Late Night Has Way Too Many Men. It Showed During the Brett Kavanaugh Hearings

8 minute read

Like so many women in America, Samantha Bee had a rough time getting through last week. She took the stage to host the most recent episode of her Wednesday-night talk show, Full Frontal, dressed in a funereal black suit, her tense posture like a full-body cringe. “I’ve been doing a lot of Carrie-ing to get through it,” Bee said, referring to (what else?) the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. The Carrie in question wasn’t Sex and the City’s Bradshaw, who might have typed a pithy question about the judge into her laptop, but Stephen King’s Carrie. The studio lights turned red, and as Bee stared at a placard that read “this week,” it burst into flames.

She didn’t seem merely disappointed or bemused—she looked angry. Bee may well have been consciously playing up that ire, but such scathing humor could only have come from a genuine place. “I’m having a little trouble controlling my rage this week,” she admitted after calling out Lindsey Graham for hypocrisy and wishing diarrhea upon Mitch McConnell. Bee closed by addressing Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee directly: “Every assault survivor in the country has seen you spewing garbage all week,” she said. “And they are not going to forget—not even after 35 years, which is as long as you think a woman’s memory is reliable.”

The episode aired the night before Thursday’s endless testimony from Kavanaugh and his accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. But it was Bee’s righteous anger, more than anything on late night Thursday, that captured Friday’s mood. As many Americans were still nursing news hangovers, Ana Maria Archilla and Maria Gallagher shamed GOP swing voter Jeff Flake in an elevator, in a confrontation that seemed to catalyze his subsequent demand for an FBI investigation into Kavanaugh’s past. Their earnestness aside, the activists were speaking the same language as Bee. All three women fixed their attention on the pain of survivors.

This has been a frustratingly rare perspective to encounter in the late-night comedy sphere since Thursday’s hearings. Because Bee’s show only airs once a week, we won’t get another (perhaps literal) full-length fire sermon from her until Wednesday. Meanwhile, male-dominated nighttime talk and sketch shows have taken on Kavanaugh with varying degrees of success, but also from a certain emotional remove. “It was like a sad Super Bowl,” Trevor Noah said of the proceedings on Thursday’s Daily Show, in a half-baked comparison that wildly overstated their voyeuristic appeal.

That’s not to say that the comedians weren’t genuinely affected by the hearings. Some plainly said as much, transitioning from dark jokes about Kavanaugh to somber statements—a common move for late-night hosts in the Trump era, and one Michelle Wolf smartly skewered on her recently canceled Netflix show. James Corden took time Thursday to mention how “inspired and humbled” he was by Ford’s testimony, as well as by the #MeToo movement. “If this is something you’ve been through or are going through, just remember you’re not alone,” he said. “There are so many people who are standing alongside you right now, all over the world.” It was a kind statement but also a weirdly vague one, sidestepping questions of gender while implicitly drawing a line between people who’ve been through sexual assault and people like Corden.

Other hosts led with a conspicuously masculine, father-of-daughters brand of fury. Stephen Colbert closed his extended Thursday-night monologue with a serious word to Kavanaugh, informing the judge that the pushback against abusers in government began not with some nefarious Democratic plot, but with the allegations of sexual assault against Trump: “Your Republican buddies up on that committee said, ‘Yeah, but we want our guy on the Supreme Court,’” Colbert seethed. “And that’s you, Brett.” Jimmy Kimmel recounted that “people were crying in front of their televisions” during Ford’s testimony without acknowledging how many of those people must have been women who’d been through similar ordeals. Then he attacked Donald Trump Jr.’s virility for a tweet critical of Ford, branding him “a dull-witted human canker sore who shoots baby hippos out of Daddy’s helicopter because it’s the only way you can get an erection.”

The least convincing takes came from unsurprising corners: Jimmy Fallon, he of the hair-tousle felt round the world, barely addressed Kavanaugh on Thursday—and when he did, it was mostly to poke fun at the press conference in which Trump floated the idea that George Washington faced accusations of his own. Bill Maher, who once compared #MeToo to McCarthyism, expressed his support for Ford by opining that, “If that was a divorce hearing, she would’ve got the kids.” Faced with the spectacle of Lindsey Graham fulminating against Democrats whom he blamed for the delay in Kavanaugh’s confirmation, Maher pulled out a few gay jokes, referring to John McCain as Graham’s “dead boyfriend” and cracking that Graham is “familiar with the back door.”

Maher wasn’t the only comedian who went to that arguably homophobic well. In the cold open of its season premiere, Saturday Night Live restaged Thursday’s hearing, casting Kate McKinnon as Graham, with lines like, “I’m a single white male, 5’10’’, uncut.” The skit turned out to be a total bust, enlisting Matt Damon to play Kavanaugh in an only slightly embellished highlight reel of the judge’s testimony, from beer to boofing. Later, the show found time for an ’80s frat party sketch implying that everyone present—guys and girls—had done things in college that could destroy their careers. For whatever reason, SNL’s three male head writers, Colin Jost, Michael Che and Kent Sublette effectively omitted Ford’s experience from the episode.

But not every man in late night chose to erase Ford in favor of mocking or lecturing Kavanaugh and his allies. “Her testimony today was a towering act of courage, given the trauma she’s survived,” Seth Meyers declared on Thursday, before enumerating the ways Ford had exceeded expectations and making jokes at the expense of those who tried to poke holes at her story. (Was that so hard?) John Oliver dedicated all of Sunday’s episode to Kavanaugh, closing with the withering analysis that Republicans who claimed to find both Ford and Kavanaugh credible were simply giving women the finger. “Their response was: ‘We believe you. We just don’t care,’” Oliver concluded.

For the most part, late-night didn’t do a terrible job with Kavanaugh, balancing the humor we so badly needed by midnight on Thursday with the gravity Ford’s testimony deserved. And maybe that makes it easy to argue that demands for more women in late night are about bean-counting more than they are about a real need for those shows to represent a wider range of perspectives. But we turn to late-night comedy, even before we turn to the next morning’s op-eds, to help us process the events of the day. In the two decades since Jon Stewart transformed The Daily Show into a loud, mad, politically charged therapy session—and especially in recent years, as sexual misconduct has come to the forefront of the cultural conversation—that nightly reckoning has included no small amount of righteous anger.

The shortage of similarly cathartic female voices (particularly Wolf’s caustic one) has been felt. As a woman, I feel it—that gulf between people like me and famous men expressing sympathy for people like me. “I know today blows,” Bee said, lying supine on a couch in a short video Full Frontal posted on YouTube Friday. “Every time you think you understand how awful rape culture is, a rancid puff of Drakkar Noir steers his way to the Supreme Court, and you realize that you had no idea.” It’s the only joke I’ve heard since Wednesday that sounds like a (much) funnier version of the exchanges I’ve had with female friends over the last few days. Amid all this hurting, for ourselves and for our gender, the bitter laughter Bee’s video inspires really does feel like the best medicine.

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