For those of us who worried about our ability to make it through a presidential campaign without Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, there is good news: Colbert still has his edge.
Colbert doesn’t begin hosting “The Late Show” on CBS until Sept. 8, but his recent spoof of Donald Trump’s candidacy announcement gave fans a peek of what is to come. And the preview wasn’t just comforting for fans that love his special form of political satire; it was also a welcome sign that he plans to weigh in on the idiocy of the upcoming race with just the sort of insightful irony our democracy needs.
Ever since Colbert ended his run as host of “The Colbert Report” last December, fans have fretted that the move to a network and a larger audience would tone down Colbert’s edge. In addition, we wondered over the loss of his satirical character, since the trademark Colbert satire seemed to depend on the fact that he was performing in character as a right-wing bloviating pundit modeled after Bill O’Reilly. With the end of the character and the move to a format that tends to favor the silly over the satirical, there was concern that Colbert’s comedy would take a turn away from its earlier political bite.
Then Jon Stewart announced he would step down as host of “The Daily Show" this summer, passing the reins to Trevor Noah, and it seemed like we might be headed for a presidential election absent the satirical insight and ironic twist many of us had come to depend on as a nation. Besides offering election night coverage, both shows did more than simply mock the farce of the electoral process; they offered viewers needed critical perspective, they conducted sharp interviews that often affected candidate ratings, and they occasionally intervened directly in the campaign process itself. Recall that Colbert opened his own super PAC, ran for president (of South Carolina) and created a number of political ads. He also encouraged fans to open their own super PACs in a move that encouraged college students to learn more about campaign finance by engaging in the process themselves.
That all seemed potentially lost with the move to CBS. And while it may be too soon to count on the same sort of political engagement of Colbert’s in-character political satire, the recent Trump spoof offers a welcome sign.
First off, Colbert did the entire bit in a hilarious impersonation of Trump. The piece was reminiscent of his performance before President Bush at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in 2006: “Ladies and gentleman, I’m pleased to announce that I have an announcement to make: Donald Trump has announced he is running for President of the United States.” And, in exactly the same fashion as the WHCA performance, the humor was both flat and eviscerating. The brilliance lay in the way that Colbert channeled Trump’s crazy, nonsensical, overblown, egomaniacal blather while being Trump and adoring Trump at the same time.
“I agree with Donald that America is dead -- buried in a coffin, in salted earth with our enemies pissing on it and laughing. And Donald Trump is the only man who can -- excuse me, I’m just moved -- I’m physically moved by the knowledge that Donald Trump is the only man who can dig up the corpse of that nation and marry it.”
Even better, Colbert went after Trump’s claim that he has the skills to run the country in a line that almost seems like a combination of Sarah Palin-speak and Trumpisms:
“The real unemployment is … who knows? Pick a hat. Pick a hat out of a hat. Find a hat. There’s another hat inside of it. That’s how badly our hat business is doing in the United States … Mexico has the hats.”
Colbert went on for six minutes and managed to highlight all of the bizarre Trump idiosyncrasies. In one moment he literally foamed at the mouth. It was a refreshing sign that his move to a network won’t tone down his comedy. It is just the sort of satire that we will need as we navigate the primary cycle and an ever-expanding list of GOP candidates who seem more egotistical and loony than prepared to lead the nation. The sign on the podium reads, “Shut up, dummy.” It seems pretty clear that the phrase is aimed right at Trump. It’s a classic example of Colbert’s simultaneous use of literal meaning and parody. The comedy is funny and smart.
But even more exciting is the idea that there will be a through line from his earlier satirical comedy on “The Colbert Report” to his work on “The Late Show.” As he grew a beard and took a break it was reasonable to wonder if he wasn’t reinventing himself. But this spoof indicates that he will indeed connect his earlier satire to his new show.
For instance, Colbert already had a history of messing with Trump. One of the best examples was when Colbert mocked Trump’s birther obsession with Obama. Back in 2012, Trump offered $5 million to charity if President Barack Obama would produce his college transcripts and passport paperwork. Colbert responded by making his own offer: $1 million to charity if Colbert could dip his balls into Trump’s mouth. Colbert’s bit reminded his audience not just of GOP eccentricities and rampant megalomania, but also of the ongoing notion that the rich can simply “own” the country by buying it off. It countered the image of Trump spewing things out of his mouth with an image of him putting something in it. It was crass and creative. And it got a lot of attention.
While the recent spoof did not literally include Colbert’s balls, it does show his comedy hasn’t lost them.