When CBS tapped Stephen Colbert to host the 2017 Emmys — his first awards show ever — the network had to know that its firebrand Late Show host wouldn’t avoid politics. But for a minute, that’s exactly what Colbert did, albeit with a giant wink.
The show opened with Colbert backstage, acknowledging to nominees Anthony Anderson and Allison Janney that the world is a scary place right now before insisting that they can always distract themselves with the warm embrace of television. “Turn on any channel — well, except the news,” crooned Colbert. “The world’s a little better on TV!”
With that, the host sang and danced his way through many of the evening’s nominated shows, visiting the This Is Us living room (“it feels so good to feel so sad!”), The Walking Dead (“don’t you worry about global warming or the Middle East / look on the bright side with the recently deceased!”), and Veep’s White House briefing room (with Julia Louis-Dreyfus popping up to sing about how nice it would be to have a president who “was not beloved by Nazis”). But the whole number was, as one might have expected from Colbert, still critical, especially when Chance the Rapper appeared to say that TV’s “a pleasant distraction — but what about taking some action?” and then the number’s conclusion featured a grinning can-can line of sexy dystopian Handmaids.
But even once the song was over, it didn’t take long before Colbert ditched the more straight-up Emmy jokes about Hollywood’s self-indulgence (“I didn’t know you could applaud while patting yourself on the back at the same time”) to return to the man of his every late-night hour: President Donald Trump.
“The biggest star of the last year is Donald Trump,” Colbert shrugged, to scattered nervous laughs. “We may not like it, but he’s the biggest star. And Alec Baldwin, obviously,” he added, nodding to Saturday Night Live’s Emmy-nominated in-house Trump impersonator.
“We all know the Emmys mean a lot to Donald Trump,” Colbert said. “He never won. Why didn’t you give him an Emmy? ... If he had won an Emmy, I bet he never would’ve run for president. So in a way, this is all your fault.”
Finally, as if to test his own theory that Trump wouldn’t be able to resist watching the Emmys, Colbert welcomed to the stage someone with whom Trump is all too familiar: former White House press secretary Sean Spicer.
The gobsmacked Emmys audience — both in the theater and inevitably at home — then watched as Spicer wheeled out a podium to declare the 2017 awards the most-watched Emmys telecast in history — which, even apart from being a confusing way to end his monologue, sure tested the boundaries of Colbert’s promise that not tuning in to the news will keep the news at bay.