On Tuesday, just after President Donald Trump announced that Judge Neil Gorsuch would be his nominee to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, Jon Stewart made an appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. The segment was, all in all, just like old times. Stewart emerged, at the desk of his old colleague from The Daily Show, wearing a faux animal pelt perched awkwardly on his head; he sported a clip-on red tie of comic length. (“I thought this is how men dress now,” Stewart explained of the accessory.) Stewart proceeded to procure a leather-bound folder from behind Colbert’s desk, announcing that he had, exclusively, discovered the new president’s next round of executive orders.
Stewart proceeded to read the order to Colbert’s cheering audience, with clownish melodrama. (Number one: The United States will import our border wall with Mexico from China. Number three: “Every instinct and fiber of my pathological self-regard calls me to abuse of power. I want—no, deserve—not just your respect, but your adoration.”) In the process, Stewart made jokes about the president’s pronunciation of “China.” He took every opportunity to declare, with Trumpian bravado, “It’s the best.”
The appearance was zany. It was slapstick. It was vaguely juvenile. And it had, underneath it all, an earnest and urgent message to share.
Which is to say that it was the stuff of the old, Stewart-hosted Daily Show—on, as it happens, CBS. As The Daily Show itself becomes just a little more subtle, and a little less wacky, in its comedy, it’s been Colbert, often, who has kept the DNA of the Stewart-hosted version of the show alive … on late-night network TV. As the Republican presidential primary was, last year, in full swing, Colbert mocked its bustling field of candidates with a vaguely Vaudevillian take on The Hunger Games: the “Hungry for Power Games.” Riffing on that classic Samantha Bee sketch for The Daily Show, Colbert mocked 2016’s undecided voters with the help of a MAGA-cap-wearing Rob Lowe. Colbert referred to Rudy Giuliani, after the former New York mayor accused Hillary Clinton of having an undisclosed illness, as “a man with his head up his own ass.”
Impudence, imprudence, lols: On his show, Colbert has, often, been doing the stuff of basic cable, but on a network. But what’s most Daily Show-esque about the Late Show in the series’ latest incarnation—whether it features Colbert riffing or Stewart guesting or a slapstick political segment—isn’t necessarily the assorted antics of the people onstage. It’s their audiences. One of the Daily Showiest things about the old Daily Show was the sense of community it fostered: communal indignation, communal outrage, communal identity. And the lols Colbert provokes, too, suggest that kind of in-group quality: His jokes are pitched to a knowing crowd, and a partisan crowd. A crowd that will find Rudy Giuliani being referred to as “a man with his head up his own ass”—which is not so much a joke as a fairly straightforward insult—laugh-out-loud funny.
That’s on the one hand neither new or surprising; late-night comedy is becoming steadily politicized, along with so many other elements of current pop culture. Still, though, the shift is remarkable. It used to be that late-night comedy aspired in its politics, to the extent that it aspired to any kind of politics at all, to a certain bigness and broadness. It went out of its way to be non-partisan. Its comic-hosts mocked politicians, certainly, but they generally did so with equal-opportunity irreverence. Carson mocked Carter as readily as he teased Reagan. Letterman had as much fun at the expense of George W. Bush as he did at the expense of Barack Obama (and more still at the expense of Bill Clinton). So did Jay Leno.
Jimmy Fallon, last year, was roundly criticized for his hair-rumplingly friendly treatment of then-candidate Trump; Fallon was operating, however, in the old tradition of network late-night TV: He was offering up a teasing of his guest that was light and frothy and, above all, equal-opportunity.
Equal-opportunity, however, is a rarer and rarer thing in late-night comedy, which is becoming, like so much else in pop culture, steadily more political in its outlook. The late-night show, of course, takes on the character of its host; The Tonight Show under Fallon has the aw-shucks air of the omni-talented comedian; Jimmy Kimmel Live! has adopted, overall, the impish quality of its eponymous prankster; Late Night with Seth Meyers offers a sharply satiric take on the day’s news and entertainments. And hosts are finding it, it seems, increasingly difficult to eschew partisan politics, to place their shows within a tent that is even bigger than the big one. They’re often rejecting the nonpartisan fun-poking of the past for more substantial, and opinionated, fare. Meyers grilled Kellyanne Conway. Trevor Noah, on the newly sober(er) version of The Daily Show, debated Tomi Lahren. Samantha Bee is weaving political outrage into nearly every joke she makes on Full Frontal. John Oliver has doubled as an activist.
And Stephen Colbert, who shed his old Comedy Central persona when he moved to CBS, is not only reviving that character when the occasion warrants; he’s also inviting Jon Stewart to his couch to mock—and bemoan—President Trump. Stewart referred to the nation’s new chief executive as “Donald J. Lincoln Kennedy Trump the Third.” He proclaimed that, per the nation’s new chief executive, the United States has a new official language: “bull[bleep].” Stewart mixed, in classic Daily Show style, satire and slapstick. But he also, in classic Daily Show style, had a civic message to share. “It is going to take,” Stewart, as the president, intoned, “relentless stamina, vigilance, and every institutional check and balance this great country can muster to keep me, Donald J. Trump, from going full Palpatine.”
At that point, Stewart, as “Trump,” turned away from Colbert to face the Late Show camera—and the show’s audience, in the studio and beyond. “No one action will be adequate,” Stewart said, his expression grave. “All actions will be necessary. And if we do not allow Donald Trump to exhaust our fight, and somehow come through this presidency calamity-less and constitutionally partially intact, then I, Donald J. Trump, will have demonstrated the greatness of America—just not the way I thought I was gonna.” The crowd broke into applause. They were cheering Stewart’s satire, sure; they were also cheering, however, the political convictions that underscored the joke. As Stewart had told them earlier, after they laughed at the animal pelt he had strapped onto his head: “People! This nation is in crisis! This is serious.”