Critic's Notebook: Stephen Colbert Turns Election Night Comedy Special Into a Wake

Colbert_Election_Special - Publicity - H 2016
Scott Kowalchyk/SHOWTIME

As the election results pour in, the increasing chances of a Trump victory sets the media's nerves on edge, and then some.

Stephen Colbert's election night special on Showtime was supposed to be a comedy show. Instead, it turned into a wake.

A clearly rattled Colbert started the program off in game fashion, delivering a series of anxiety-tinged jokes about "an election too close to call and too terrifying to contemplate." He had clearly thought that by the time the show aired Hillary would have been declared the winner, or at least on a clear path to victory. Instead, Trump had amassed such a daunting lead that before the show ended, guest John Heilemann informed the audience that The New York Times was giving Trump a 95 percent chance of winning.

Colbert's shell-shocked, stunned demeanor reflected the mounting fear, anxiety, and ultimate depression that afflicted a significant portion of the country as the results poured in. Only, judging by the numbers that defied the predictions of the most supposedly savvy prognosticators, not a large enough portion.

Earlier in the evening, it didn't seem like this was going to happen, with CNN reporting that a Trump senior advisor had told them, "It will take a miracle for us to win." But a miracle is seemingly what occurred, or, as many will call it, the apocalypse.

As more and more states fell to Trump, the political commentators took on increasingly glum expressions. Not only because the candidate most of them were no doubt rooting for was losing, but also because of how clearly wrong they all had been. Rachel Maddow attempted to maintain a sunny disposition, constantly attempting to point out that things weren't as dire as they seemed. But by then, worldwide markets were crashing, as was the Canadian immigration website. (I'd like to add that the last part was a joke, but it's totally true).

Judging by his appearance on NBC, somebody needs to set up a suicide watch for Glenn Beck. The conservative media personality turned his interview into a confessional therapy session, lambasting himself for his role in the turn of events (as usual, he gave himself far too much credit). He declared that if this is what being a conservative and a Republican meant, he wanted nothing to do with it. As with most Republicans, it was a case of too little, too late. There will be a lot of self-recrimination within the party, as well as with the Democrats, who had the chance to nominate Bernie Sanders but took the seemingly safer course.

Meanwhile, as the night wore on, Colbert largely abandoned his comic persona while absorbing the increasingly dire election results during his interviews with Heilemann and Mark Halperin.

"I'm not sure it's a comedy show at this point," he told them, later adding, after hearing another piece of bad news, 'I can't put a happy face on that, and that's my job."

In his defense, it's hard to be funny when a guest announces, as Halperin did, "Outside of the Civil War, World War II, and 9/11, this may be the most cataclysmic event this country has ever seen."

After the airing of a mock commercial, Colbert told the equally depressed studio audience, "While we were gone, my producers took away my shoelaces and my belt."

Toward the end of the show, Colbert gathered his composure and delivered a pep talk that seemed designed to comfort himself as much as the viewers. It was a thoughtful, ruminative examination of our nation's divided soul, and an exhortation for us "not to lose heart" and to "get back to your life." He finished up by leading the audience on a sing-along of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," which at any other time would have seemed utterly corny but in this context felt like the coolest possible thing to do.

There'll be a lot of soul-searching, and possibly wrist-slitting, in the days to come. One of the tragedies is that the often legitimate fears and concerns of so many people have been tapped into, and exploited by, a truly heinous, unscrupulous figure not worthy of rallying for their cause. And by the time they figure that out, it may well be too late.  On the bright side, California did pass a law legalizing recreational marijuana. We're all going to need it.