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Late Night TV in Trump’s America

By | November 6, 2017


Every week-day since around the time Donald Trump took office, my morning routine has included watching Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers’s monologues from the night before. I load both clips on YouTube and, as I fill my coffee machine with water, I listen to Colbert conversationally recall Trump’s most recent actions and blunders—a live studio audience laughing about every twenty seconds or so. As I drink my coffee and get dressed, I switch to Meyers’s monologue, which generally covers the same stories as Colbert’s, albeit with a delivery that is deadpan where Colbert’s cheeky. After I’ve been briefed, I walk to class, comforted by the calm, charming demeanor of the two men who brought me up to speed.

I start my mornings with Colbert and Meyers, not with their late-night competitors, Jimmy Kimmel or Jimmy Fallon, because Colbert and Meyers prioritize politics on their shows. Indeed, this penchant for the political has garnered both hosts millions of new viewers since the start of the 2016 election season. I want to remain informed of Trump’s administration—up to date on all of the major mistakes, announcements, and legislative news of the day. But, like most people, I have more immediate worries than week-long Twitter feuds and month-long policy battles. Furthermore, as someone who is frequently disturbed by news coming out of this White House, I prefer to attend my morning classes without the existential angst that straight news increasingly induces. Colbert and Meyers comically grapple with the political issues of the day, offering me the news without paralyzing me with fear.

Laughing at the End of the World

Of the many potentially-apocalyptic stories in the news, the ones about nuclear war terrify me most. In April, soon after North Korea ignored the United Nations’ long-standing ballistic missile test ban and launched one just off-shore of Nagasaki, I avoided articles and Tweets about nuclear war. But, a few mornings later when I saw Colbert’s monologue was titled “If You’re Watching This, Thermonuclear War Hasn’t Wipe Out Humanity,” I queued up the video for my morning routine. I was still petrified about nuclear annihilation but I was also curious to hear about developing tensions between two nuclear-armed countries. I figured the news would be easier to digest if cushioned by Colbert’s humor.

In his monologue, Colbert explained that Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Korea to try and alleviate mounting tensions between North and South Korea. He joked that Pence wore his “top gun Halloween costume” on his Korea trip while a close-up picture of a hilariously stern, aviator-wearing Pence hovered on the top left corner of the screen. Colbert then screeched the Top Gun theme song and flashed a toothy smile at his viewers, guiding the audience towards acceptance of the news through his already-palatable presentation of the story.

Though Colbert presented a real news story—the increasingly fraught tension between the two Koreas and the ostensible imminence of nuclear apocalypse—he had already gone through the emotional duress of processing the story and then converting it into a digestible idea, one softened by humor and delivered with charisma. His jokes are like protective bubble wrap around disturbing news stories, mitigating any unease that the raw news might induce.

Although my friend Adam Hirschornn doesn’t watch Colbert religiously, he occasionally watches the political segments, either when they pop-up on his Facebook newsfeed or when his family recommends them. Adam likes Colbert’s comedic style and was previously a fan of The Colbert Report, Colbert’s previous show in which he satirized a conservative political pundit. “I think he’s very smart, very clever, and very witty,” Adam told me, adding, “I like him as an individual.” Adam gravitates towards Colbert’s commentary not just because of his comedic style but because he trusts Colbert’s intelligence—his ability to not only entertain but also to inform.

Meyers and Colbert naturally differ in style but the comedic crux of their shows is the same. For Meyers, disconcerting Trump news is now the basis for his most popular segment “A Closer Look”—a ten-ish minute, joke-driven probe of a specific news story. Originally, the segment only aired about once a week, but as the 2016 election grew more contentious and complicated it appeared more often. Now, with new Trump-related scandals emerging every day, Meyers takes A Closer Look at the headlines almost daily.

At the end of May, Meyers devoted the segment to recapping Trump’s first presidential trip abroad. The segment started with ‘hard’ news clips from MSNBC and CNN, each a few seconds long, succinctly summarizing Trump’s pre-trip controversies. In the segment’s usual style, which Meyer’s explained to the New York Times as a “news-joke-news-joke” structure, Meyer’s followed each recap with a quick jab underscoring its absurdity. For instance, after showing an Associated Press report that revealed Trump continued to eat his favorite meal, steak and ketchup, while abroad instead of eating traditional middle-eastern dishes, Meyers stared straight at the camera with proffered hands and slumped shoulders. Like a fed-up parent, he angrily whispered “You’re an adult! Eat what they serve you!”

Meyers provides viewers with both the stimulus and the relief—domestic turmoil followed by hilarious jabs at the absurdity of it all. And this all comes from the dad-like wit of someone who, through his jokes and smiles, affects a calming “don’t worry son, I’m here to tell you what’s going on” demeanor.

The Apolitical Team

While Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon still invite traditional late-night celebrity guests—actors, musicians, comedians—onto their shows, Colbert and Meyers have increasingly hosted political figures, journalists, and public intellectuals. Recent guests on Colbert’s show include MSNBC host Rachel Maddow and ousted White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci. Meyers has hosted Counselor to President Trump, Kellyanne Conway and Senator John McCain, among many other politically-oriented guests. Even when Meyers and Colbert are hosting celebrities, they never shy away from political talk. On June 8th, Colbert hosted the reality-TV guru and host of Watch What Happens Live, Andy Cohen, and the two chatted about the similarities between Trump and the women on the Real Housewives. On the same night, Jimmy Fallon hosted Chelsea Clinton, but he was careful to avoid any mention of politics and the Trump administration. Instead, he spent a quarter of the interview talking about Clinton’s shoes.

Through Facebook timelines and Twitter feeds, most viewers are at least somewhat aware of the day’s biggest news stories before the tune into late-night TV. A politically-minded classmate of mine, Adam Harper, considers late-night monologues as news with the purpose of entertaining. When asked about politics on these shows, he suggested that the hosts; jobs are “not to inform, initially, but to add commentary.” Colbert and Meyers regularly flesh out the hazy details of news stories and present the nuances they find funny and relevant. Fallon, when he does discuss politics, maintains a conspicuous distance from controversy and fails to inform his audience as a result.

Fallon is naturally inclined towards fun, not serious, material. He’s famous for swinging his arms like a musical theater extra and over-dramatically scrunching his face in “lip sync battles” against celebrities like Emma Stone. His tendency for vacuous over serious matters became clear when he interviewed Donald Trump last year, after Trump won the Republican nomination and his bid for the presidency was officially legitimized. A clip towards the end of the interview, when Fallon boyishly asked Trump if he could ruffle his hair, went viral. Trump obliged (as he agreed to before the show taped) and Fallon excitedly patted the billionaire’s head, grinning the entire time. Critics accused Fallon of ‘normalizing’ a racist, sexist demagogue by joking with him instead of scrutinizing his policy proposals or bringing up his offensive and controversial talk of a Muslim ban, a border wall, and women’s bodies.

But the entire interview, not just this soundbite, was deeply unsettling to those, like me, who found then-candidate Trump offensive and dangerous. Fallon exclusively asked low-stakes, innocuous questions. When Trump victimized himself by claiming that going into politics was very tough for him, saying that “he gave up a lot by doing this,” Fallon looked earnestly into Trump’s eyes with his brows furrowed in either mock-sympathy or interest, and agreed, saying, “It’s grueling.” It was as if Fallon deemed Trump no more consequential to American politics than Scarlett Johansson on a routine press tour for a new movie.

In short, the interview was not entertaining but eerie. While Trump droned on, regurgitating his usual diatribe about how incredibly, incredibly well he was doing and how incredibly, incredibly smart he was, Fallon did not push back or challenge a single one of Trump’s points. He remained neutral and compliant the entire time. Fallon’s passivity was like a performance of many people’s worst fears about a president Trump—complete surrender to his words. The interview felt more like a psychological thriller about succumbing to power than the PG comedy people usually go to Fallon for.

Because it is nearly impossible to ignore politics in the Trump era, people with large platforms are expected to engage with politics, especially late night talk show hosts whose medium is intertwined with daily news. By ignoring the consequences of Trump’s actions, Fallon leaves viewers alone to emotionally contend with stories like rising sea levels and heat-induced crop failure. It’s not entertainment if you close the browser feeling bewildered and anxious.

A Bit of Relief

Everyone needs relief from the political and social tumult pervading America, and it is increasingly clear that people look to late-night for such relief. Until around October 2016, the month of his infamous Trump interview, Fallon was the undeniable king of late-night TV, and his ratings surpassed those of his peers by a healthy million-viewer margin. But since Fallon’s apolitical interview with Trump and Colbert and Meyer’s increasing political content, Fallon’s viewership has steadily decreased while Colbert and Meyer’s have increased. Now Colbert’s show dominates late-night TV while Fallon’s lags by just over a million viewers. According to the ratings, most people either can’t or won’t disentangle Trump from late-night TV.

The day after the election, Colbert, clearly sleep-deprived and existentially perturbed, gave a monologue about the unexpected election results. He paced around the stage, hands in pockets and with a softer smile than usual, and looked into the camera and said “I’m so glad to be with you tonight. I would not want to be alone right now.” This, of course, was a cheeky appeal to the audience, but his tone indicated a sincerity beyond a gimmick for applause.

Colbert and Meyer’s honesty while discussing politics, their constant admissions of fear and confusion, are particularly good comedic fodder because they are genuine. They appeal to the common sentiment of ‘holy shit, this seems potentially apocalyptic and definitely scary,’ a sentiment that grows more overwhelming the longer it is ruminated over. But by confronting the fears of many Americans, Colbert and Meyers remind viewers that they are in good company. Acknowledging these fears provides a sense of relief in itself, but acknowledging them with a hilarious quip is provides both relief and entertainment.


Image Source: Flickr/secdef

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