Even satirical talk show host Stephen Colbert, a man who’s built a career wringing humor out of the most dire of political situations, was at a loss for words Tuesday night as it became clear that Donald Trump, not Hillary Clinton, was going to become the next president of the United States.
“I can’t put a happy face on that, and that’s my job,” Colbert said halfway through his colorfully titled Showtime special, “Live Election Night Democracy’s Series Finale: Who’s Going to Clean Up This ….?”
The hour-plus show, which started at 8 p.m. on the West Coast, was intended to be a comedic close to one of the most contentious and divisive presidential campaigns in modern history.
The progressive-leaning Colbert, now the host of “The Late Show” on CBS, and his like-minded guests would have a largely uncensored cable television platform to lampoon an election that most every major pollster predicted Clinton would win.
This is a nail-biter and a passport-grabber.
Instead, the live broadcast captured Colbert’s unscripted devastation over the stunning outcome, and a realization that he was now more useful as a grief counselor for the left than as a comedian.
“This is a nail-biter and a passport-grabber,” Colbert half-joked to his groaning audience as more and more states began showing up red on the electoral map. “It feels like we’re trying to avoid the apocalypse, and half the country’s voting for the asteroid.”
Actor Jeff Goldblum and Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, co-creators of Showtime’s 2016 campaign documentary series “The Circus,” dropped all talk-show guest pretense and openly grappled with the idea of Trump as president.
“Outside of the Civil War, World War II, and including 9/11, this may be the most cataclysmic event the country’s ever seen,” said Halperin.
Colbert answered him with a now common refrain among Democrats: I’m just glad we all have each other right now. Yet his initially boisterous audience, who’d been asked to turn off their cellphones and avoid looking at election news before the show started filming, had gone from gasps to sheer silence as more bad news rolled in.
The Showtime special opened with a comparatively lighthearted, animated segment that poked fun at Trump’s rise, presumably a set-up for an election night that many felt would be his demise.
It was followed by a live stunt that included a near naked male model, meant to symbolize the freedom of cable over network TV, serving as a human delivery system for updated election results. He was to present them as they came in on a large index card taped over his penis, said Colbert.
Trump’s won Nebraska, the capitol of which is Lincoln, which is easy to remember because that’s who’s spinning in his grave right now.
It happened just once at the show’s opening, even though results were coming at a furious pace as Trump won state after state.
Colbert, a master at making light of the dark, was able to riff comedic for only half the show as he reported those results in real time: “The only safe headline right now is ‘Election Defeats America,’ ” he said as Clinton lost North Carolina.
“Trump’s won Nebraska,” he said, “the capitol of which is Lincoln, which is easy to remember because that’s who’s spinning in his grave right now.”
Mock commercials that had been pre-taped — such as a montage of absurd campaign moments — began to feel oddly flippant as the mood grew more and more somber.
Guest comedian Jena Friedman also found it impossible to be funny: “No one’s laughing. This is so sad and scary.” She recommended that women “get their abortions now” because in a Trump-run America, it would be illegal.
Comic radio and TV personality Charlamagne Tha God simply wanted to wipe the election slate and start over: “I want to pressure-wash this whole thing.”
Colbert tried to humor his joyless panel with “We didn’t become comedians because we had happy childhoods.”
You can opt out of voting, but you cannot opt out of the effects of your lack of action. It’s imperative to not lose heart.
Finally, though, Colbert did what he almost never does — dropped his host-master of ceremonies facade and became emotional as he spoke about the new political landscape. He spoke of his late mother’s dream of a female president, and how good it felt earlier in the day to vote at a grade school in his neighborhood.
“This is a moment for people to understand that political involvement is a responsibility,” he said. “It’s not just words on paper. You can opt out of voting, but you cannot opt out of the effects of your lack of action. It’s imperative to not lose heart.”
He used the last minutes of the show for an improvised monologue that was arguably one of the darkest and most challenging chapters in his television career.
Politics, he said, “have taken up precious brain space we could be using to remember all the things we have in common. So whether your side won or lost, we don’t have to do this ... again for a while,” he continued, trying to talk himself and the audience back up on their feet.
“We, as a nation, say we should never, ever have an election like this one again.
“Go out and kiss a Democrat, hug a Republican, give a Libertarian a …. I don’t care. The election is over. You survived. Good night and may God bless America.”
The show closed with the band playing “God Bless America,” and it sounded like a funeral dirge.
On Twitter: @LorraineAli