The joke (well, one of the jokes) about Joe Biden is that he’s a kid trapped in the body of a 74-year-old. All those memes that sprang up after the election—Joe, disbelieving; Joe, petulant; Joe, with his mischievous plans to prank the incoming administration—had fun with the idea that the vice president, despite his age and his governmental experience, also represents the kid in all of us. Who among us wouldn’t rather be, instead of whatever sad thing we’re doing right now, gleefully consuming some ice cream?
It’s a joke that found another permutation on Tuesday night, during Biden’s appearance on the Late Show With Stephen Colbert. The spot was the vice president’s first television appearance since the presidential election, and its interview portion contained much of the conversation you’d expect—about the election’s outcome (“I’ve been in a closet since then,” Biden joked), about whether he’d consider running in 2020 (definitely! not at all! maybe!), about the cancer moonshot he has been working on in memory of his son, Beau. Before all that conventionality, though, Biden’s appearance featured a sketch that poked fun at all those Man-Child Biden jokes by reversing them: It featured Biden, along with Colbert, playing a kind of national dad.
The set-up: Biden and Colbert, father figures in the vague manner of Mr. Rogers—dad-sweaters and all!—had convened the nation for a family meeting.
The sketch—it took the same, pseudo-fictional style as the ones Colbert did with Michelle Obama, and with Mel Gibson—takes its own, and its audience’s, partisanship for granted: It’s premised on the idea that the country has been misbehaving, and assumes that the people fit to chastise it for its shortcomings are Stephen Colbert and Joe Biden.
“Hey champ, how’re you doing?” the be-sweatered Biden asked the audience, and, by extension, the country.
“Look, Pops and I, we’ve been worried about all these sudden changes,” Colbert said (this was a tag-teamed family meeting). “We know that you’re worried about the changes the family’s going through.” Biden continued: “It happens to every family, but I’m telling you, this terrible feeling you’re having right now, it isn’t permanent.” He paused. “It’ll be over in four years, maybe eight.”
But it’s not just the open partisanship. The sketch seems to take for granted something else, too: that the Biden of The Onion and of the memes is no longer the Biden audiences, within the Ed Sullivan Theater and far beyond its walls, most want right now. That the time for jokes is over. Instead, the sketch figures, what disappointed Democrats really want—really need—in this moment is a dad, in the most figurative sense: a steady presence, a compassionate guide, a legitimate authority. The ice-cream eating was fun while it lasted, the Late Show is suggesting, but at some point we all—even, and especially, a 74-year-old grandfather—have to grow up.