Americans who tuned in for the second and final 2020 presidential debate — “Trump-Biden II: This Time It’s Audible” — got an earful.
And getting only one ear filled with noise, relatively speaking, was such a nice contrast from the cacophony of the first head-to-head battle between President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden, back in late September.
Live again on all three major networks Thursday, late-night hosts had all they could do to A) keep from keeling over in shock at the semblance of civility and B) find jokes to tell about an event where new microphone rules and staff advice kept the president from stepping on Biden’s lines.
“The muted mics really helped,” said NBC’s Jimmy Fallon. “It was much calmer. At one point they almost cut to Jeffrey Toobin to liven things up.”
Toobin, of course, is The New Yorker writer who — well, never mind.
“If the first debate was sponsored by Red Bull,” Fallon continued, “this one was sponsored by NyQuil.”
Jimmy Kimmel, on ABC, had a medicine cabinet thought, too: “I think maybe somebody swapped Trump’s Adderall out for Tylenol,” he said.
A Fallon joke attributed a different substance to the president: “Before the debate it was announced that Joe Biden tested negative for coronavirus,” he said. “Meanwhile Trump’s on so many steroids he tested positive for Lance Armstrong.”
But, again, not so much Thursday night, when Trump kept to the debate rules.
“Donald Trump is the only president who gets marks for good behavior,” the “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” host said, “like when you bring a 2-year-old on a plane.”
Or, as Fallon, from the “Tonight Show,” put it, “Everyone was impressed by Trump not interrupting or yelling. I’m not sure it’s a great sign when we talk about the president like we talk about a four-year-old at a puppet show. ‘You did a great job. You really did.’”
Fallon asked his social media followers to sum up the evening in six words, and they agreed that, for all that the proceedings offered in human contrast, they lacked a certain pizzazz,
“I kinda miss Trump being insane,” wrote one. “This ‘Grumpy Old Men’ sequel sucks,” said another.
The other late-night comedy show to go live was, as usual, Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show” on CBS. Seth Meyers of NBC and Trevor Noah of Comedy Central have been sitting the debate season out, at least in terms of changing their telecast schedules. It is budget concerns? Pandemic ennui? We may never know.
But with the election looming, there was a sharpness in the air — or, rather, over the air — that we didn’t see even in the treatment of Debate One, a few weeks back. Colbert, especially, was more fed up than usual with the current occupant, going less for jokes than direct criticism.
“Tonight was Donald Trump’s very last chance to make his closing argument: ‘Please ignore what he’s like and everything he’s ever done,’” the CBS host said. That was his opener.
“Trump seemed to get spooked as the night went on and started playing some of the classics, like ‘Immigrants Are Scary,’” Colbert said. He played a debate clip of the president talking about immigrants as bad people.
“‘Immigrants are murderers and rapists,’” the comic summed up the viewpoint. “Trump’s closing with the line he opened this entire nightmare with … Let’s complete the circle.”
As video played of Trump and wife Melania going back up the escalator, a reversal of the prelude to his 2015 candidacy announcement, Colbert called out, “Goodbye, sir! See you at the tribunals!”
Even a joke that seemed merely about fashion ended with a twist of the shiv.
“The big question: Who won the debate?” Colbert asked. “Dr. Jill Biden, with an amazing matching mask and dress ensemble! I’m sorry, I’m just a sucker for floral prints. Or at this point any kind of coordinated plan.”
Fallon, though, disagreed. “I think we can all agree,” he said. “The winner was — Kristen Welker.”
As moderator, the NBC White House correspondent drew praise for her politician wrangling.
“No one seemed to get too riled up,” said Fallon. “The only person who was really upset was Chris Wallace” — the Fox News host and ill-fated moderator of the first debate.
“Kristen Welker for president. That’s it,” said one of “Tonight’s” six-word audience submissions.
Welker came up again in another context. All three of the hosts raised an eyebrow, via a monologue line, at a claim the president made.
“Only Trump can look at a half Black, half Native American moderator and say, ‘I’m the least racist person in this room,’” Kimmel said.
Fallon took a more personal angle: “It’s a little weird to say ‘I’m the least racist person in this room’ when half the room are your friends and family.”
And of course there was talk of coronavirus.
Colbert found it odd that Trump would again bring up that kids aren’t as affected by it. “Why do you keep bragging that young people are safe?” he asked. “You do know that old people are the ones that vote, right?”
“Tonight’s debate was considered a win for the Trump campaign,” Fallon said, “mostly because he didn’t walk in with a highly contagious disease.”
And Fallon — who’s usually more politic in his political humor — drew “ooohs” from his studio audience with this barbed line: “Actually, they were supposed to have two Plexiglas barriers separating Trump and Biden, but they ultimately decided against it. So make that two more walls Trump couldn’t build.”
However good Trump has been for the joke-writing game, it’s pretty clear these hosts are not three votes the GOP can count on two Tuesdays from now, and they’ll happily accept the challenge of finding humor in a more even keeled presidency.
Kimmel even showed Thursday a video made by his wife Molly and featuring their son who was born with a congenital heart defect. It argued most Republicans in power are only paying lip service to the idea that, if they succeed in ending the Affordable Care Act, they will protect insurance rights for people like their son, with a preexisting medical condition.
It was a remarkably direct thing to see amidst a late-night opening segment, just as it was extraordinary to hear Colbert’s closing monologue line.
“And that’s the final presidential debate,” he said. “And Americans have a tough choice to make now: Do they vote for Joe Biden on Nov. 3? Or do they vote for him early? Because the ultimate mute button is in your hands.”
©2020 Chicago Tribune