In a wild election with a ripe orange target, comics are ditching balance and taking sides
No late-night-TV comedian attacks the job with more righteous intensity than Samantha Bee. Once a week on her TBS show Full Frontal, she stands before a wall of video monitors, feet planted shoulder-width apart, neck muscles tensed, leaning forward like a panther getting ready to pounce. She talks fast, racing to pack a week’s worth of outrage into one high-voltage half hour. She has a flair for the baroque insult, calling Donald Trump, at various times, a “tangerine-tinted trash-can fire,” “sociopathic 70-year-old toddler,” “screaming carrot demon” and “America’s burst appendix.” The Republican National Convention, for Bee, was “a poorly attended rage-athon featuring a parade of hemorrhoidal has-beens.” Sometimes the fury leaves her nearly speechless. After playing a clip of Trump’s debate-night boast about the size of his private parts, Bee is shown wielding a squeegee on a blurry camera lens: “Sorry, let me just wipe the vomit off …”
Bee launched her show in February after 12 years as a correspondent on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, and the fervor of her advocacy has already outstripped that of her mentor. “Jon worked really hard to try to be nonpartisan,” says Bee. “It was important to him. But for me, a fatigue sets in. You just see the same patterns repeating themselves. I don’t care that much about being nonpartisan. Now that I have my own show, I get to say what’s in my heart.”
These days her heart is fearful of a Trump presidency. “It was funnier when they were all on that stage,” she says of the Republican-primary candidates. “Now that we’ve come down to Trump, it’s less funny with every passing moment. In fact, I’ve lost all sense of what’s funny about Donald Trump. Now I feel that it’s a pressing concern.”
In his 16 years as host of Comedy Central’s nightly satirical newscast, Stewart brought political savvy, journalistic rigor and bite to the old pastime of topical satire on late-night TV. His retirement from the show in the summer of 2015–along with Stephen Colbert’s departure from The Colbert Report to take over David Letterman’s Late Show on CBS–came as a blow to a generation of viewers who relied on the two shows for insightful news analysis as much as for entertainment. But the shake-up, abetted by the craziest presidential campaign in modern memory, has had an unexpected and largely unappreciated payoff. It has triggered an extreme makeover for political satire, which is now more ubiquitous, more pointed, more passionate and often more partisan than ever before.
Alumni of The Daily Show have metastasized across the dial. Along with Bee and Colbert, they include John Oliver, who vents about current events on HBO’s Last Week Tonight, and Trevor Noah, who replaced Stewart on the flagship Daily Show last September. (Larry Wilmore, The Daily Show’s former “senior black correspondent,” took over Colbert’s old time slot on Comedy Central before a surprise cancellation last month.) More traditional network talk-show hosts, too, are showing newfound political muscle–especially NBC’s Seth Meyers and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel–joining HBO’s 14-year-old comedic political talk show Real Time with Bill Maher.
Their weapons are parody and polemics, dripping sarcasm and cheap-shot one-liners, video compilation reels and schoolyard taunts. Their satiric arrows are aimed, nearly always, from the left flank of the political battlefield. Several were born abroad, giving them a fresh perspective on the increasingly vitriolic U.S. political scene. As their best bits circulate online and get picked up by TV pundits and campaign operatives alike, they help drive the political debate. They are doing journalism too–in many cases ahead of actual journalists. It took Oliver to investigate, back in March, just how much Trump’s oft-touted wall on the Mexican border would actually cost. (More than $25 billion, according to his careful analysis–over twice as much as Trump’s highest estimate.)
“I do think we are in an era where people come to expect, or become comfortable with, hosts of late-night shows having a strong point of view,” says Meyers, former anchor of Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update.” “It probably took me a year or a year and a half of doing this show before I felt comfortable sharing that point of view. And I think this election served as the catalyst.”
Political Comedy on TV used to be a polite, easy-listening affair. Longtime Tonight Show host Johnny Carson–along with his chief heirs in late night, Jay Leno and David Letterman–poked plenty of fun at political figures, but mainly for their personal foibles, both real and comically exaggerated: Gerald Ford’s clumsiness, Ronald Reagan’s age, Bill Clinton’s appetites. No obvious political agenda, nothing to offend either side–just a gentle brew to help you process the day’s news and drift to sleep with a smile.
The hosts weren’t always as apolitical as they appeared. Letterman in particular, with his constant needling of politicians like Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney, allowed his left-of-center leanings to peek through toward the end of his run. Carson and Leno played it straighter, but their tolerant-centrist orientation (sympathetic to gays and other minorities, scornful of the religious right) struck some conservatives as liberal bias. Yet all three disavowed partisan agendas, often welcoming as guests the same public figures–from Bill Clinton to Donald Trump–whom they lampooned on other nights.
Stewart and Colbert were groundbreakers, but even they tempered their political edge with ironic distance and a concern for balance. Colbert couched his views in the put-on character of a right-wing Bill O’Reilly type. Stewart aimed his barbs less at conservative pols than at the Fox News pundits who enabled them.
But the game has changed, thanks largely to the man at the top of the GOP ticket. With his orange skin tone, animal-pelt hairdo and overweening ego, Trump may be the greatest gift to comedians since the invention of the mother-in-law joke. Hillary Clinton gets her share of jabs (most recently for her “basket of deplorables” remark and her campaign’s slowness to reveal her health problems), but Trump has galvanized the late-night crowd, prompting a new sense of urgency, outrage, even panic.
Take Noah, the South African–born comedian now leading The Daily Show. He still strains to fill Stewart’s formidable shoes–too sophomoric some nights, too strident on others–but Trump brings out his best. In a defining piece last October, Noah compared Trump’s self-regarding public statements to strikingly similar ones from African dictators like Idi Amin, Robert Mugabe and Muammar Gaddafi. “Trump is presidential,” said Noah. “He just happens to be running on the wrong continent.” Since then, he has blasted Trump for everything from his anti-Muslim rhetoric to his protectionist trade policy. After Trump fumbled an inquiry about the names of his top advisers, Noah’s staff put together a video speculating on what a Trump Cabinet might look like. It turned out to be a roomful of arguing Trumps, spouting verbatim the contradictory statements he has made on issues like abortion, the minimum wage and nuclear proliferation.
Noah, 32, who grew up under apartheid, contends that his background gives him a different perspective on the GOP candidate. “Coming from the outside,” he says, “I’m not imbued with the eternal optimism and confidence that Americans have, you know? A lot of people go, ‘Well, that can never happen in America.’ I go, ‘It can happen here.'” Like many of his peers, Noah challenges the “false equivalency” that prompts journalists to balance critical coverage of one candidate with equally tough coverage of the opposition. “There’s a certain level of naiveté when you say Hillary Clinton is worse than Donald Trump,” Noah says. “I think that’s a very dangerous position to be in. And I think the press has gotten to a place where they are realizing that it’s about truth and not neutrality.”
While Noah projects the righteous ardor of a campus activist, British-born Oliver comes across as an exasperated high school teacher. For two years on his weekly HBO show, he has delivered biting, closely reasoned rants on topics ranging from Brexit to the decline of American newspapers. He resisted taking Trump seriously for months, but in February he delivered a blistering 20-minute takedown covering everything from Trump’s business failures and his call for killing terrorist family members (“That is the front runner for the Republican nomination advocating a war crime!”) to his original family name (Drumpf, according to Oliver). The piece has been viewed more than 28 million times on YouTube.
Jimmy Fallon, host of the top-rated Tonight Show, still carries on the Carson tradition of evenhanded, softball one-liners, along with a Trump impression that even the Donald can laugh along with. And other late-night comics, like James Corden and Conan O’Brien, steer clear of heavy-duty political material. Though more political, Colbert has been something of a disappointment in his first year on CBS, struggling to find the proper tone since dropping his right-wing alter ego.
But ABC’s Kimmel–Letterman’s heir as the laid-back ironist of late-night–has weighed in with some surprisingly strong political bits, most notably a parody of The Producers last February in which Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick are gobsmacked when their “sure loser” candidate Trump turns into the front runner. Lately Kimmel has taken to simply replaying Trump’s speeches in slow motion, making him sound like a drunk lunatic.
And Meyers has dramatically upped his game since taking over NBC’s Late Night two years ago, becoming Trump’s most consistent nightly nemesis. Meyers, 42, has a history with Trump, having mocked him memorably at the 2011 White House Correspondents Association dinner. (“Donald Trump has been saying that he will run for President as a Republican,” Meyers observed as Trump glowered in the audience. “Which is surprising, since I just assumed he was running as a joke.”) Now he skewers the GOP nominee almost nightly on his “A Closer Look” segments, seven-minute diatribes leavened with a gag writer’s brio. He has slammed Trump’s flip-flopping on issues (“Trump is a Magic 8 Ball. Shake it up and you get one answer. Shake it again and you get something completely different”), and urged him to drop out of the race and simply play the President in an NBC series instead (“You would be able to be the President you want to be, but without the bothersome irritations of the press, voters or the pesky Constitution”). It is rare, not to say unprecedented, for the host of a mainstream network show to push such a blatant political viewpoint, yet Meyers says NBC is fully on board: “Not only have they gotten out of the way, but they’ve pushed the show to be what it is now.”
Bee has even more freedom in her weekly TBS show–no pressure to gin up an opening monologue every night, or even to interview guests. Except for occasional field reports from a trio of tongue-in-cheek correspondents, she is the show’s Bee-all and end-all, contributing a fierce feminist twist on the Daily Show template. Like Oliver and Noah, she brings an outsider’s perspective to the job. Born in Toronto, she grew up watching the Canadian sketch-comedy series SCTV and performed with an all-female improv group, the Atomic Fireballs. She was working at an ad agency in New York City when she landed a job at The Daily Show. “It was probably only because I did a good impression of Stephen Colbert–I knew the show so well, I knew the style. But I definitely came to New York and thought, What am I going to do? I don’t even really know that much about American history.”
She has learned. Bee, 46, gets up at 5 every morning to scour the newspapers–the New York Times on paper, the rest online. She gets help from a crack research staff, which includes former journalists from al-Jazeera and Bloomberg News. She has explored an eclectic array of front-page issues, from abortion to Native American tribal courts, but Trump has set off the loudest alarm bells. “It’s been a full banquet every week, how spectacularly ludicrous this election season has been,” she says. “God willing, we’ve done something good for the nation. Maybe it will come back and haunt us. But as long as we speak from our heart here, we’ll be fine.”
Surely no modern American politician has been eviscerated as thoroughly by satirists as Trump. And yet he swept the Republican primaries and could still wind up in the White House. Which raises a key question: Are the jokes having any effect? The comics themselves are the first to dismiss the notion. “I don’t think we move the needle at all,” says Bee. “It would be very hurtful to the show if I started to believe that I had influence. It’s very hard to do satire when you take yourself too seriously.”
“I was fascinated that people said, ‘Your job now is to stop Trump,'” says Noah. “I don’t know how Americans were tricked into believing that is possible.” He frets that satire may give fans “a false sense of activism, because people experience a catharsis and they go, ‘Yeah, we’ve done our job, we’ve retweeted that clip.’ Like Obama said, ‘Don’t boo, vote.'”
The fragmented TV audience makes it tough for any comedian to have Carson’s clout. Fallon’s top-rated Tonight Show averages 3.7 million viewers (compared with 6.5 million in Carson’s last year), and the numbers dwindle from there. Noah’s Daily Show reaches 1.3 million (down from about 2 million during Stewart’s final year–though streaming has increased by 50%). The audience is getting younger but not necessarily more diverse, especially after the death of Wilmore’s Nightly Show. Like the pundits of MSNBC or Fox News, late-night comics may be jesting to the converted.
There also seems to be something about Trump that immunizes him from even the most visceral satire. Modern observational comedy–from George Carlin railing about the military-industrial complex to Jerry Seinfeld complaining about losing socks in the dryer–relies on an audience with shared values, a belief in rational argument, respect for common sense. Trump appeals less to rationality than blind faith. No satiric barb, no matter how sharp, can breach that wall. Yet the late-nighters may be having more impact than they realize. While journalists were still trying to treat the GOP pick as a typical phenomenon–analyzing his positions, comparing them with his opponents’, striving for balance–comics decided that Trump was such an outlier that he demanded stronger action. As Bee ranted on her Sept. 12 show: “News organizations simply are not equipped to cover a candidate whose entire being is a lie.”
This flowering of political satire could be a unique moment in American comedy–one that passes quickly should Trump be sent back to his reality show. It’s hard to imagine similar passion being directed at a President Hillary Clinton or a stonewalling Republican Congress. Yet these satirists may have trouble backtracking from their new partisan aggressiveness, becoming yet another contributor to the bubble that news consumers increasingly live in–their views reinforced by what they choose to watch and read.
The comics, for their part, are starting to feel some Trump burnout. “I would love to ease up on Donald Trump, but he makes it impossible,” says Kimmel. “He has said more outrageous things than all the major candidates for the last 20 years combined. It’s kind of like being a goldfish. There’s a danger you might eat too much and explode.”
As for Bee, she’s hopeful that the “trash-can fire” that has dominated her show for six-plus months will soon be extinguished. “There’s so much outrageous stuff that happens in this country and this world,” she says. “I will welcome his absence.” Maybe so. But before then, at least one late-night host should step out from behind the desk and thank the man on his way out.