Tuesday night’s presidential debate was, by most accounts, an off-the-rails train wreck, one quickly trashed by late-night hosts. “Usually when you see two guys this age arguing, it’s about leaves being blown on to each other’s lawns,” said Jimmy Fallon of the 90-minute spectacle which pitted Donald Trump against Joe Biden, both in their 70s, for what turned into an incoherent, sinister mess.
The president interrupted Biden to the point of incoherence and talked over the moderator, Fox News’s Chris Wallace. There were few coherent sentences to process, and even less substance. “Seriously, did anyone take anything away from tonight?” the Tonight Show host wondered. “Was that helpful to any American? The only person who enjoyed that was Vladimir Putin while he was stroking a cat.
“Honestly, sitting through that debate felt like getting a Covid test in both nostrils at once,” Fallon added.
The spectacle in Cleveland, Ohio, did, Fallon joked, make history in that it “was the first time Americans ever watched something on TV and wished there were commercials”.
Fallon also panned Wallace’s performance as moderator, in which he failed to cut Trump off, enforce rules or maintain control. “Before the debate, Chris Wallace said if he did his job right, it would be like he’s not there. Well, mission accomplished,” Fallon joked, comparing Wallace’s performance to watching “a kindergarten teacher running a class on Zoom”.
“First things first, we need new debate rules, people,” said Trevor Noah on the Daily Show. “Chris Wallace, thank you for your service, and I hope that you have a lot of money for your therapy, you made a valiant effort, but you were not ready for this. Because no human being could’ve been ready for this. They don’t need a moderator for this thing, they need a UFC ref.
“Moderators, you need to figure out how to handle Trump at a debate, because this is not good for the nation,” he added. Noah jokingly proposed more effective strategies to keep Trump from interrupting, such as using a spray bottle on his hair or offering him $100 for every sentence he lets Biden finish, since “money is a great incentive for him, and now that we’ve seen the tax returns, we know that he needs it”.
“Whoever decided on this format needs to be fired,” Noah added. “I have never, and I mean never, wanted to see a commercial break more badly in my life.”
Why, Noah asked in disbelief, were there no factcheckers? “Otherwise people can just stand on the stage and say whatever they want, and there are no consequences. Zero, nada, zilch. Every time a candidate says a lie, there should be some kind of sign that they lied.
“It’s like the NBA Finals and all of a sudden you can call your own fouls. No! That’s chaos – you need an actual ref on the court, people.”
So what was his takeaway from the debate? Noah shrugged. What was there to say? “I don’t know how Biden did, because Trump did more interrupting than Kanye West in a room full of Taylor Swifts,” he said. “It sounded less like a debate and more like the radio was stuck catching two stations.”
“I come to you tonight, ladies and gentlemen, an empty vessel,” said Stephen Colbert following the debate, for which he found the term “shitshow” to be an inadequate descriptor – “both an insult to shows and to the other word that I can’t say because this is CBS”.
The Late Show host zoomed in on “one of the most telling, one of the most upsetting moments not only of the night but of my lifetime”, which was “when the president of the United States was asked simply to condemn white supremacy”.
Trump instead sputtered: “I’m willing to do anything, I want to see peace,” and “Give me a name, who do you want me to name?” When Wallace answered “white supremacists” as Biden supplied the Proud Boys, a men-only, far-right extremist group, Trump responded: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.”
“Didn’t do it!” Colbert fumed, then imitated the president: “I don’t support white supremacists, I just command them, like a dog, that’s why I’ve got this shiny dogwhistle.”
And in Los Angeles, Jimmy Kimmel lamented a “terrible” first debate. “I’d call it a nightmare,” he said, “but at least during a nightmare you get some sleep.
“Because of the pandemic, there’s no opening handshake tonight; there’s no physical contact,” Kimmel explained of the Covid-era’s strange set-up. “The candidates remained socially distant the whole time. It was like date night with Melania.”
That was about the only restraint shown by the president; “they flipped a coin to determine who would get the first question, but when Trump saw the quarter in the air he said, ‘Hey, that’s how much I paid in taxes last year,’ and it went downhill from there,” Kimmel joked.
The “debate” veered so far into chaos, largely thanks to Trump’s ceaseless interruption, that Wallace had to repeatedly call attention to the task at hand. That’s how you know it’s bad, Kimmel concluded. “You know things are getting heated when the moderator pleads, ‘Please, gentlemen, let’s return to the topic of race.’”