What began as a lark ended up as a wake—or, even less jolly, a grim and gritty burial for commonly accepted notions of American democracy.
Stephen Colbert’s live Election Night Showtime special—presented on the premium cable network because CBS News’s coverage of Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton had preempted his regular Late Show—initially offered plenty of jokes.
“You don’t need to stand for me. You don’t need to chant for me. America doesn’t have dictators—yet,” he quipped to an audience at the Ed Sullivan Theater, including this writer, that had greeted him with shouts of “Stephen! Stephen!”
The show opened with what seemed in the moment—and certainly in retrospect, given the astonishing developments of Tuesday night and Wednesday morning—a savage animated satire of President Obama’s ruthless mockery of Trump at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. The cartoon comically portrayed Trump’s late real estate-magnate father, Fred, as an ogre who psychically abused his son as a “loser,” prompting Donald to redeem his self-esteem by running for president of the United States.
One shudders at Trump’s reaction when, as and if, he ever sees it; with any luck, he won’t have time.
But the festivities took a deadly serious turn around midway through, when John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, the Siskel and Ebert of U.S. politics as hosts of the weekly Showtime campaign series The Circus, came on to chat about the vote totals.
“Let me ask you a technical question,” Colbert asked Halperin as he offered both men plastic cups containing what he described as strongly mixed Old Fashioneds. “What the fuck is happening?”
(The late-night host made liberal use of the sort of four-letter words allowed on cable but bleeped on CBS. After all, the title of his special was Democracy’s Series Finale: Who’s Going to Clean Up This Shit? At one point a stark-naked young man with the washboard abs of a Chippendale dancer marched onstage bearing an index card covering his genitals—it announced the Florida election victory of Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. And the host introduced himself to the crowd as “Stephen Fucking Colbert.”)
Here’s how Halperin answered Colbert’s “technical question,” an answer that cast an instant pall over the proceedings: “My sense is that this audience will not particularly like this, but he’s [meaning Trump] is now the frontrunner… He has more paths now to 270 electoral votes than she does.”
“When I came in here, Florida had not been called,” Colbert noted.
“It still has not been called,” Heilemann agreed, “but it looks like the lead that he has is going to be too much for her to surmount.”
Mentioning the nominally blue states of Wisconsin and Michigan, where Clinton had been expected to run the table, Halperin declared: “He’s ahead in both. If he wins them both, he’s president.”
The response was a collective moan, mixed with gasps, from an audience largely composed of Columbia University students—the sort of millennials who’d fervently supported Bernie Sanders and confronted the prospect of President Hillary Clinton with nose-holding gestures of disgust and disdain.
A few minutes later, as the Republican nominee was indeed in the process of bagging Florida and then, later, the glittering prize of Pennsylvania—which was supposed to be Clinton’s firewall, placing the former reality-show star within striking distance of the Oval Office and the nuclear codes—actor Jeff Goldblum, who’d been campaigning for Clinton, sat himself in the guest chair beside Colbert’s desk.
“I’m very frightened. I’m very alarmed. I’m sobered and upset,” he acknowledged. Pulling fretfully at his left ear, Goldblum added: “I can’t believe it. I’m in shock. I’m in shock! But I’m trying my best to navigate. Look. Horrible things will happen to me. To all of us.”
“Sure! Exactly!” Colbert chimed in, to rising laughter. “That’s the happiest thought I can think of! Perhaps something worse than this will happen to me one day!”
In due course stagehands brought in an election anchor desk for what was surely intended by Colbert’s writers and producers as a lighthearted satirical take on the day, a la CNN’s revolving panel of campaign surrogates and talking heads.
But radio host Lenard McKelvey, who performs under the moniker “Charlemagne Tha God,” quickly subverted that concept.
“Congratulations, America! You fucked this one up!” he shouted.
When Colbert asked stand-up comic Jena Friedman how she was feeling—because “I don’t think thoughts are very helpful right now,” he explained—she told him: “I feel as if I’m about to give birth to a baby that’s already dead.”
As much stunned as amused, Colbert said over nervous laughter, “That’s the panel discussion you can have only on Showtime!”
Heilemann, a third panelist, announced that The New York Times, which had been assigning odds throughout the evening to Trump’s becoming the next president, had just upped the likelihood of that eventuality to 95 percent.
Friedman, meanwhile, acknowledged: “No one’s laughing. This is so sad and scary… This feels like an asteroid has just smacked into our democracy. It’s so sad and scary and heartbreaking. I wish I could be funny. Get your abortions now, because we’re going to have to live with it.”
At which Colbert laughingly pointed out that the Showtime special would be re-aired in broadcast-friendly form as a Late Show installment this Friday on CBS. “I’m not sure which parts will be edited out, but I’ve got some idea,” he joked.
As the show ran past its allotted one-hour, Colbert stood behind his desk and delivered an impassioned sermon about the divisive nature of American politics, his formative exposure growing up as a kid to the damaging cynicism of Vietnam and Watergate, and the wish of his late Republican mother in South Carolina to see Hillary Clinton elected before she died at age 92—a dream she, nor anyone else, would ever realize.
“So how did our politics get so poisonous?” Colbert asked. “I think it’s because we overdosed—especially this year. We drank too much of the poison. You take a little bit of it so you can hate the other side. And it tastes kinda good and you like how it feels. And there’s a gentle high to the condemnation, and you know you’re right.”
A few hours later, in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, Donald Trump addressed his raucous supporters in his victory speech as the president-elect.