Review: Was there humor in the chaos? How late-night TV handled the Trump-Biden debate

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The late-night network hosts, watching what passed for a presidential debate Tuesday night, had to be regretting their decision to go live with their comedy shows afterward.

Debate viewers hoping for campaign enlightenment instead fantasized about creative ways to end the pain. The chaos on stage in Cleveland was so bad that the post-debate network pundits were more likely to make exasperated noises and use words like “disgrace” than provide actual analysis.

So how is a comedian supposed to find something funny in an event so irredeemably, disappointingly, frustratingly sad.

For one thing, you empathize with your audience.

“Sitting through that felt like getting a COVID test in both nostrils at once,” said Jimmy Fallon, on NBC.

“I’d call it a nightmare,” ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel said, “but at least during a nightmare you get some sleep.”

“I never thought I’d say this,” Stephen Colbert of CBS said, “but I am so looking forward to the vice presidential debate.”

Nobody picked up on Trump’s odd and eminently mockable ongoing insistence that poor management of the forest floor is the leading cause of wildfires.

But they did all find another easy target in debate moderator Chris Wallace, who is on Fox News but not entirely of Fox News, and who controlled the rhetorical battle like a dude ranch guest on a runaway horse.

“Chris Wallace felt like a kindergarten teacher running a class on Zoom,” said Fallon.

“Trump treated Chris Wallace like he was Eric asking for more allowance money,” said Kimmel.

Colbert’s main Wallace point was more nuanced. Showing a clip of the moderator saying the next question would be about race but “if you want to answer something else, go ahead,” the “Late Show” host called it “Chris Wallace restating America’s official position on racism.”

All three of the major-network post-local-newscast shows went live to be able to treat this major campaign news event, one of the hot spots in an election that is a primary source of their material, not to mention the thing that will determine, to a greater degree than past Republican-Democrat tussles, what kind of country we live in.

It is, you could argue, their civic and vocational duty to do so, which is why it was surprising that both Seth Meyers on later-night NBC and Trevor Noah on Comedy Central, who’ve both made many live-off-the-news shows in recent years, opted to roll tape this time out.

Meyers, especially, felt like a loss because he’s been the sharpest during all the shows’ experiments in pandemic broadcasting and he’s right there with Colbert in terms of his political pointedness.

So Tuesday, as usual, it was Colbert’s “Late Show” that was by wide measure most ambitious in its efforts to recap, highlight key moments via actual debate video and, yes, actually find funny things to say about, as he called it, “the showman versus the Joe-man.”

Not only did his team write more jokes and pull many times more clips than his rivals’, he was the only one whose monologue included a reference to President Trump’s refusal, once again, to condemn white supremacists. (“Stand back and stand by,” Trump said, instead.)

Colbert laid the moment bare as “one of the most upsetting moments not only of the night but of my lifetime,” seeing the sitting president not manage “to simply condemn white supremacy.”

The joke that followed was a sly reference to Trump’s pattern in this area: Colbert, in his Trump voice, said, “I just command them. That’s why I’ve got this shiny dog whistle.”

Kimmel seems to share Colbert’s aversion to who Trump is and what he represents but is not quite so direct. In response to the president’s acolytes trying to stir up the idea that the former vice president would be using performance enhancers, Kimmel said, “This is a debate. There are no drugs. What Biden is doing is called ‘reading.’”

Debating Trump, he said, would be like debating a parrot who keeps repeating “the same four things it knows.”

Fallon, the guy who likes to play party games with celebrities, kept things lighter, continuing to mine the situation more than the substance.

“Usually when you see guys this age arguing, it’s about leaves blowing on each other’s lawns,” he said.

And: “You know it was rough when the guy who told the president to shut up was seen as the classy candidate.”

Even his most cutting line was only mildly so: “The only person who enjoyed that was Vladimir Putin while he was stroking a cat.” It suggests it might be about the, let’s say, odd Trump-Putin relationship, but really it targets Putin’s more general embrace of American discord, with a little Dr. Evil gilding.

Colbert, by contrast, went straight for the meat, not once indulging in his ordinary-day weakness for jokes about Trump’s weight or appetites. (Worse than being cheap, easy and body-shaming, Fat Donald jokes miss the point by many meters. Seeing Colbert keep doing them is like seeing Eddie Murphy do pretty much any of the movies that Eddie Murphy decided to do.)

Tuesday, Colbert called out The New York Times for, pre-debate, saying that it would be “a clash of style and ideas,” as if this is all normal politics.

“Forget fact-checking this debate,” he said of the general babble on stage. “We couldn’t even do any sentence-finding.”

And when Wallace and Biden shared a chuckle over both losing the thread amidst Trump’s interruptions, Colbert played the moment, then said, “It’s funny because we are facing the more important election of our lifetimes, and we are letting the idiot who talks the loudest decide what we talk about.”

These are not bashful moments. And if you’re going to take the trouble to mount a live show and write jokes on a tight deadline, you might as well remove the bushel and let your light shine.


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