What We Can Learn From The Daily Show’s 2004 Election Special

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Stephen Colbert on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on November 2, 2004. Photo: Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

At 11 p.m. last night, when it looked like Donald Trump might become our next president but Clinton supporters still had some too-close-to-call hopes to cling to, both The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert, temporarily on Showtime, went live with election night specials.

Trevor Noah and his team did what one would expect them to do in such situations: They discussed the latest results while Roy Wood Jr. chugged Pepto Bismol; they ran with some pretaped segments, including one in which Jordan Klepper tried and failed to convince Trump and Clinton supporters to say something nice about their opposing candidates; and Noah conducted interviews with people like MTV political correspondent Ana Marie Cox and Keegan Michael-Key. Colbert did interviews and broke down results, too, but in his eagerness to enjoy the liberties afforded by premium cable, he also dropped some F-bombs and read election-related information written on a card taped to a naked guy’s penis.

Both Noah, hosting his first election night breakdown, and Colbert, a veteran of these sorts of politi-tainment spectacles, tried their best to make America laugh for a few minutes. But it was practically impossible, partly because some of the segments they ran with were just not a good idea — both the animated montage of Trump’s rise to power that opened Colbert’s Live Election Night extravaganza and Laura Benanti’s Melania Trump bit landed with pretty loud thuds — but also because the audiences for these two shows, which, generally speaking, are aimed at a blue-skewing crowd, were just not in the mood.

Noah and Colbert knew that. “I don’t know if you’ve come to the right place for jokes tonight because this is the first time, throughout this entire race, where I’m officially shitting my pants,” Noah said as his broadcast began. Over on Showtime, Mark Halperin, Bloomberg political editor and producer of the Showtime documentary The Circus, said the next four years would be “a really challenging time for America,” adding, “good line for a comedy show, eh?” To which Colbert responded: “I’m not sure it’s a comedy show anymore.”

If you’re old enough to have experienced a few presidential elections, the events of last night felt sort of familiar but also fundamentally different and more frightening. We’ve had elections in this millennium that were extremely close and divisive and came down to key battleground states — see 2000 and 2004 — but it’s rare to see the hosts of politically driven comedy shows, not to mention various pundits on other channels, looking so genuinely stunned and aware that their attempts at levity may not land.

As we continue to process the 2016 election results today, there are two conflicting impulses at work. One, for the anti-Trump faction, involves grieving and ranting and expressing shock and horror at the legitimately shocking, horrifying idea that we just elected a man who was endorsed by the KKK, threatens to ban Muslims, has routinely engaged in inappropriate behavior toward women, and, oh yeah, still hasn’t released his tax returns. “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” he told us. He said things like that, and he didn’t lose voters.

The other coping mechanism for those on the left is to acknowledge that America has survived difficult periods and challenging presidencies and come out more or less okay on the other side. That’s what both Hillary Clinton and President Obama tried to convey in their respective speeches today, which were clearly attempts to apply balm to a national wound.

The problem with that second impulse, understandable though it may be, is that it normalizes Trump’s behavior. It suggests that what we’re seeing is really all politics as usual when there is nothing at all usual about Trump, and both Clinton and Obama — while conciliatory by necessity today — have been telling us as much for months.

Nevertheless, I found something useful and sobering about putting this political moment in historical context, specifically by revisiting November 2, 2004, another election night that ran into the wee hours and didn’t result in a concession speech — from John Kerry, who lost to George W. Bush — until the next day. More specifically, I revisited that date by looking at that year’s live Daily Show election night special, which aired back when Jon Stewart was still the host and the Comedy Central newscast spoof had established itself as the primary safe space for those disenchanted with the Bush administration.

Election Night '04: Prelude to a Recount is a reminder of the all-star team of talent (though admittedly, quite white and male) that owned The Daily Show in the mid-’00s. Stewart, Colbert, Samantha Bee, Ed Helms, Rob Corddry, and Steve Carell were the regulars at the time, and given what they’ve gone on to do, it’s amazing to see them on the same team again, even in DVD flashback form. That special is also a reminder that the things that seemed disturbing about George W. Bush, while legitimate, now seem quaint by comparison. (I never thought I would type these words, ever, but: I would looooove to have W in office right now instead of Trump.)

What’s even more striking are the parallels between the election now and the election then. In 2004, as always, the key states that would determine the winner were places like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Michigan, as Corddry points out during a ridiculous segment involving a treasure map as well as an electoral one. And in ’04, as Stewart notes, there were Republicans engaging in egregious behavior that still managed to get elected.

At one point during the broadcast, Stewart points to the results in the Senate race in Kentucky, where Republican Jim Bunning narrowly defeated Democrat Daniel Mongiardo despite “speculation during the race that Bunning had mental problems” and, among other things, the fact that Bunning said his opponent “looked and dressed like one of Saddam Hussein’s sons.”

“Anyway,” Stewart says drily, “he won.”

Stewart also mentions Republican Tom Coburn’s victory over Democrat Brad Carson. “Coburn said at a town hall meeting that campaign workers had told him lesbianism is so rampant, they’ll only let one girl go to the bathroom in the schools,” Stewart tells the audience. Arguments about bathroom usage: a key issue then, apparently, and still one now.

So politics: It was and will always be thus. I mean, sure, that’s true. But watching that old Daily Show episode reaffirms even more powerfully that what happened in this year’s election should not have been a surprise. The evidence of extreme right-wing anger and the cultural chasm between rural and urban America has been out there in plain sight for years, since 2004 and even before that. Under President Obama, it was just easier for people on the left and in the media to either forget that or ignore it and act as though the country had finally changed.

That truth comes across even more loudly and clearly in the real kicker of that 2004 Daily Show special: Colbert’s tongue-in-cheek, pre–Colbert Report but very Colbert Report–esque attempt to put the ’04 election in context.

Colbert starts by stating that the day after the election will provide an opportunity for us to come together as a nation. Then he says this:

This is an opportunity we must reject. Look at the facts: After decades of apathy, this election filled with partisan rancor marks the highest turnout since 1968, when our country was also bitterly divided. The biggest mistake we made back then: quelling those street riots. They were just our way of letting democracy know we cared.

So to those who call for a return to civilized discourse, I say: Shut your ugly cakehole, fatty. Think of what we would lose. Our whole identities have become dependent upon rejecting each other. For who am I if not not you … fatty? It’s too late to turn back. Ours is now an anger-based economy. I see a glorious tomorrow where hybrid vehicles run half on gasoline and half on seething hate. I call it rage-ahol.

“Join me in the future,” he concludes, “for the future belongs to the furious.”

Fake Stephen Colbert may have been joking. But he was absolutely right: It does belong to the furious. And 12 years later, on another live-election special on another network, the real Stephen Colbert could barely find anything funny to say about a future that, shockingly but not shockingly, has just turned into the present.