These are the first words I’ve written since the election, which did not go the way I’d hoped. On Wednesday I barely got out of bed. I felt paralyzed by the whole thing. I’ve now hit the bargaining stage of, “Well, Trump seems to like repairing infrastructure. So maybe that could be good? If he focused all his time on that, well, that would keep him preoccupied until 2021.” On Wednesday night I decided to take solace with some comedy. It can help. I had already watched Seth Meyers’ monologue (which was released early online), which was fantastic. It was the perfect tone of speaking to us, his audience, about his own fears, mixed with some comedy about apple picking. I smiled for the first time since Tuesday night.
Stephen Colbert’s Late Show was broadcasting another live show on Wednesday night and I thought watching this could bring more comfort. I am desperate for comfort right now! And The Colbert Report used to bring me comfort. Now, Colbert has already been run through the ringer a bit for his bizarre live election night performance. I kind of want to give him a pass for this because no one saw this coming. Not even President-elect Trump (!!!) saw this coming. So an, let’s say, erratic show might be expected while the election results are processed live.
On Wednesday night I wanted to hear from Colbert. I wanted to hear him tell us things would be okay. Actually, he could have told us things won’t be okay. He could have told me anything. I was ready to listen. After a monologue that was fine, but seemed a little too lighthearted considering the circumstances, it was the time in the show Colbert could have sat behind the desk and just talked to us, his audience, about what has happened. Instead, Colbert decided to do shtick. A large image of God appeared on the ceiling and Colbert had a conversation with God. For the life of me, I can’t figure out the mindset here. “God” appears and says, “That’s my name, don’t wear it out.” I honestly don’t understand what they are thinking over there.
This is why Colbert’s show is failing. On a night people just wanted to hear from Colbert and have him talk to us like adults about what happened, he punted. What happened to the Colbert who criticized George W. Bush to his face at the Whitehouse Correspondent Dinner? Why does Colbert keep punting? He punted when he had Trump as a guest (Colbert now admits he didn’t do a good job with that interview) and now, when people just wanted to see something real, he punted again. We got shtick. When Colbert drops his guard and gives us something real, he can be passionate and moving. But he does that so infrequently. And last night, more than any other night, called for it. But instead we got shtick.
I’ve been thinking more about why we liked The Colbert Report so much. And to be honest, I’m not sure it would have worked quite as well as it did without Jon Stewart as its lead in. Together, it was a perfect hour of political comedy. Jon Stewart spoke to us as adults about what was happening, pointing out the lunacy and hypocrisy of any given day – then Colbert would skew it even further, almost bringing it full circle. It was a symbiotic relationship. Now, Colbert has a full hour, on network television, and he’s trying to do a watered down version of both. It’s not working and Wednesday night was a huge glaring example of why.
Some people are hurting right now. But we got Colbert talking to a “God” who says, “That’s my name, don’t wear it out.” His show will probably never succeed until he learns how to consistently be himself. People like him, but we rarely see him. No one wants “shtick” right now.
There’s an obscure Bruce Springsteen song called “30 Days Out” that was recorded for the Human Touch album, but only released as a b side to “Leap of Faith.” There’s a line that sticks out to me right now,
Tried to talk about what’s goin’ on/You just smile and tell me ‘Baby there ain’t nothin’ wrong.’
In your smile there’s a sign in red/It said ‘Thousand miles of hard road dead ahead.’
That’s us right now. It hasn’t really even started yet, but that thousand miles of hard road is coming. But it would help tremendously to have a viable Stephen Colbert. And from what I saw on Wednesday night, that isn’t happening.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.