Biden’s Late Night Reckoning Has Arrived—and It’s Not Pretty

The post-presidential debate reckoning came for several of the biggest late-night comedy shows last night—and it wasn’t pretty.

It was funny, of course, because funny is what late-night hosts do; they turn events, often harsh and unpleasant for those on the bitter end of them, into laughs. 

Monday night, when many hosts returned from either one or two weeks away from their shows, they did their jobs: they unloaded on the disastrous debate Joe Biden put in going on two weeks ago, even though for several of them who had been outspoken Biden backers, the situation appeared to be more agony than comedy.

Two hosts, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, tiptoed to the edge of openly joining the movement calling for Biden to withdraw from the race. A third, Seth Meyers, was only slightly less brutal in his takedown of Biden for, first, the debate collapse and then the increasing effort to pretend it wasn’t all that bad.

If LBJ knew it was over for him when he lost Walter Cronkite, Biden might be close to equally shaken when he gets word today that he may have lost Colbert, Stewart, and Meyers. (Joe is no longer doing work after 8 p.m. so he may have missed Monday’s late-night fireworks.)

Here’s how bad it was: Colbert is so pro-Biden (he praised him as a “great president”) that hosted a fundraiser for the president in New York in March—a fact he acknowledged somewhat ruefully last night. “I did this big benefit,” Colbert said of the event. “That night he seemed ancient but cogent.”

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Colbert called the experience of having to skewer Biden “so painful” and mockingly fainted dead on the floor after relating Biden’s excuse for his incoherence on debate night: it was “just my brain.” But Colbert also served up some brutal body shots in his monologue, including the suggestion that Biden did as well at debating as Abraham Lincoln—“if they dug him up right now.”

Still, in his frank analysis, Colbert said the question of what Biden should do now could be reduced to “a battle of two virtues.” One, he said, is perseverance, which he credited Biden for being “famous for.”

But the competing virtue is “self-sacrifice,” Colbert said. “This is the kind of courage I believe Joe Biden is capable of. I believe he is a good enough man and a good enough president to put the needs of the country ahead of the needs of his ego.”

And if that didn’t make his point clear enough, Colbert added: “However painful that might be it is possible that handing leadership to a younger generation is the right thing for the greater goodest.” (The joke was a call back to a line Biden misspoke during his George Stephanopoulos interview.)

Jon Stewart has not made the personal commitment to Biden that his friends Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel (who hosted a fundraiser for Biden in LA less than a month ago) have, but his enmity toward Donald Trump (a.k.a. in Stewartspeak:“F***face Von Clownstick”) is no state secret.

Monday night, Stewart—who got some initial licks in two weeks ago when he hosted a live version of The Daily Show immediately following the presidential debate—came loaded with both barrels of heavy shots he wanted to land and points he wanted to make.

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Stewart labeled Biden’s debate performance “a shocking display of cognitive difficulty recognizable to, unfortunately, anybody who has dealt with an aging parent.”

And he savaged the Biden staff and defenders who have tried to dismiss those questioning Biden’s ability to overtake Trump as pearl-clutchers and bed-wetters (“I’m not sure incontinence is the metaphor you want to go with,” Stewart said).

“For a campaign based on honesty and decency, the spin about the debate appears to be blatant bullsh*t,” he said. “We’re told that the threat of Trump is so great and the stakes are so high that even bringing up these absolutely legitimate concerns about the president’s ability to do the most vigorous job in the world for the next four years is enabling fascism.”

And while he disavowed making a direct call for Biden to drop out, Stewart delivered an argument as strong as any editorial published on that issue.

“Authoritarianism and Donald Trump aren’t the only threats our democracy faces,” Stewart said. “An arthritic status quo unwilling or unable to respond in any way to the concerns of voters who just received new and urgent information about their candidate also erodes confidence and faith in the system of government.”

Stewart called for a “stress test” for Biden’s candidacy, something that could provide “a release from this choice of a megalomaniac and a suffocating gerontocracy.”

There is a “yikes” in there somewhere for the Biden campaign, which has been able to depend on the comedic scrutiny late night has directed toward Trump’s mendacious excesses.

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Meyers, who has also left zero doubt about where his sympathies lie in this race during his many Trump-blasting “A Closer Look” segments, joined the chorus questioning both what the debate disaster means for Biden longer term as well as the presidential staff’s mostly preposterous efforts to shrug it all off.

All three hosts took particular aim at Biden’s provocative declaration that he would be fine with whatever the outcome if he simply did his best. Meyers’ version of mocking that was that it could be said about salsa lessons at a retirement home.

“This isn’t about how you feel,” Meyers said. “This is about how the voters feel. If you truly believe American democracy is at stake—and it is—then you have to act like it.”

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