Trump's late-night critics seek the funny in Mueller's 'no collusion' finding

When you’re a topical comedy show with a point of view that has consistently questioned the character and competence of the current president of the United States, what do you do when the news slaps you in the face?

That was the compelling question Stephen Colbert and his colleagues had to answer Monday, the first night back to work for the late-night hosts after America learned on Sunday what the attorney general says is in the final report of the special counsel investigating President Donald Trump.

Their answer was, yes, to acknowledge the blow of the mostly good news for the president, but also to punch back and hope the jabs didn’t come off as wild or ineffectual.

Maybe Robert Mueller didn’t find Trump colluded with the Russians in cheating the 2016 election that put the former reality TV star into office, was the comics’ collective message, but he’s still the reliably irregular guy we’ve been mocking without mercy. Maybe we have to eat a little crow here, but we’re confident there’ll be tastier courses to come.

“This completely wrecks my bracket,” said James Corden, on CBS’s “Late Late Show.” “I had Trump going all the way to impeachment.”

Attorney General William Barr’s four-page summary of the Mueller report — which is all the public knows so far — “was like the CliffsNotes — or more like the I-Want-to-Jump-Off-a-CliffsNotes,” said Colbert on CBS’s “Late Show,” the most consistently pointed Trump critic.

“This weekend we received troubling news: Our president is not a Russian asset,” said Colbert. “I say ‘troubling’ because if Trump is not working with the Russians, then what the h--- is wrong with him?”

“Trump is winning so hard right now,” acknowledged Trevor Noah on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” that “at this rate (2016 opponent Hillary Clinton) is going to be locked up by the end of the day.”

“And now the process of tearing our country even further apart can finally begin,” said the titular host of ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” (which is not live, exclamation point notwithstanding). “The only way Trump could be happier with this Mueller report is if a porn star rolled it up and spanked him with it.”

Seth Meyers of NBC’s “Late Night,” nearly as aggressive in critiquing Trump as Colbert has been, is off this week so Trump backers did not get to add his monologue to their schadenfreude watch list. Conan O’Brien, from TBS, is in reruns too.

And Jimmy Fallon of the “Tonight Show” did have a new episode Monday, but not really: It had no fresh comedy or monologue and its point seemed to be to serve as an extended infomercial for the new Samsung phone used to shoot it outside of the usual studio.

Yes, Fallon looked limp pushing a cell phone and a few fluffy celebrity interviews in the midst of big news. But in fairness to him, this hour of virtually dead air wasn’t the NBC star’s usual middle-of-the-road take but rather some unfortunate timing: His was a prerecorded episode slated to air when he and his staff are off during a week that will otherwise be reruns. Even if Fallon wanted to be topical and hard-hitting, it wasn’t going to happen this week.

For those who were scheduled to work, it was clearly a challenge to handle the news that Mueller’s investigation — which has been a two-years-in-the-hole card for Trump critics — did not in the end share the hosts’ harsh judgment of the president.

The inquiry lasted a long time, said Noah: “When this investigation started, two of America’s most popular people were Kevin Spacey and Louis CK.”

And after all that anticipation, two of the shows agreed, the result was like an especially awful Christmas. The news, Noah said, is like heading to the tree “hoping for a brand new BMX but instead you find Santa’s dead body.”

“This is, shall we say, anticlimactic,” acknowledged Colbert (who called the wait “two years in which we all aged ten.”) “It’s like saying, ‘Guess what, kids? Santa came — and he brought mostly nothing.”

Because of the news, Colbert said he would inaugurate a new segment: “Oh … Alright Then.” Its theme music could be his band’s trombonist, playing sadly.

Both Colbert and Kimmel compared the end of the Mueller investigation to a particular TV series that went out badly. “I haven’t been this confused about an ending since the series finale of ‘Lost,’” was Kimmel’s version.

Kimmel was the only one, though, to suggest that Vice President Mike Pence looked “bummed” at a public appearance, a nice sideways take on the Mueller news.

The one ray of hope for Trump critics in Barr’s summary was the word that Mueller could not find evidence to charge Trump with obstruction of justice for trying to block the Russia probe but could not exonerate him either.

This led to everybody making fun of Trump for, of course, immediately claiming exoneration. Corden had, if not the most pointed, then the funniest take.

Tweeted the president: "No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION. KEEP AMERICA GREAT!"

Responded Corden: “The fact that only half the tweet was capitalized shows just how much Donald Trump’s matured in office.” And: “In a weekend filled with shocking revelations, the most shocking part in all of this is that Donald Trump spelled ‘exoneration’ correctly.”

But it was up to Colbert to deliver the most potent closer, the reminder that, in the end, it isn’t going to be about Mueller but about Trump himself.

“Fair’s fair,” the CBS star said. “We have to cross ‘collusion’ off the list of reasons Trump is unfit to be president. Fellas, bring out the board!”

And out came a whiteboard crawling with reasons ranging from the jokey to the deadly serious: “Put kids in cages … Insults allies ... Ruined Kanye … Calls free press ‘enemy of the people’ ... Spelled Melania wrong … 19+ sexual assault allegations …”

After pondering that for a time, Colbert said, “I really want to be fair to him. I should also cross off Mueller from the list of Trump investigations.”

And he flipped the board to reveal a list of 17 ongoing probes, then erased the first one.

“There, sir, it’s gone,” Colbert said. “That must be one-seventeenth of a weight off your shoulders.”

On an intellectual level he was right. But watching the comics wrestle with the news, it was hard to escape what Noah had to say earlier: This one was, for the most part, about Trump winning so very hard. And in the face of a huge PR victory like that, how much can a well-conceived joke or two accomplish?

sajohnson@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @StevenKJohnson

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