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Stephen Colbert couldn’t hold it together on live TV

“I wouldn’t wanna be alone right now.”

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Stephen Colbert didn’t think she would lose.

You could tell from the way he paced the stage at the start of his live election night special, which aired on Showtime, the corporate, premium cable cousin of his usual network, CBS. There was an extra jitter to his walk, and the jokes — which had clearly been written for a 2012-esque evening where, by the time the special began, Hillary Clinton was expected to be on her way to a small but decisive victory — fizzled. Colbert’s audience laughed, but there was no enthusiasm.

It was never clear just how much Colbert knew. He was live, without a net, unable to browse Twitter on his phone. But when his voice hitched, just a bit, on “I believe there are no red states or blue states,” you could tell he was suppressing something dark within himself.

Democracy’s Series Finale: Who’s Going To Clean Up This Sh*t? wasn’t precisely good television. It wasn’t cathartic television, of the sort Colbert so regularly delivered during his Comedy Central years. But it was riveting television. It was watching Democrats’ mask slip, just a little bit, to reveal a raw horror and sadness beneath.

I didn’t think she would lose either.

“I’m so glad you guys are here. I wouldn’t wanna be alone right now.”

Stephen Colbert’s Live Election Night Democracy’s Series Final...

Colbert's #ElectionNight opening monologue will be streamed LIVE... and uncensored! *This contains mature content. Viewer discretion advised.

Posted by Showtime Networks on Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Live election night comedy specials hosted by your favorite satirical pundits aren’t entirely an invention of the Obama era — there were a few during the 2004 election — but they’ve really exploded since 2008. Thus, they’ve taken on a kind of celebratory feel for Democrats and left-of-center folks; they’re what you watch after Barack Obama wins an election, or after the Democrats get walloped in the midterms.

And it was obvious that, going in, Colbert had planned to operate from that playbook once again. He had gone live on The Late Show after both the Democratic and Republican conventions, as well as all three presidential debates — where it seemed Clinton was the decisive winner — and that decision bore great fruit. And when even the most pessimistic poll aggregator gave Clinton somewhere between a 1-in-3 and 1-in-4 chance of losing the presidency, well, Colbert’s decision to gear his program toward a Clinton victory, if only subtly, must have seemed pretty smart.

But as the night wore on, the laughs grew more hollow. A Nick Offerman bit about yard signs, one that might have killed on a night when Colbert’s audience was more into the election’s results, fell flat. Similarly, outtakes of Colbert shouting “fuck” while filming his CBS show felt like an empty protest against the night’s events. Both the live audience and his guests were shell-shocked, no matter what the host tried.

Colbert couldn’t hold it together. When he brought out political journalists and hosts of Showtime’s The Circus Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, the former of whom had just been raked over the coals by MSNBC’s Brian Williams for inflating Trump’s chances, Colbert failed to put a happy face on what increasingly seemed like a Donald Trump victory.

The program spiraled from there. Colbert and Jeff Goldblum tried to find a way to process their feelings. (“Horrible things will happen to all of us. Our lives will end. Everything will end,” Goldblum offered as comfort.) Elle King sang her song “America’s Sweetheart” — obviously chosen with a different presumed outcome in mind.

And after Colbert turned to a live comedy panel discussion of the night’s events, at one point, both he and radio host Charlamagne Tha God found themselves hoping that Jesus Christ will return before Trump can take office. (“I feel as if I’m about to give birth to a baby that’s already dead,” said comedian Jena Friedman, in a moment of brutal honesty. Nobody laughed.)

It all closed with an extraordinary monologue (embedded at the top of this page), in which Colbert attempted to veer between believing that America is still a good, beautiful place and believing that everything is ruined. At some points, he visibly held back tears; at others, he just rambled. It wasn’t a perfectly constructed monologue, but it felt honest, in a way TV rarely is.

Thus, what the special lacked in quality it made up for, in real time, by serving as a chronicle of an audience that felt as if it had steadily traveled through a portal, from one country to another reality entirely.

The monologue was raw, unfocused, and strangely beautiful. Colbert clearly wants to believe in unity, an earnestness that has always driven his comedy. But you could see, somehow, that he was riddled with self-doubt.

“This is a test of our ability to accept things”

I often think of something my grandmother said when my family felt horrified at the election of Bill Clinton in 1992. We were die-hard religious fundamentalists, and we believed that if Clinton took office, a deep depravity would surely follow, and God would punish us.

My grandmother simply laughed: “We thought when Kennedy was elected, he would give the country to the pope. And that didn’t happen.” She believed, deep down, that America would knit itself toward something better — that it almost didn’t matter who was in power, because true power lies in the way we do or don’t take care of each other.

This truth has always animated my philosophy of life in this country. I can see the horrible things. I can see the pain. I can see the injustices we perpetrate both here and abroad. But on some level, I believe things will get better, eventually. The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice, and all that.

Colbert feels that way, too. You can tell from his comedy and from the handful of interviews he’s given. And even as I find myself saddened by the unexpected results of this election, I want to feel as if we will overcome this. We will overcome our polarization. We’ll learn to speak to each other again, and we’ll look back on this moment as an aberration, a blip. Democrats will take power. Republicans will take power. Not everything will work, but we will try to make it work together.

Those words feel like ash in my mind, evaporating before me. I might be okay, but I have a good job, and I’m straight, male, and white. I think about the Muslim immigrants I used to live near, and I wonder what will happen to them. I think about my Latino neighbors and wonder how I can let them know they can call on me if they need someone to talk to. (Who knows? Maybe they voted for Trump, and we can talk about that.) I think about all of the women in my life who wanted to see a woman become president and feel viscerally, horribly gutted.

“Politics is a lot of horse race, and horse race is gambling, and gambling is, according to the Bible, a sin, because it itself is a poison, worrying about winning and not what the consequence of winning is,” Colbert said in his closing statement,

I think about privilege and pain, and how experiencing the latter doesn’t wipe out the former, but having the former doesn’t make the latter hurt any less.

I think about all of the people who feel only pain and anger and loathing in a world that seems to be leaving them behind, and I wonder how to tell them that the America I live in — big and bold and diverse and full of gleaming buildings and just a little bit dumb — can be beautiful, too.

The end of any campaign must reserve time for mourning, but this mourning feels different. I have friends who voted for Trump, sure, but I also have friends who believe he’s legitimately a monster who might ruin their lives with the simple flick of an executive order. What do I say to them? How do I tell them there are no red states or blue states, that there is some better world coming, even if the only evidence I have is my desperate hope?

“Whether your side won or lost, we don’t have to do this shit for a while anymore,” Colbert concluded, his voice ragged.

And so the host came to the end of his program. He launched into “My Country, ’Tis of Thee,” and his band frantically tried to play backup. Everybody in that band looked like they had just finished walking home after a war, but eventually, they and the audience joined him.

And then the song ended, and only silence remained. An ad for the next season of Homeland played. It was about the transition between presidential administrations.

The next president was to be a woman.

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