A couple of months after he left “The Late Show” in May 2015, David Letterman appeared onstage in San Antonio as the guest of Steve Martin and Martin Short in their “A Very Stupid Conversation …With Music.”
“I retired and I had no regrets,” he said. “None. I was happy. I was complacent. I was satisfied. I was content. And then a couple of days ago, Donald Trump said he was running for president. I have made the biggest mistake of my life, ladies and gentlemen.”
Retiring from “The Daily Show” that August, Jon Stewart was asked more than once whether there wasn’t some element of regret in leaving the stage at the moment this Moby Dick of comedy subjects was bearing into view. The assumption was there could be no greater joy for a comedian than to skewer such a tempting, juicy subject.
This May, on his podcast “The Axe Files,” former Obama advisor David Axelrod asked Stewart, “Do you wake up ever and say to yourself that this was some kind of big celestial joke on you that you announce your retirement from ‘The Daily Show,’ and I see when you did, you said it didn’t appear that there was going to be anything wildly different about this election year.... How’s that working for you now?”
With Stephen Colbert, who moved into Letterman’s seat in September, there was the question of whether in leaving “The Colbert Report,” and his conservative-pundit ironic alter ego, he also was somehow abandoning his audience, shirking his duty to topical humor at a crucial moment in history.
“One of the reasons I stopped the old show is that I had a sense where the country is,” Colbert said on “Face the Nation.” “I think people don’t really want constant divisiveness. I really don’t think they want that. And that’s what I was aping. And I thought, ‘Ah, I can’t really drink that cup anymore.’ ’Cause I don’t think people really want to hear it.”
And yet here we are on the verge of Donald Trump being named the Republican Party’s official candidate for the office of president of the United States. And not only is Colbert broadcasting live every night of the convention — here called the “2016 Trumpublican Donational Conventrump Starring Donald Trump as the Republican Party* (*May Contain Traces of Republican)” — in order to comment on the day’s proceedings and “to be the very first one to announce THE MOMENT America becomes great again,” but he corralled his old alter ego, and Stewart, his old “Daily Show” boss, to help him do it.
If you don’t share their feeling that you don’t recognize your country anymore, trust me, if Trump wins, you will.
There is a fine line between the ridiculous and the horrifying, and we need comics to walk it, for the sake of our own mental health. For some portion of the country — the portion that delights in hearing Trump described as “an Angry creamsicle,” “human-toupee hybrid,” “decomposing jack-o-lantern” or an “orange manatee,” as he was Monday night — Monday’s “Late Show” would have served as a tonic after a convention night arranged around the theme “Make America Safe Again.” Save for Melania Trump’s appearance, it was a program long — very long — on anger, grief, fear and aggression; another portion of the country, finding the convention quite different, and quite to their liking — and Colbert, not — won’t have watched at all.
Colbert began with a razzmatazz opening production, which included scenes shot in Cleveland before coming home to New York’s Ed Sullivan Theater. It might have been titled “Christmas in July” (it mixed patriotic themes with Santa hats), rhymed “Lincoln” with “drinkin’,” and included a couplet about RNC Chairman Reince Priebus huffing paint to ease the pain. A Trump-themed monologue, more whimsical than pointed, followed.
Then to the teased and bruited main business. Flummoxed beyond comprehension by the impending Trump nomination, Colbert set off to find Stewart, living in a cabin in the woods — a nice piece of prop-department handicraft. “I know that you and your beard are very busy these days,” said Colbert, asking for his help; Stewart demurred. An elaborate buildup led to the news that Trump would be the candidate, followed by a spit take, followed by Stewart’s fetching the “Colbert Report” Colbert.
“Hello, friend,” pundit Colbert told his unaltered ego. “I’m sorry I can’t help you. Jon and I are very happy living off the grid, making jerky and canning our own urine for the end times.” But informed that Trump was the nominee (spit take number two), “Colbert Report” Stephen took the “Late Show” stage, arriving in a chariot pulled by shirtless Uncle Sams in flag-striped boxers, while women in Greek gowns strewed rose petals in his way.
“Hello nation,” he began. “Did you miss me?” By the sound of the response, yes. To address “the brave new world of American democrace-me,” he brought out the old “Colbert Report” feature “The Word,” whose theme was “Trumpiness.” Playing both sides of the question to an unambiguous end, as was that character’s special power, he declared the Trump candidacy “an emotional megaphone for voters full of rage at government that achieves nothing,” adding, “if you don’t share their feeling that you don’t recognize your country anymore, trust me, if Trump wins, you will.”
Although it was fine to see “Colbert Report” Stephen back again — one assumes we have not seen the last of him this week, nor, Colbert teased, of Stewart — even better was a tour of the convention hall Colbert conducted in person as the blue-wigged, stuffed-weasel-carrying “Hungry For Power Games” character, Caesar Flickerman. Flickerman is also a character in “The Hunger Games.”
“Welcome to the arena, citizens,” he said, “so grand it could almost hold Donald Trump’s entire head…. The red carpet of course is here to hide the rivers of blood that will eventually flow down from the cornucopia.” He pointed out the seat being held “for Chris Christie to have the best possible view of the end of his career,” joked with a Telemundo reporter about walls and shouted to up to the NBC press booth, “Chuck Todd! Have Matt Lauer washed and brought to my tent! My weasel wants to make love to your goatee!”
Finally, he was escorted from the podium — cellphone footage of this had made its way onto the Internet the day before — saying, “I know I’m not supposed to be up here, but let’s be honest, neither is Donald Trump.”