The unpredictability of Donald Trump’s chaotic reign as president has posed many challenges to late-night talk show hosts.
On a good day, the challenge is merely keeping a straight face while mentioning Trump’s attempted restraining order against Stormy Daniels. On a bad day, it involves having to find a way to talk about his unwillingness to condemn Nazis after Heather Heyer’s murder. Lately, however, the challenge has just been keeping up. Nearly every day this week, late-breaking presidential news derailed the process at Late Show with Stephen Colbert, culminating in a Thursday night episode with an impromptu second monologue.
On Monday night, Colbert began the show by talking about the Oscars before taking an abrupt turn.
“I know you all came here tonight to hear me talk about trade tariffs,” Colbert says, signaling that his writing staff had prepared a whole chunk on the fallout from Trump’s proposed steel tariff. “But we’re not talking about trade tariffs tonight. That’s not where we’re going because right before the taping of this show the entire news cycle jumped on a bus to Crazy Town.” To be fair, the news cycle always is kind of hitching a ride toward Crazy Town, but some days it just gets there faster. In any case, this was the day former Trump aid Sam Nunberg decided not to cooperate with the Mueller investigation and had a full-on meltdown across a staggering amount of media outlets.
What follows is nine minutes of on-the-fly talk show comedy, occasionally punctuated by Colbert declaring in disbelief: “This all just happened minutes ago!”
The very next day, Colbert made it through his monologue, business as usual, before shoehorning in another huge story unfolding at that very minute.
“Folks, earlier in this show, I told you about Trump’s tariffs,” he starts, finally having gotten to the tariffs he couldn’t discuss the previous night. “And they might already be creating a problem because during this taping we found out that Gary Cohn is resigning as Trump’s top economic advisor. Damn, I had Jared in my Trump Resignation Fantasy League.”
It seems rare that Colbert would get a second opportunity in one week to show off how nimble his writing staff is, but these are rare times. On Thursday night, however, it happened again, bringing the last-minute major-change total to three this week. After word spread late in the day that Trump had agreed to meet with Kim Jong-Un, Colbert found himself affably fumbling for words on live television.
“Here’s the thing, folks,” Colbert says coming back from commercial after his monologue, still standing center stage. “I was gonna be over there [pointing at his desk] talking to you tonight, but we have some very late breaking news that I think I should do from here, because we would have done this in the monologue if we had known–it literally happened while we were doing the show, while we were taping.”
Colbert is a seasoned improviser and cultural critic. He was built for these times. But even he has a little trouble winging his way through hyper-topical news based on some information he learned during a commercial break.
“Um, I’m not entirely sure what I’m about to say,” he reveals. Getting to find out what he’s going to say as he finds the words, though, makes for crackling TV.
At the rate things are going, you can expect that next week someone with a headset and clipboard will whisper in Colbert’s ear mid-sentence, causing him to freestyle some new monologue jokes. But if anyone can handle it, it’s Colbert.