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The moment on election night when Stephen Colbert couldn’t make a joke

Stephen Colbert (Scott Kowalchyk/CBS)

The election result shocked just about everyone on live television, and Stephen Colbert had an especially difficult task keeping up.

He was hosting a live special on Showtime, called the “Live Election Night Democracy’s Series Finale: Who’s Going To Clean Up This S—?” The studio audience was barred from checking any election updates on their phones, so the late-night comic was responsible for breaking any news and then pivoting to cracking wise about what so few in the media had failed to see coming. (Some of the preplanned components of Colbert’s show revealed that shortsightedness applied to his production, too.)

The turning point for Colbert came as he was interviewing political journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. Colbert told the audience that Trump had just won Florida, drawing some audible gasps and cries of “Oh no!”

“He is now on the doorstep of 270 electoral votes,” Halperin said.

“Wow,” a solemn Colbert responded. “That’s a horrifying prospect.”

The host then struggled for the words: “I can’t put — I cannot put a — I can’t put a happy face on that. And that is my job.”

No one laughed.

(Warning, some Showtime explicit language ahead.)

Just before the Florida news, Colbert acknowledged, “I’m not sure it’s a comedy show anymore.”

Later, Colbert was joined by actor Jeff Goldblum and a roundtable of comedians, all of whom were processing what had been unimaginable up until an hour or two before.

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Colbert finally signed off with a monologue that came off as improvised, from the heart and earnest, invoking the memory of his beloved late mother.

And then he turned to what came off as a preplanned component. He said that he wanted to list things that brought all Americans altogether, “and fair warning, some of these are silly” — which is a weird warning to give during a comedy show, but it underscored just how much the special had veered off that original intent.

He continued: “But in the face of something that might strike you as horrible, I think laughter is the best medicine. You cannot laugh and be afraid at the same time.”

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