologue about political polarization, and the toxicity of feeling morally superior to others.
Since the election, Colbert has found his element, once again as a furious satirist. He is at his best when tackling topics that are both monumentally important and deeply absurd. He is getting plenty of material, from Sean Spicer’s garbled equivocations to Trump’s improvisational interviews to the stumbling administration itself. The new Colbert is a disillusioned believer in the American Dream, someone who has not completely let go of his vision of the country, even though that country is letting him down in new, more hateful and more surreal ways each day. And his disappointment has granted a new power to his monologues — he is relevant in a way he hasn’t been in years, even during The Colbert Report. More and more people are coming to him to try to understand what is happening to their country.
So Trump’s victory was, in a way, an enormous gift to Colbert. It’s hard to imagine Colbert flourishing in the same way under a Clinton presidency because Colbert needs a villain to confront, not a vaguely compromised antihero. Some critics have presented an ungenerous way to read his comeback. In this narrative, Colbert takes advantage of a nation spiralling out of control and away from its most sacred beliefs, using the anxiety of this moment as a springboard to vault himself back into the spotlight, as a crusader against the very immorality that is granting his career a second life.
Colbert is certainly aware of the dependence of his success on upheaval and chaos. In a recent segment about Trump’s first 100 days, Colbert mocks the administration’s inability to follow through on its promises, and concludes, “I gotta say, Donald Trump has done a lot for me in the first 100 days.” He grins impishly, salutes and points at the camera: “Thank you for your service, Mr. President.” Then he shakes his arms around, laughs and says, “Aaaand now I feel dirty.”
And does he? Even if Colbert has won the late-night war, at least for now, by figuring out (belatedly) how to effectively make fun of Trump, he still shows telltale signs of discomfort. In the same first 100 days segment, Colbert quotes an interview in which Trump says that his ratings on CBS’s “Face the Nation” were, “The highest since the World Trade Center came down.” Colbert adds, in his Trump voice, “We’re blowing up. Bigger than anything since Nagasaki.” When the audience audibly cringes, Colbert grins sheepishly and explains, this time without the accent, “Again, I’m modeling the behavior of another person! This is not me speaking!”
It’s a fascinating moment, and one that speaks to Colbert’s awareness of his complicated position. His job hinges on making humor out of horrible things being done by horrible people, and part of that job often includes impersonating them. It’s a dirty business and he doesn’t execute it perfectly. But, if an entertainer is going to profit off of this moment, I would say we are lucky to have someone as thoughtful and incisive as Stephen Colbert to be making money out of misery.
Jack Jones is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column Despite All the Amputations runs alternate Thursdays this semester.