Critic's Notebook: Stephen Colbert Lets Sean Spicer Upstage Him After Solid Monologue

"Everything Is Better on TV" was a solid opening song, and the 'Late Show' host delivered an above-average monologue before letting Trump's former employee have the stage.
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It wasn't that long ago that Stephen Colbert's CBS show was struggling and everybody (me) assumed that James Corden was a lock for CBS' 69th Primetime Emmy Awards hosting gig, and ridiculous people (thankfully not me) were writing stories suggesting that Colbert and Corden should swap time slots.

After being snubbed for a nomination last year (as his comeback was already in its early stages), Colbert took the stage for Emmys 2017 as host, nominee, overall time slot winner and generally revered renaissance man once again.

But how did Colbert's opening salvo as Emmy host go down? 

After an intro with Black-ish star Anthony Anderson (his official name now) and Mom's Allison Janney, featuring a bit of snark directed at HBO's still-unwritten-much-less-ordered-much-less-on-TV drama Confederate, Colbert began, as we all surely knew he would, with a very good musical number, presumably titled "Everything Is Better on TV." The song made the not-inaccurate point that in a moment in which the actual world is a nightmare for many viewers, we can watch comparably troubling things on TV and they aren't so bad.

As is the norm with these things, Colbert played opposite cameos from a number of nominated contemporaries. He danced with Eleven and the creature from Stranger Things. "Imagine if your president was not beloved by Nazis," Selina Meyer from Veep observed. "Even treason's better on TV" crooned be-wigged Americans antiheroes Phillip and Elizabeth. "Look on the bright side, handmaids: At least your heath care's free," Colbert reassured a line of women in bonnets. The number's highlight was, perhaps, a tribute to classic TV courtesy of none other than Chance the Rapper. The number's lowlight was a strange transition into either auto-tune or lip-syncing when Colbert hit the stage for the live portion of the performance.

Colbert began his monologue with an OK overview of the state of television, observing, "Tonight, we binge ourselves." He urged every winner to thank Game of Thrones and did a run of funny-sounding streaming services and websites doing original programming like it was 2012. We get it. Websites have funny names like "Crackle." Under the heading of "Jokes That Won't Be All That Memorable in Two Days, Much Less a Year," Colbert also said, "Everybody loves streaming video. Just ask Ted Cruz. But knock first." Ha. Because he liked a porn tweet. Colbert bantered with Milo Ventimiglia, suggested Liev Schreiber is doing an original series for, and celebrated that this was the most diverse slate of Emmy nominees ever, before leaving off with a Bill Maher joke that left a sour taste.

Then, as we all expected, Colbert moved on to jabs at Donald Trump, since the ability to mock our president, and not having jokingly played around with his hair, has helped boost his ratings in recent months. The jokes he told were the exact ones that everybody told on Twitter and in articles last year at this time about how Donald Trump has always been bitter about his lack of Emmy wins and if he had just won an Emmy for The Apprentice maybe he wouldn't have needed to run for president and all of that. The jokes weren't bad tonight and they weren't bad last year, but they definitely made me wish that somebody had written fresher material to showcase the kind of comedy Colbert has been trying to do lately and that has spawned his comeback. (Cut to people observing, correctly, that Colbert has been doing this sort of slightly-but-only-barely-edgy material for months and that he's mostly been sharp in comparison to Fallon, but that Seth Meyers and Samantha Bee and John Oliver remain the late-night comics actually going out on limbs.)

The opening ended with a guest appearance by Sean Spicer. It wasn't funny at all. Sean Spicer isn't funny at all, and giving him not-funny material doesn't help. However, as unfunny as Sean Spicer was, the shocked reactions from the audience made up for it. Anna Chlumsky will be a GIF/meme for the rest of her life thanks to her slack-jawed horror at Spicer's arrival. Sarah Hyland wasn't that far off in terms of enthusiasm. And Melissa McCarthy also was photogenically agog. Was it worth Spicer being there for the reactions? I'll let y'all decide for yourself.

So it was a good start for Colbert. A fine song. A decent monologue with safe-but-not-awful jokes about the state of the industry and our president. And Sean Spicer surprised a lot of people and upstaged Colbert.

Of course, there are three-plus hours of Emmys after Colbert's initial monologue, so check back after the show for my full review of the Emmys telecast.