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