On Monday evening, Stephen Colbert, television host and comedian, engaged in some light explanation of the political and cultural significance of the alt-right movement in the United States. Colbert, in the opening monologue of the Late Show, summarized for his audience the meaning of Steve Bannon, Trump’s newly appointed chief of White House strategy. “Bannon is considered a leader of what’s known as the alt-right,” Colbert said—“an extreme online movement with ties to white supremacy.” The comedian paused. “Here’s how to understand the alt-right: Think about what’s right, then think about the alternative to that.”
Bannon, Colbert added, for more context, “is best known for running something called Breitbart News. If you’ve never read Breitbart, it’s the news your racist uncle gets sent to him by his racist uncle.”
It was a recycled joke—“if you haven’t heard of Breitbart News,” Colbert declared in August, “that means you do not have a racist uncle on Facebook”—but one that has taken on renewed relevance now that the man who provides the news to the racist uncles of the racist uncles finds himself in a position to influence American policy. It was also a joke that hinted at what Colbert’s show will look like during a Trump administration: indignant, explanatory, vaguely journalistic, highly partisan. The stuff of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, ported over to network TV.
Late-night comedy has revolved around political humor for decades. Traditionally, though, the jokes offered up by the likes of Leno and Letterman and O’Brien were decidedly bipartisan in their flavor: They were focused on mocking those in power, regardless of their political party or affiliation. Clinton and his Big Macs, George W. Bush and his misunderestimations, Barack Obama and his dad jeans … the jokes, in general, were light of tone and bipartisan of scope, offering not just low-key lols, but also a reassurance to their audiences that things can’t be that bad, because, hey, we can still laugh, right?
Colbert, though, has long chafed—just a little—against those “please everyone, the country is big and this is network TV” mandates. Colbert is partisan. He is passionate. He is principled. And he has tried to find ways, in the year-and-change since he first became a late-night host on network TV, to combine all those truths in a way that simultaneously satisfies himself/his audience/his CBS bosses—one persona, basically, to rule them all. In that attempt, Colbert has experimented with emphatic humanism; he has taken refuge in role-playing (as The Hunger Games’s Caesar Flickerman, paying tribute to the fallen of the 2016 campaign); he has taken refuge in the past (as his Comedy Central alter-ego, “Stephen Colbert”).
On Monday, though, Colbert played the most powerful character of all: himself. He played the role of a Catholic, coastal Democrat who is frightened and horrified and still processing what happened last week. He played the role of someone who is commiserating, openly and emotionally, with his audience. He used the word “we” a lot. He took his own, and his viewers’, partisanship for granted. “Now, we are all surprised that Trump is going to be president,” Colbert said in his monologue, as the crowd cheered him on. “It’s weird. It just feels weird.”
It was an echo of the sentiments he expressed on Wednesday, the day after the election. “You know, I’m a man of some faith,” he told his audience, then. “But when bad things happen like this—and this does feel bad—I’ve got to ask, How could God let this happen?”
He added: “We have to accept that Donald Trump will be the 45th president of the United States,” Colbert told his audience on Wednesday, the day after the election.
The crowd booed, loudly.
“No, no listen,I get that feeling completely,” Colbert said. “I just had to say it one more time … I just have to keep saying it until I can say it without throwing up in my mouth a little bit.”
Monday’s show continued that vom-com ethic—this time, though, it did it with facts and evidence. Colbert laid into Bannon. He listed, for his audience, some of the headlines that Breitbart ran while the site was under the direction of Bannon:
WHY EQUALITY AND DIVERSITY DEPARTMENTS SHOULD HIRE ONLY RICH, STRAIGHT WHITE MEN
WOULD YOU RATHER YOUR CHILD HAD FEMINISM OR CANCER?
HOIST IT HIGH AND PROUD: THE CONFEDERATE FLAG PROCLAIMS A GLORIOUS HERITAGE
BILL KRISTOL: REPUBLICAN SPOILER, RENEGADE JEW
And then, Colbert addressed the matter of fear—the fear being felt not just by people who may be deported under a President Trump, but by people of all races and creeds and genders who, at this point, have no idea what to expect from a Trump administration. Colbert made a joke about the “illegal alien” ET. But then he got more serious. “Don’t be afraid,” Colbert said, aping the message of the president-elect. “That’s kind of serial-killer talk. I don’t remember any new president ever having to say that out loud.” He paused. “After all, it was FDR who said, ‘We have nothing to fear, don’t be afraid, it puts the lotion on its skin.’”
“I’m paraphrasing! I’m paraphrasing, obviously,” Colbert said. “I’m not a historian.”
He’s not. But he is a pundit, in his way. He has a platform that gives him political influence. The stakes are higher than they’ve ever been. And late-night comedy, like so much else in the country, will likely be forever changed by a Trump presidency. “Don’t stop speaking up,” Colbert told his viewers the day after the election, choosing civics over comedy. “Don’t stop speaking your mind. Don’t ever be cowed by what happens in the next four years.”
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