Whenever Stephen Colbert has needed to give his Late Show a shot in the arm over the past year and a half, he has called on his old friend and mentor Jon Stewart to stop by and share with the world his latest views on the state of American politics.
On Tuesday night, on the heels of a futile right-wing effort to get him fired for mocking President Trump, Colbert one-upped himself by assembling an all-star team of his former Daily Show colleagues that included not just Stewart, but also two of the most potent political voices on late-night television today: Samantha Bee and John Oliver. Then, for good measure, he threw in correspondents-turned-movie stars Rob Corddry and Ed Helms.
It was a bold show of force in defense of satire that comes as the FCC chairman has stated that he will investigate whether Colbert’s joke at the president’s expense was “obscene” and take “appropriate action” if necessary. And the old friends did not hesitate to take the president to task.
After a cold open that found Colbert and Stewart competing for Trevor Noah’s affection, the host began his reunion in earnest by taking a trip down memory lane to his last day working at The Daily Show. “I can’t put it into words, but I can put it into flashback,” he joked.
The sketch that followed brought Colbert and his colleagues back to a simpler time, the summer of 2005. “There comes a time when a man has to do something completely different,” he said to himself. “The same character, half an hour later, half a block away. Courage.”
Bee was the first to enter, telling Colbert she couldn’t believe he was leaving the show in the middle of the George W. Bush administration. “There’s never going to be another president this good for comedy,” she said, echoing the joke that Will Ferrell made as Bush during her Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner event last month. “I mean, this guy does something ridiculous like at least once a month.” The one thing she said she knew for sure is that “there is no scenario in which I will ever say, ‘God I wish George W. Bush is president.’”
“I can’t believe you’re leaving us, Stephen, it’s crazy,” Helms added. “It’s like Beyoncé leaving Destiny’s Child. We’re never going to hear from her again.”
“We’re fighting over which one of us gets your office,” Corddry said. “I’m all ready to hang up my poster of my two favorite comedians: Bill Cosby and Subway spokesman Jared Fogel.”
Since Oliver did not join The Daily Show until a year after Colbert left, he played the part of Steve Carell, who was off shooting a movie and couldn’t make it. Wondering why they needed to do a new show every day, Stewart told him, “You could cover everything you need to say about politics in half an hour on a Sunday night!”
Before moving on, they all put their hands in the center of the circle for their pre-show prayer: “Go… liberal agenda!”
In the second half of the show, all five Daily Show alums sat down with Colbert to mostly continue making inside jokes, but also discuss how the business of making jokes about comedy has changed since they were all doing it together more than a decade ago. Stewart began by calling out the elephant in the room: Colbert’s “potty mouth.”
“That I do,” Colbert admitted. “But might I say, I learned it from you, Dad.” After mentioning the fact that Stewart has a farm in New Jersey now, he asked, “On a night like this, when James Comey has just been fired, do you miss, you know, doing a show like this? Because you used to, you know, talk about bullshit. Now you literally shovel it.”
“There are nights where I find myself sort of impotently shouting into the abyss, which if you think about it, wasn’t that different from what I did on a nightly basis,” Stewart said. He explained that making the show every night became “entwined” with his ability to “make sense” of the news, so he does miss that aspect of it. “But the things that I’ve gained in terms of time spent with family and things like that, I wouldn’t give up.”
Stewart weighed in briefly on Bill O’Reilly’s firing, but ultimately had more to say about the latest controversies surrounding Colbert.
“The things you say, even if they’re crass or even if they are in some ways not respectful enough to the office of the presidency, we can insult, he can injure,” Stewart told Colbert. “It’s the difference between insult and injury. And for the life of me I do not understand why in this country we try to hold comedians to a standard we do not hold leaders to. It’s bizarre.”
When the rest of the correspondents joined them and sat down on a specially built set of couches and chairs, Colbert prefaced things by saying, “I want to start off by saying this arrangement we have right now is exactly something we would have made fun of on The Daily Show. Because it look likes a morning show right now.”
“I think the thing I’m proudest of from The Daily Show was diversity,” Stewart joked. Notably missing were any of the non-white performers, like Larry Wilmore, Wyatt Cenac, Jessica Williams and others, who joined the show only after Colbert had left.
After playing a highlight reel of some very early field pieces, Colbert asked Stewart if he ever “felt bad” sending correspondents out to do such outrageous things. “No, I enjoyed it and would try and heighten it,” he answered.
“I had to flee the Klan one night,” Colbert recalled. “That was my second field piece.”
Finally, before saying goodbye to his compatriots, Colbert said, “I want to thank all of you guys for being here. This is what it was like to hang out backstage for years at The Daily Show.” Pointing to Stewart, he added, “I wouldn’t have this gig or any gig if it hadn’t been for this man.”
The same could be said by so many of the most vital comedic voices in political satire today.