The night of the presidential election marked a turning point for The Late Show With Stephen Colbert — but not because of anything that happened on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.
As the election results rolled in on November 8, Colbert was hosting a live Showtime special that was clearly conceived in anticipation of Hillary Clinton defeating Donald Trump to win the presidency — rather than the other way around — as so many people and polls had predicted. But there was a key difference between Colbert and the millions of Americans who were shocked to see Trump beating the odds: The host ended up having to work through his feelings about Trump’s impending victory on live TV.
When it became clear that Trump was about to win, Colbert was almost at a loss for words. "I can't put a happy face on that,” he said, shell-shocked, “and that's my job."
Colbert’s blatant astonishment marked the beginning of a steady adjustment for The Late Show. Between the election and Trump’s inauguration, he largely stuck to the same kinds of obvious punchlines that drove his pre-election coverage — gotta get those tiny hand quips in while the getting’s good, I guess — but nonetheless infused his political commentary with a new undercurrent of disbelief. And when Inauguration Day came in January, Colbert kicked off his first show of the Trump administration with a monologue titled “This Is Really Happening,” as if to convince the audience — and himself — that they weren’t dreaming.
Once Trump officially took office, the panic that took hold of Colbert on election night evolved into anger, and then flourished. His jokes settled into a new and far more piercing rhythm. He began to spend night after night hammering the new administration with stark jokes explicitly designed to eviscerate, even as he delivered them with a twinkling grin. And now, two months in, he’s not pulling any punches or relying on low-hanging fruit; instead, he’s more than willing to call out Trump and his advisers as “sexist,” “white supremacists,” or acting like “dictators.”
(Lest you think this new direction might have startled or angered his audience, the opposite appears to be true: Colbert has been steadily beating longtime late-night ratings king Jimmy Fallon — who prefers inviting celebrities to play icebreaker games like every week is his first of college — for five straight weeks.)
As Donald Trump transitioned into President Trump, Colbert transitioned from stunned spectator into furious citizen. All of a sudden, after doing little to set himself apart from the increasingly crowded glut of late-night shows for more than a year, he seemed to decide there’s no reason to suppress what he truly thinks — as evidenced by the palpable anger he expresses with every passing day of Trumpian chaos.
And as it turns out, Colbert with no filter has only transformed The Late Show for the better.
Colbert’s pivot from bemused disbelief to outright anger has been a creative godsend for The Late Show
When Colbert took over David Letterman’s Late Show spot in September 2015, he struggled to find his footing in the new role of ... himself. Fresh off 10 years of sputtering outrage in character as “Stephen Colbert,” a conservative, Bill O’Reilly-esque news anchor known for seeing liberals as affronts against America, he seemed to have lost the teeth he bared on The Colbert Report. He’d switched not only from a less restricted cable comedy to CBS’s flagship late-night show, but from playing a caricature to existing as a real person. Finding the right balance proved trickier than maybe even Colbert himself expected.
It definitely seemed to trip him up when he got the chance to interview Trump himself the same month The Late Show With Stephen Colbert launched; he even kicked off the softball interview with an apology for having said things about Trump that “perhaps in polite company are unforgivable.”
Trump, for his part, shrugged that he himself had “nothing” to apologize for.
One year after that interview, as the election drew near, Colbert very obviously began to assume — as many did — that Clinton was on track to trounce Trump and reduce him to a (particularly ludicrous) historical footnote. That feeling seemed to come to a head in his raucous election eve sketch with Jon Stewart, which urged people to understand that Clinton was an obvious choice over Trump and make sure to vote, but still had the feel of a giant party. Watching it, you could feel the two comedians’ sigh of relief that the fight was almost over — or so they believed. (In the parallel universe where Clinton won, it’s easy to imagine a Late Show where Colbert keeps telling perfectly decent jokes about generally benign bureaucratic bullshit.)
But we all know what happened next. Trump’s win kicked off an awkward two-month period wherein Colbert and many of his fellow late-night hosts had to find a way to joke about an unexpected new reality. By the time Trump took office and hyperbolic news seemed to break every hour, Colbert’s tolerance for indulging his own disbelief had started to dissolve in front of our very eyes.
When The Late Show returned from an ill-timed week off on January 30 — just a couple of days after Trump signed his first controversial executive order on immigration — Colbert stared out at his studio audience and seethed. “You gotta give the guy credit,” he said, his usually jovial voice thick with sarcasm. “He really can get a lot undone.”
Since then, Colbert has essentially declared war on the Trump administration. His jokes have flown faster and more furiously, sharpened at the ends to wound even as he delivers them with his familiar broad smile. Where Colbert’s Trump-related punchlines used to be marked by exhaustion, they’re now reenergized with active fury. Where his opening monologues used to have titles like “Trump’s Cabinet Selections Are Making Us Queasy,” they now carry snarling mission statements like “It’s Funny Because It’s Treason” and “Republicans Release New Health Care Plan, And We’re All Going to Die.”
The prospect of “President Trump” might’ve broken Colbert’s heart on election night. But the ensuing reality of it has churned his shock into a roiling anger that — even through all his years of covering George W. Bush and Barack Obama through the lens of a Fox News persona — he has never expressed quite so pointedly before.
Colbert has finally cracked how to convey his political anger through himself instead of a character
Colbert is certainly not the only late-night host who runs on fury. Bill Maher’s been ranting on TV every week for almost 25 years as the host of HBO’s Real Time. And Colbert’s fellow Daily Show alums John Oliver and Samantha Bee fuel their respective shows, HBO’s Last Week Tonight and TBS’s Full Frontal, with a steady diet of baffled, expletive-laden rage.
The difference is that Colbert’s expression of visceral anger has been far more noticeable as a contrast to his earlier hosting style, which in no way resembled the fired-up rhetoric he’s now serving to viewers every night.
When he described Trump as acting like a “dictator” at the end of his February 16 monologue, for example, it was the culmination of several weeks of increasing disgust. The Colbert who appears on our screens every night in 2017 is a lot more ruthless than the one who congenially interviewed Trump in the first month of The Late Show’s existence. Colbert started his show more from a place of wanting to entertain people in a variety show kind of way, rather than leaning into his previous political parody. It might not have been a calculated move, but between the election and now, Colbert has gradually cranked things up to 11 on the anger scale, instead of starting there back when The Late Show debuted — and it’s made his turn into outright ferocity much more distinctive.
One of Colbert’s strongest opening segments under President Trump to date came on February 14, via a scorching monologue aimed directly at Trump adviser Stephen Miller. A few days before, Miller had defended Trump’s initial immigration order by saying the president’s powers “will not be questioned.” Colbert’s palpable disgust bubbled over into staring defiantly into the camera and issuing a direct challenge: “Oh yeah? Let me test that theory: What the fuck are you talking about?”
If this sounds like a beat straight out of The Daily Show, well, it is. For as cutting as Letterman often was during his 22 years behind the Late Show desk, Colbert getting this explicit doesn’t exactly fall into the grander tradition of late-night shows on broadcast TV. The only other broadcast late-night host channeling anything remotely similar to Colbert’s blunt outrage is Seth Meyers, whose Late Night airs at 12:35 am and is still far more sparing with the expletives than Colbert’s Late Show.
Colbert’s blunt “what the fuck” was also a sign of how he’s channeling his frustration in a more openly ferocious way than he ever could on The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, where he played a conservative anchor. While not being able to filter himself through a character on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert initially tripped him up, it’s now become a huge asset.
Now when Colbert expresses frustration or even white-hot anger, there’s no intermediary joke diluting the intention behind it, as there was when he was satirizing Fox News bluster through the voice of a hyperbolic character on Comedy Central. When he calls out the Trump administration as full of “sexist[s and] white supremacist[s]” (as he did on March 14), you know he means it.
Staring down the barrel of four years of President Trump, Colbert is so far squaring his shoulders and preparing for the marathon ahead instead of sprinting to the nearest easy punchline — and his show is better for it.
The Late Show With Stephen Colbert airs weeknights at 11:35 pm on CBS.