Stephen Colbert and John Oliver on satire under Trump: “Who can make jokes to a sobbing audience?”

The new president calls for a new approach

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Stephen Colbert wants to make one thing clear.

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“What we did was fake news,” he told a crowd at the Montclair Film Festival, about his time as a ‘correspondent’ on The Daily Show. “We got on TV and said this is all fake, and we’re gonna make fun of the news. That was fake news.”

However, many in the United States have since highlighted the propagation of “fake news” on social media as part of the momentum driving the election campaign of Donald Trump – but Colbert isn’t buying it.

“Calling this ‘fake news’ upsets me, because this is just lying,” he said.

Colbert and his fellow former Daily Show colleague John Oliver were reflecting on an election campaign that brought out the worst in people, the Internet and journalism, and demanded the best from their writers.

“This whole process has not been fun, because it’s the inverse version of what we normally do,” Oliver said. “When covering a campaign, you try and take things of substance and put some sugar on it to make it palatable. But there was so little of substance this whole campaign…that your job kinda flips on its head. You’re just trying to find a way to inject substance into sugar.”

What the election lacked in substance, it made up for in raw emotion, most viscerally felt on election night itself. It’s vapid to say, but watching the results roll in on Colbert’s special live edition of The Late Show, up to the moment when a Trump victory was a virtual certainty, was truly incredible television.

According to Colbert, they had scrapped almost two hours of material based around a Clinton win, so the camera stayed on the host constantly. The stomach-churning atmosphere was like NASA’s mission control when they lose a satellite.

“That show was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life,” he said. “You couldn’t cut to commercial either. We had a bunch of made-up commercials, but none of them were appropriate once we knew we were playing to an audience of the condemned. My audience was sobbing openly. Who can make jokes to a sobbing audience?” 

However, it built to one of the most genuinely rousing, and genuinely genuine moments of the entire campaign, as Colbert tried to put it all in perspective. “The poison tastes good” will be a book title some day.

So maybe that’s the silver lining? Tough times, but if we all pull together, we’ll get through?

“I think the danger of, ‘Live your lives, the sun comes out tomorrow’ is that that’s true for some people, and so it’s very easy to forget that it’s very much not for others,” says Oliver.

And Colbert?

“[Trump] owes the checks and balances of Washington nothing, because they tried to stop him and they couldn’t. And he’s a vindictive person. So, it’s all going to be fine.

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“Merry Christmas.”