Despite existing in greater volume than ever before, political comedy has been significantly damaged by a presidential administration so absurd that it has preemptively rendered almost all jokes about it impotent. The Trump presidency is a black hole of comedy: it’s a comedic and tragic event of such overwhelming density that no laughs can escape its pull. So it was almost perfect timing when Stephen Colbert retired his legendary right-wing pundit character at the end of 2014, right before the Age of Trump began in earnest. It’s tempting to think that the often brilliant Colbert Report would be the one show that could reliably puncture this impenetrable political era, but there’s no way to know, and by ending when it did the show (and Colbert’s character) can remain largely unsullied by these dissolute times.
Colbert’s current program, CBS’s The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, is no stranger to political comedy. Like almost all late night talk shows, that’s basically its bread-and-butter. Without Colbert’s O’Reilly-tweaking persona, though, it feels as feckless and defanged as any of the other late night shows with their tired Trump jokes and impersonations. Although it’s still home to some sharp comedy writing, the prevalence of political material in Colbert’s monologues actually makes the show feel a little depressing. Here’s the former preeminent political satirist of our day, relegated to familiar jokes that resemble those from countless other shows.
There was a good reason to tune into last night’s episode of The Late Show, though. More than any other comedian, Stephen Colbert should have some unique insight into the aftermath of the disingenuous “controversy” over Michelle Wolf’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner. After all, the last WHCD set to get as much attention as Wolf’s was Colbert’s, when he savaged George W. Bush to his face back in 2006.
Colbert didn’t let this opportunity pass him by last night. More importantly, he didn’t let it pass Stephen Colbert by—not the CBS host, but the semi-retired pundit he played on The Colbert Report for almost a decade. Colbert brought his old character out of retirement during his monologue last night to weigh in on Wolf’s speech. It might not have the same bite as it would have on the old show, but Colbert-as-Colbert quickly shows how ridiculous the overblown reaction to Wolf’s performance has been. It’s only a small part of the full video below, but the whole thing is worth watching. If you absolutely have to skip forward to the brief return of the Report, though, you can find it starting at the four minute mark.