Chat between two anxious late-night hosts

Stephen Colbert and John Oliver talk about the future turn of their shows after President-elect Donald Trump's win

Stephen Colbert (left) and John Oliver hosting Wow, That Was Weird: A Post-Election Evening With Stephen Colbert And John Oliver.
Stephen Colbert (left) and John Oliver hosting Wow, That Was Weird: A Post-Election Evening With Stephen Colbert And John Oliver.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEWARK (New Jersey) • As the two late-night comedians sat across from each other on stage at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center last Saturday night, Stephen Colbert asked John Oliver why he had not yet been given a commitment for four more seasons.

"There's a clear road that you can put your foot out," said Colbert, host of The Late Show on CBS.

Oliver, anchor of HBO's Last Week Tonight, replied brightly but fatalistically: "The kind of road that Thelma and Louise drove off."

Though they did not spell it out, they were talking about the victory of United States President-elect Donald Trump, who, after a months-long barrage of jokes from these and other hosts, is about to assume the highest office in the land.

This live conversation, which was booked several weeks ago and billed with the title, Wow, That Was Weird: A Post-Election Evening With Stephen Colbert And John Oliver, was meant to be comic catharsis for the hosts and their audience, many of whom expected Mrs Hillary Clinton to win the presidency.

But the event played more like a group-therapy session than what it was, a benefit for the Montclair Film Festival, where Colbert's wife Evelyn is president of its board.

The hosts did not mince words when it came to their anxiety about Mr Trump's election, urging audience members not to become complacent.

In recent days, Colbert said, there has been "a transformation going on in the emotional state of the audience" for his programme."Now the story has teeth on a level that it didn't have before," he added.

Oliver said soberly: "Someone who's always acted like the most powerful man in the world has now actually become the most powerful man in the world."

Their two shows will "need to work out what we become next", he said. These alumni of The Daily Show, Comedy Central's long-running news satire, find themselves at different places in their professional trajectories. Oliver has enjoyed critical praise for Last Week Tonight, a weekly half-hour show that recently won the Emmy Award for outstanding variety talk series.

Colbert, who was largely invincible when he played a fake conservative pundit on The Colbert Report, is trying to strike the right tone on The Late Show, an hour-long network talk show that runs five nights a week.

He is coming off a live election-night special, broadcast on Showtime, that became increasingly surreal and funereal as the programme wore on.

Oliver said it had not been much fun to write jokes about the brutal campaign. Usually in his line of work, he said: "You try and take things of substance and then put some sugar on it to make it palatable. But there was so little of substance, this whole campaign, it's just like a diabetes-inducing amount of sugar. Your job kind of flips on its head."

Somewhat facetiously, the Brit talked about whether his frequent comedic jabs at Mr Trump might mean that he now has to return to his home country.

"I'm sure he can take a joke," Oliver said, adding: "No, we know that's not true either."

Colbert asked him: "Are you peering out the windows?"

Oliver replied: "No, but one day, like Jurassic Park, maybe I'll see the water shifting and go, 'Here they come.'"

When Colbert asked how Americans could resist the inclination to normalise Mr Trump's most extreme viewpoints and policies without living perpetually "at an adrenaline fever pitch", Oliver answered that it was dangerous to overlook the pain of people whose lives are "going to be shattered".

"Not everyone is going to be okay," Oliver said. "You have to keep remembering that this is an abnormal version of what we've been through before."

Colbert replied: "I don't have anything to compare it to. We haven't flirted with strongmen before."

Oliver agreed. "This is a flirtation," he said. "This is coquettish."

Discussing the apparent rise of websites that traffic bogus news stories, Colbert objected to this content being described as "fake news".

Referring to his and Oliver's time at The Daily Show, he said: "What we did was fake news. We got on TV and we said: 'This is all going to be fake. We're going to make fun of news.'" He added: "The fact that they call this stuff fake news upsets me because this is just lying."

Oliver said Britain was swept up in a similar atmosphere of media distrust this summer, just before Brexit, the vote in favour of withdrawing from the European Union.

When politicians declared that the populace was tired of experts, Oliver said: "People laughed - and then they stopped laughing, hard, when the results of the election came in." When an audience member asked just how much trouble they thought the nation was in, the hosts seemed to find it difficult to be humorous.

"I'm all for giving him a chance," Colbert said of Mr Trump, "but don't give him an inch. Because I believed everything he said, and I remember everything he said. And it's horrifying." Oliver added: "I don't know if there is too much concrete evidence to be too comfortable, going forward." Colbert said that although "everybody tried to stop Trump", he prevailed nonetheless. "He owes the checks and balances of Washington nothing, because they tried to stop him and they couldn't," he said. "And he's a vindictive person.

"So, it's all going to be fine," he said archly, to some laughter. "Merry Christmas."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 22, 2016, with the headline 'Chat between two anxious late-night hosts'. Subscribe