On election night, "Daily Show" fizzles, Colbert shines

Stephen Colbert's satire of right-wing petulance dazzled on election night — but will it soon be irrelevant?

By Laura Miller

Published November 7, 2012 1:23PM (EST)

Could any Election Day scenario be worse for the creative staff of "The Daily Show" than the one we had last night — a close, hard-fought race covered by the mainstream cable news networks with a modicum of sobriety? Jon Stewart and his staff make the bread-and-butter of their comedy by applying common sense to two species of misbehavior: Cable journalists' efforts to fill the vast, empty hours with ridiculously trumped-up stories and right-wing ravings (i.e., Fox News). When the story is legitimately epochal and the wingnuts are momentarily stunned in disbelief, "The Daily Show" has got, as Stewart is wont to say, nothin'.

Stephen Colbert, on the other hand, can make his own crazy. Having ridden his O'Reilly-esque alter ego to the furthest reaches of conservative delusion in "The Colbert Report," he's free to act out all the petulance and paranoia we can expect to see from the Tea Party crowd over the next few days (not to mention the next four years). Both Comedy Central series mounted live half-hour shows on election night. But while "The Daily Show" dithered around with stale jokes about CNN's fetish for high-tech presentation gizmos and Joe Biden's frattish gaffes, Colbert, ably assisted by guest Andrew Sullivan, presented a beautifully crafted glimpse into the roiling heart of right-wing denial.

The first bit on "The Daily Show" featured John Oliver, an iPad strapped to each arm, nattering on about "real-time election center media analysis capabilities, live monitoring results and opinions as they happen through a light-speed stream of instantaneous real-time microblogging." Translation: We will report on random tweets. However maddening this sort of thing may be, there are few fresh laughs to be milked from techno-babblers' frantic attempts to sound au courant. And besides, CNN's once-notorious "magic wall" — that TV-size touchscreen with which John King has such a complex and even mystical relationship — no longer seems either dazzling or preposterous. Basically, it's an iPad maxi.

The only really good joke in last night's "The Daily Show" had correspondents Wyatt Cenac and Al Madrigal reducing the election results to little more than a harbinger of 2016. Cenac announced that "the real winner tonight is Hillary Clinton, who Nate Silver is now projecting at a 68 percent chance of victory over Jeb Bush. That's up from 54 percent just a few hours ago!" The 11 p.m. time slot gave the live show just enough time to nod at Obama's win, but not enough to acknowledge two historic initiatives that must surely be dear to its audience: the first ballot-based approval of same-sex marriage, in Maine and Maryland, and the legalization of recreational marijuana use in Colorado and Washington. It was left to the anti-pot governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper, to make the requisite stoner quip: "Federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug, so don’t break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly."

But if "The Daily Show" comes up short whenever everyone suddenly decides to behave like grown-ups, Colbert, playing a character determined to ignore reality, is free to frolic in the fields of the absurd. Although he's an accomplished improviser, he needed only to prepare two responses to last night's results: crowing jingoism and hysterical doomsaying. It may not be the foremost reason to welcome an Obama win, but getting the chance to see him do the latter — that is, deliver a magnificent aria of deluded conservative self-righteousness — was surely one of the evening's more exquisite pleasures.

"Fine, America, it's your funeral," he sulked. "We tried to warn you about this guy ... Well, I'll tell you what: We job creators are not going to take it. We are going Galt, just like in Ayn Rand's 'Atlas Shrugged.' We're going to leave you parasites behind and relocate to an island where only rich people can live: Manhattan."

Healthcare has been one of Colbert's frequent themes throughout the campaign season since the issue offers one of the richest veins of conservative nonsense. He captured the essence of the farce in a deft handful of sentences: "Now Obamacare is here to stay. Sure, a single illness won't wipe out your life savings, but at what cost? A lower one! Now you'll have to wait in line for hours for medical care instead of immediately not getting any."

But if last night offered Colbert the ideal opportunity to flaunt his satirical prowess, how long can it last? As moderate conservative Andrew Sullivan — always impressively quick on the uptake and therefore the ideal guest on this occasion — implied, the election signaled the declining influence of right-wing ideologues like Bill O'Reilly, the touchstone of Colbert's character. (The outright kooks, like Glenn Beck, have already been kicked to the curb.) How much mileage is there left in parodying a position that's increasingly being relegated to the margins? Even Karl Rove, disbelieving to the last minute as he tried to mount a Strangeloveian assault on the legitimacy of the election, finally had to concede, and face the facts.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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