Stephen Colbert and John Oliver on the election, life under Donald Trump
America’s late-night hosts spent most of the last year making jokes about the presidential election, but it’s safe to say the final result wasn’t what many of them expected. So on Saturday, a week and a half after former The Apprentice host Donald Trump won the presidency, Late Show‘s Stephen Colbert and Last Week Tonight‘s John Oliver regrouped at a fundraiser for the Montclair Film Festival to try and make sense of things in a conversation aptly titled “Wow, That Was Weird.”
For the first part of the conversation, Colbert and Oliver mostly avoided the elephant in the room. Oliver talked about his upbringing in England and his education at Cambridge, all in his trademark self-deprecating way. Although Oliver spent seven years as The Daily Show‘s Senior British Correspondent, he made it clear he has no desire to return to the homeland anytime soon — not least because the aftermath of Brexit has made the United Kingdom just as politically chaotic as America. At one point, Oliver elaborated on some more of the similarities between the Brexit decision and Trump’s victory.
“[British people] could see this coming, because it felt the same,” Oliver said. “The rhetoric running up to Brexit was similar. There was definitely a comparable lack of trust in the media, and a selective sense of what a ‘fact’ was.”
In fact, Oxford Dictionaries named “post-truth” their word of the year to refer to the slippery facts that defined both Brexit and the American election. In the wake of Trump’s victory, many blamed the kind of “fake news” that has become so common on social media platforms like Facebook for swaying uninformed voters. Since Colbert and Oliver were once in the job of making “fake news” for The Daily Show, they wanted to draw a distinction here.
“What we did was fake news,” Colbert said. “We got on TV and said this is all fake, and we’re gonna make fun of the news. That was fake news. Calling this ‘fake news’ upsets me, because this is just lying.”
As late-night hosts, both Colbert and Oliver will have to comment on the Trump administration quite often over the next four (or eight) years. As such, they are well aware of the dangers of “normalizing” Trump’s presidency (a point Oliver made repeatedly on his last show).
“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,” Oliver said. “That’s the danger. If you are lucky enough for your life to become routine, it’s easy not to feel the pain of others whose routines are going to be shattered. Not everyone is going to be okay, so it’s incumbent on everyone to remember that.”
Oliver already did his last show of the year (in which he declared a rousing, explosive “f— you” to 2016). When Last Week Tonight returns, Trump will be in office. Oliver and his team are already banking research and preparing for season 4, but Oliver made sure to note that it’s not exactly fun coming up with jokes about this.
“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 — it was just a diabetes-inducing level of sugar, that your job kinda flips on its head. You’re just trying to find a way to inject substance into sugar. We spent so much time thinking about framing devices, trying to figure out how to make something out of nothing.”
Colbert had his own troubles coming up with jokes about the election, most notably for his live Election Night Showtime special, which went sour after it became clear that, contrary to all predictions, Hillary Clinton was going to lose. When an audience member asked Colbert and Oliver about segments they’ve had to kill, Colbert said that he ended up having to cut almost two whole hours of material for the Showtime special, all based around Clinton’s predicted victory.
“That show was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life,” Colbert 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?”
Another audience member asked Colbert and Oliver the question that’s been on everyone’s minds lately: Just how screwed are we? Colbert had a long, dark, thoughtful answer.
“I’m all for giving him a chance, but don’t give him an inch,” Colbert said. “Because I believed everything he said, and I remember everything he said, and it’s horrifying. The job changes a man, that’s the cliche of the presidency, but every president tries to achieve what they promised. And you might say there are levers of power in Washington that could possibly slow him down, but two things: One is, they’re cowards. Second is, they tried to stop Trump. Everyone tried to stop Trump. Do not delude yourself. Everyone except the people he’s going to appoint tried to stop him, and they didn’t. He owes them nothing. That’s what scares me. He 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. Merry Christmas.”