Stephen Colbert, Anxiety Translator

In his opening monologue on Monday night, the CBS host found the line between comedy and tragedy.

CBS / YouTube

In a story for Vulture published yesterday, titled “How Stephen Colbert Got His Groove Back,” Josef Adalian has an intriguing and detailed analysis of all the factors that have contributed to Colbert’s recent resurgence in the ratings. These include: learning not to micromanage, getting more comfortable with incorporating aspects of his Colbert Report persona after an initial vault away from the character, and—most notably—a Trump bump. Compared with Jimmy Fallon, Adalian writes, Colbert’s brand of political comedy seems perfectly attuned to the current moment of crisis for liberal viewers:

Fallon’s show hasn’t suffered from any obvious decline in quality. But with so much of the country obsessed with politics and the fate of the free world, Fallon’s brand of fun and games — while still plenty popular — just feels less … relevant. As [CBS CEO Leslie] Moonves told attendees of the Deutsche Bank Media and Telecom Conference last week, with Trump in the White House, “People want to see social commentary at the end of the night. They don’t want to see fun and games.”

Colbert’s particular success in this moment, though, isn’t just about social commentary. Rather, it’s that he seems better suited than other late-night hosts to tap into the emotional vein of existential anxiety and frustration coursing through his blue-state viewers. This was on display two weeks ago when he borrowed Patrick Stewart to stage a Beckettian cold open about waiting for the Republican healthcare plan. And it was even more obvious in Monday night’s opening monologue, in which Colbert lampooned, variously: that selfsame healthcare plan, Paul Ryan’s folksy pitilessness, Sean Spicer’s claim that you should take Trump seriously as long as he isn’t joking, and Kellyanne Conway’s defense of the president’s claims that the Obama administration tapped his phones, via a baffling statement about “microwaves that turn into cameras.”

Delivering the monologue, Colbert appeared weary, even worn out. He was cynical (“Speaking of crazy balls, the GOP’s healthcare plan came out this week”). His indictment of Ryan was particularly brutal, mocking the speaker’s use of the word “gosh” in a statement about people losing their insurance. “Well gosh,” Colbert said. “Gee willikers, I need chemo, and cheese and crackers, I can’t afford to go to the doctor, and holy Toledo, I should have identified my next of kin, because fiddlesticks, I’m dead. Doesn’t sound so bad when it’s folksy!”

In jokes like this, Colbert isn’t just mocking the administration for its failings, although to be fair, he manages that too. He’s pinpointing the egregious chasms between the populist rhetoric of Trump and the cut-spending-at-all-costs Republican orthodoxy of the last eight years. And, more acutely, he’s also vilifying the cruelty involved in treating healthcare as a simple numbers game, rather than policy that has drastic, life-or-death ramifications. It’s comedy that identifies the absurdity of political infighting and encourages people to laugh at it, while also recognizing how serious its impact could be.

This isn’t incisive social commentary veiled in humor, or even anger manifested as cathartic outbursts. The joke is how terrible everything is. Colbert is America’s sad clown, digesting the anxiety of (at least half of) the nation, and making it both comprehensible and palatable as humor. Toward the end of the monologue, the host pointed to a microwave that Obama was supposedly using (according to Conway) to spy on the show. “Excuse me, my hot pocket’s done,” he said. Then, into the microwave—and the camera—he whispered, “By the way, President Obama, I miss you.” A joke, yes, but also not a joke at all.