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MATTHEW GILBERT

Stephen Colbert knew this was no time for jokes

The late-night host condemned the president’s claims about the election, emotionally and powerfully

Stephen Colbert spoke emotionally Thursday night on "Late Night" in response to President Trump's claims earlier in the evening that the presidential vote count was corrupt.
Stephen Colbert spoke emotionally Thursday night on "Late Night" in response to President Trump's claims earlier in the evening that the presidential vote count was corrupt.CBS

When actors “break,” it usually means they’re laughing when they’re not supposed to. So when a comic breaks, perhaps it means their unhappy, unfunny feelings are bursting through when we expect them to be funny.

That’s what happened on Thursday night with Stephen Colbert, who opened CBS’s “The Late Show” with an angry and emotional monologue, one he put together on the fly after President Trump lied about the corruption of vote count earlier in the evening. Colbert broke, and he seemed broken, too, as he lamented having seen the office of the president brought so low, with Trump trying to “poison democracy.”

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Trump’s lies weren’t surprising, Colbert noted, since the president has long been hinting that he’d cast doubt on the ballots if he wasn’t winning. But as Colbert choked up, he said, “What I didn’t know was that it would hurt so much. I didn’t expect this to break my heart. For him to cast a dark shadow on our most sacred right, from the briefing room in the White House — our house, not his — that is devastating.”

Watching Colbert as he lost the ability to speak for a few long seconds, you could see how much is contained in the somewhat vague term “choked up.” A number of feelings seemed to pass across his face almost simultaneously, as he stood in silence. There was pure rage; there was moral nausea; there was an almost breathless resentment; and, ultimately, there was sorrow.

Nighttime talk show hosts are our court jesters, in a way, as they make light of the news every night, making it easier for America to sleep. Jimmy Fallon’s take on the vote counting, for example, was more flip — “Vladimir Putin is like, ‘Oh well, you rig some, you lose some,’ ” he said.

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So when one of these hosts breaks, when one of them gets serious and teary, it carries an extra potency. Jimmy Kimmel cried talking about his infant son’s open-heart surgery in 2017, as he urged Congress to preserve the Affordable Care Act. After 9/11, Jon Stewart and David Letterman returned to the air and openly and memorably shared their pain and grief.

Late-night hosts need to be tough to weather fierce and relentless competition for the top ratings of their time period. They need to be confident enough to heap ridicule where it belongs. And they need to wield their power gracefully, as they choose who and what to promote with their giant platforms. It can be easy to forget that they’re human, and that they care deeply. On Thursday night, Colbert reminded us of that fact.


Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.