Few subjects have revealed the limitations of contemporary late-night talk quite so much as Beyoncé. Because of her omnipresence in the public imagination, she’s a subject that hosts feel compelled to cover. And because of the current vogue for performance-based goofs rather than traditional “jokes,” twice this year we’ve seen lengthy spoofs of her album Lemonade, about her experience of life as a black woman in America, performed by white men. It’s not that joking about Beyoncé is impossible, but a burlesque of Beyoncé’s highly political work that reduces it to how weird it looks when a white guy does it ought to be considered more carefully than the five-show-a-week cycle allows.
In April, after Lemonade‘s surprise drop, Late Late Show host James Corden devoted his monologue to “Lemonjames,” a sketch that depicts Corden imitating the spoken-word portions of Lemonade. Those were widely interpreted as, among other artistic goals, describing the pain Beyoncé has endured in her marriage; Corden’s were about the pain he feels coming up with monologue jokes night after night. (At this point, Corden had been on the air for 13 months.) Odder still, Corden wore costumes modeled after Beyoncé’s own, including fake braids like the ones Beyoncé sports on the album cover and a wig mirroring Beyoncé’s styling in the “Hold Up” video.
For a white man to try to mimic a black woman’s hairstyling is uncomfortable; for him to do so as part of a grander scheme to lampoon her attempt to express her subjective experience of life is just plain ill-advised. It’s not that Beyoncé is parody-proof—nothing is, or should be. Indeed, Saturday Night Live managed to wring humor from the star, mocking her sacred status in the culture and her overwrought fans with their “Beygency” sketch. But to observe she is styled differently from the way Corden usually is is both obvious to the point of not worth saying and positions her as weirdly other.
Monday night, Stephen Colbert, whom I’d hoped had pivoted toward a political format that suits him during this summer’s political conventions, proved he’s operating among similar lines to his networkmate. In a cold open, Colbert sported an outfit Beyoncé did during her Video Music Awards performance. While not as extensive as Corden’s bit and eschewing the visual of the host in Beyoncé’s hairstyle, this still got its ostensible comic thrust from a white man dressed in an outfit a black woman had just worn. Isn’t this weird? (Corden, meanwhile, digitally inserted himself into Kanye West’s “Fade” video.)
The most generous reading is that it’s meant to mock Colbert’s stodginess, not Beyoncé’s wardrobe choices, but if the material is that thin, was this really worth doing? After all, men have been dressing up in famous-female drag for comic effect since long before the South Park creators went as Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Lopez to the Oscars. And yet, those outfits weren’t chosen as part of a body of work carefully chosen to elucidate the black female experience. Moments like this cast into relief what late night lost when The Nightly Show, for its ups and downs, left the air. Colbert and Corden don’t seem to get that if they don’t have the time to give Beyoncé a more rigorous comic appraisal than “Look at her clothes and hair!,” it might be better to leave well enough alone.
Together, these bits expose why late night can feel so grim for viewers who are genuinely interested in pop culture. The coin of the realm in the sunny landscape that reigning host Jimmy Fallon has helped redefine is that everything every celebrity does is great, always. But if everything is just awesome, then nothing is. In this flattened landscape of false enthusiasm, something genuinely boundary-pushing and heartfelt becomes a kind of threat. To late night hosts, there should be no topic that cannot be addressed in a goofy, cutesy way that makes them look affable. If they were to admit there were, it might show how the format is growing obsolete.
The other theme in late night that both pieces reveal is the urgent need not just to go viral, but to do so through the aggressive positioning of the host over his guests. In “Carpool Karaoke,” Corden sometimes drowns out his often barely-audible guests, while on his show’s “Lip Sync Battle,” Fallon makes sure that he and his guests get at least equal time in the spotlight. Beyoncé didn’t need to go on either show for the hosts to follow their instinct to shout her down, to make sure they get the last word. It’s the wrong impulse, but it’s one that works: “Lemonjames” currently has nearly 1.5 million views on YouTube.