One of the traditional responsibilities of the late-night broadcaster is to respond to tragedy—not to mitigate the pain, but just to communicate to viewers that they’re not wrong to feel sad or confused. Among the most memorable popular-culture responses to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, for instance, were both David Letterman’s and Jon Stewart’s monologues expressing, more than anything, a primal and relatable sense of grief.
On Monday, late-night hosts used their platforms to respond to the shootings in Orlando using a few more shades from the emotional palette. There was, to be sure, grief, but the degree of complication visible even on notionally apolitical shows like Conan indicated the degree to which late night has grown up—or grown more complicated—in recent years.
To be sure, both Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert—the flagship hosts, respectively, for NBC and CBS—kept things fairly simple. Fallon’s response was heartfelt if muddled, touching on the perceived irony of such an incident happening in a fun city like Orlando, his thoughts about explaining the incident to his children in the future, and the need to be able to express “different opinions… and not be punished for that.” (This last alley led to some confusing questions, like whether or not being gay is an “opinion” and what cyber-bullying, which Fallon brought up out of the blue, had to do with anything, but the guy was trying.)
Fallon shared a naked emotionality with Colbert, but the latter host was more polished, delivering an address about the need to avoid despair. Colbert appeared to be edging up to making the sort of political comment he would have in his last job on Comedy Central, when he decried “the national script we have learned” after mass shootings—up until he declared “I don’t know what to do, but I do know despair is a victory for hate. Hate wants us to be too weak to change anything.” It was a lovely sentiment but one that felt outmatched by the moment; a viewer familiar with Colbert’s history can presume he had a few ideas about “what to do,” or what the “anything” is that needs changing. Why even broach the subject of political change if there’s nothing to add?
Colbert’s address looked yet waterier next to late night broadcasts outside of the network 11:30 p.m. corridor. Samantha Bee, who is in the process of becoming the defining television comedy star of the 2016 election on TBS’s Full Frontal, opened a blistering seven-minute monologue by describing the host’s job after a mass killing: “The standard operating procedure is that you stand onstage and deliver some well-meaning words about how we will get through this together, how love wins, how love conquers hate, and that is great, that is beautiful.” The only detail she missed about Colbert’s monologue was that he was sitting down. “But you know what?” she went on, before delivering an obscenity. “I am too angry for that!”
Bee’s quick run through of her opposition to assault weapons was suffused with the sense that this was an issue she’d been grimly prepared for; there was a nihilistic virtuosity to her delivery. She was matched in expertise by Seth Meyers, who drew upon reporting and academic research in his “A Closer Look” segment to build a case about the U.S.’s unique position in the developed world as the site of repeated gun violence. Unlike Bee, Meyers was barely funny at all; his delivery of something like news felt informed by both John Oliver’s HBO show Last Week Tonight and by Meyers’s own history as a fake-news anchor at Saturday Night Live.
Conan O’Brien, unlike his TBS colleague Bee, does not deal in politics. He made as much clear by repeatedly noting he’d always made an effort not to discuss political issues on his various shows over his long career. This general amiability and remove from the cut and thrust of politics made his statement of opposition to assault weapon ownership, in his monologue, all the more meaningful. “These are weapons of war, and they have no place in civilian life,” the host said.
Colbert and Fallon were under no obligation to go as far as O’Brien. After all, they may not even agree with him; plenty of people don’t! But O’Brien’s putting forward an idea other than Fallon’s bewilderment or Colbert’s hope felt like a new vision of the way hosts can join their audiences in mourning. One need not share O’Brien’s views about assault weapons to see the value of moving a discussion beyond a script that’s grown hoary with overuse—or of broadening the sort of ways in which hosts can perform an evidently still vital role.
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