Stephen Colbert was the first to acknowledge Tuesday night how soul-crushing it was, on November 8, 2016, to come into a live election night broadcast pre-packed with goofy celebrity bits and the usual Donald Trump one-liners, only to have to adjust to the stomach-dropping reality of four years under a Trump presidency. And that was when all of the attendant horrors and outrages were largely theoretical, before worst-case fever dreams like babies in cages, open embrace of white nationalist violence, even more accusations of sexual assault, and a deadly, piss-poorly-managed pandemic.
To his credit, Colbert adopted a more free-flowing vibe this time around, not least because—as his ever-present whiskey glass and in-studio wife Evelyn’s oft-referenced wine supply attested—Colbert’s election night exhaustion came coupled with a little tipsiness. Interviewing the likes of Charlamagne Tha God and the hosts of Showtime’s own political “telementary docu-series” (as Colbert managed to describe it) The Circus to break down what, by the 11 P.M. airtime, were a very large mixed bag of state returns, Colbert kept things moving. With the cheeky relief of one who suspected that COVID-era, absentee ballot-related delays would likely mean he wouldn’t have to give another comedic concession speech while his soul was dying, Colbert riffed on the incoming news, and even dropped a little Showtime-friendly profanity from time to time. (“What’s round on both ends and fucked in the middle?” Colbert joked-not-joked after Ohio was called for Trump.)
There were a few harmlessly silly bits, like an ever-expanding Zoom panel of election experts (featuring everyone from former Secretary Of State Madeleine Albright, to Julius “Dr. J” Erving, to a very high Method Man, to an unaware, hidden-camera Ethan Hawke), and Arcade Fire got to play their new political anthem “Generation A.” But mostly, Colbert’s grandly titled Stephen Colbert’s Election Night 2020: Democracy’s Last Stand: Building Back America Great Again Better 2020 was all about doing the usual nightly jokes over a steadily moving news crawl that Colbert assumed would still be crawling once he went off the air.
And crawl it did, as any as-it-turns-out wishful thinking about an early Biden laugher quickly went out the window, thanks to both Biden and Trump essentially holding serve on 2016’s state-by-state results. Colbert joked about the show going long as the results kept grinding in, asking if the live special was bumping a rerun of Homeland or something, only to laugh sheepishly when informed that he was essentially stepping over his own tail, since it was the Colbert-produced Our Cartoon President getting bumped. (“Hey, they might get another season,” Colbert joked concerning his Trump administration satire, and everyone laughed and laughed and laughed.) As even the nigh-indefatigable (and lightly looped) Colbert saw the end of his airtime approaching, and the necessity of an hours- or days-long vote tabulation looming, he offered up his 2020 version of a farewell address to his similarly exhausted (and, in many cases, much more hammered) viewership.
“I’m gonna say something a little controversial, so don’t get mad at me,” Colbert began, before making the heartfelt case that, “It’s actually a good thing we don’t know who won yet.” Now, reading that the morning after most sensible people slept through Trump’s unhinged, wee-hours, Mussolini-aping, completely false declaration of victory (despite at the time—and currently—trailing in both the popular and Electoral College vote) one might think Colbert’s urge for patience and trust in our as-it-turns-out paper-vulnerable institutions wouldn’t age well. And, you know, fair enough, as Trump has now set off the sort of election crisis the UN usually sends in observers to monitor, and the Republican Party seems poised to jump even further into the Trump-enabling cesspit as he attempts to undermine the legitimacy of an election it looks like he’ll quite likely lose. Still, Colbert did his best to come up with an appropriate sign-off, playing a montage of “Things That Feel As Satisfying As You Want This To” if Trump does get the boot.
Puppy belly-rubs. Slow-mo water ballon-bounces. Tony Stark snapping Thanos into non-existence. That cool bra trick women do under their sweaters after a long day. It was cute, and funny, and oddly effective in its own “what the fuck did we know?” sort of way, as Colbert urged patience and beleaguered hope that Americans—and America—would do the right thing in the end. Not pictured, sadly, were any images of white America—ravaged by Trump’s sociopathic indifference to the COVID crisis, four years of unrelenting, boorish bigotry and wanton, racist cruelty, and the trampling of every notion of decency, fairness, and liberty America is supposedly built on—soundly repudiating Donald Trump to an extent that a drawn-out battle against stright-up fascism wouldn’t be necessary. But it is. Because, as (overwhelmingly white) Americans have shown, in the starkest and most disheartening of terms, that’s just not what 2020 America is. Colbert will be back on CBS tonight, where he’ll have had time to come up with some new way to process that fact.