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Too Little, Too Late

Donald Trump’s candidacy has broken late-night television

Thirty-six hours after the nation heard a major-party nominee brag about sexual assault, Saturday Night Live weighed in with … a cold open that made the same jokes about Donald Trump’s ego and hypocrisy the show had all season. The comments themselves were mostly mined for shock value, not their utter repugnance. It wasn’t a total miss, but it wasn’t something that would survive the Sunday-morning aggregation rounds, either. The sketch was a depressingly unexceptional take on a thoroughly exceptional political event.

The story of the election is the story of failing institutions. Cable news is so incapable of covering national politics as anything other than a two-man horse race it elevated a xenophobic monster into a legitimate competitor. Traditional reporting is so wedded to the language of impartiality that it took until the very end of a 17-month campaign for our most revered newspaper to call an unrepentant falsehood a lie. Donald Trump has an almost preternatural gift for exposing — and manipulating — the blind spots of media orthodoxy.

Late-night comedy may not be considered as serious or vital an institution as the rest of our media, but that’s what it is — an institution. And like the rest of our institutions, late night has undergone a long and painful process of discovering its own inadequacies in the harsh light of Trump’s America.

The history of the talk show as campaign stop and the no-longer-strange commingling of politics and entertainment it represents technically began in 1960, when John F. Kennedy appeared on Tonight Starring Jack Paar to chat about such lighthearted topics as the looming threat of communism. But it didn’t truly get under way until 1992, when the sax solo heard round the world turned Bill Clinton into a pre-memedom meme.

Clinton established a status quo that’s reigned ever since: Politicians now double as entertainers, and entertainment now doubles as a (quasi-)political forum. Whatever one thinks of that development, it’s nearly as enshrined in our electoral process as debates and town halls. The Tonight Show, The Late Show, Saturday Night Live, and newcomers like The Daily Show made hosting Republican and Democratic contenders alike a regular occurrence. Whatever free PR they perform for their guests is at least equal opportunity — equally timed, as mandated by the FCC, but equally lightweight as well.

Like so many other civic norms, though, late night’s jocular, collegial template for handling our nation’s quadrennial screaming match was utterly unprepared for 2016. As November 8 approaches, the field’s most successful personalities are the ones who’ve admitted as much and thrown out their inherited template. The least successful, and occasionally even disgraceful, are the ones who’ve clung to that template for dear life. And the most vital are two hosts — Samantha Bee and John Oliver — who were never working from a broken and outdated template in the first place.

Since our last presidential contest, late night has seen a near-total turnover, with new hosts for every network show except Jimmy Kimmel Live! and countless new competitors in the upper channels. Unfortunately, all that fresh blood has added up to the same, stale approach whose obsolescence is now acutely clear.

Trump’s appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show last month brought late night’s schmoozing crisis to a boiling point, occasioning not one but two aw-shucks mea culpas — one on the show itself, one on SNL. But that sycophantic hair-mussing was only the climax of over a year of letting Trump go unchallenged and implicitly equating his track record and persona with that of his opponent.

The practice isn’t exclusive to Fallon, who had hosted Trump before without so much as an "Um, Muslim ban?" Stephen Colbert was more confrontational last September, but ultimately gave Trump yet another platform for his racism (birtherism and blaming Mexico for crime — a twofer!) rather than forcing him to apologize for it. And the less said of the Trump-hosted edition of SNL, the better, except that it inflicted lasting damage to the show’s once-subversive reputation in exchange for precisely nothing of comedic value.

Fallon seems perfectly content to stay the bland, everything-is-awesome course that’s given him excellent ratings and a cheerfully mediocre Tonight Show. It also has a halo effect, enabling a candidacy that got this far by essentially hijacking broadcast media, feeding its bottomless need for access, #content, and the viral lip sync videos that are their unholy spawn. SNL, however, is straining for an edge. The residents of 8H seem to realize that by handing Trump a microphone, their show defanged itself. Since that fateful episode, which aired almost exactly a year before Election Day, the "Weekend Update" jokes have grown sharper, the volume of political sketches has ramped up, and super-guest stars have been deployed to garner maximum attention.

But while some of the segment’s punches have landed, the show’s sketches continue to imply that Hillary’s naked ambition and Trump’s appalling bigotry occupy the same stratum of mildly annoying, mildly amusing quirk. And while Kate McKinnon’s Clinton is masterful in her furious thirst, both Darrell Hammond and Alec Baldwin have done more with Trump’s pout than his policies. They’re impressions that, like Fallon’s, take issue not with what he says, but how he says it. SNL has proved before it’s capable of teasing their subjects and skewering them, too; "I can see Russia from my house" will forever be Sarah Palin’s "Let Them Eat Cake." But so far, everything from the puckered mouth of Baldwin’s Trump has felt milder than anything the candidate himself is liable to say.

Late night’s most successful satirists have given up on the idea of capturing Trump, either as a guest or a character. Stephen Colbert, in particular, has been almost repentant since his post-conventions pivot. "I tried being gracious and pointed at the same time, and got almost nothing out of him," Colbert said of his Trump interview to The New York Times last month. "It was actually boring, because he wouldn’t even look me in the eye. Being nice to a guy who isn’t nice to other people, it doesn’t serve you that much." Colbert’s Late Show has been under a microscope since he assumed the hosting mantle last September, and over the past few months, he’s smartly locked onto politics as the key to changing his show’s narrative and solidifying its identity. "I’ve surrendered to my natural instincts, and to how I actually feel on a daily basis," he elaborated. The result is a Colbert who is palpably more comfortable, even as he’s taking greater risks.

Those "natural instincts" have led Colbert to channel the deep understanding of the conservative psyche that made him famous in the first place, a complex that’s only mutated since he put that toolbox into temporary retirement — from Mitt Romney into Donald Trump, and from Bill O’Reilly into Alex Jones. Colbert literally returned to form by bringing back his Colbert Report character, defying his former employer in order to do so. He also managed to use his new format to do what a rigidly maintained persona could not: wear his anger on his sleeve, weaponizing the sincerity previously hidden behind his character’s mask. And that’s how you get a swastika on television’s most conservative network. Colbert was even more blunt in his response to the leaked Trump tape last week, posting on his personal Twitter account: "Hopefully someday he’ll be telling the story of how he tried to fuck America and failed." The shock of hearing a wholesome guy in a dad cap use an expletive to describe a presidential candidate is real. It’s also new — for us, and for this version of Colbert.

Ironically, Colbert’s spiritual sibling is Fallon’s follow-up. Seth Meyers’ Late Night is, in many ways, freer to go nakedly partisan than its more prominent lead-in. The host basically admitted as much in an interview with CNN’s Brian Stelter: "I think when you look at the 11:30 shows, they’re different kinds of television shows" — more culturally prominent, and more tasked with being the standard-bearer of their respective networks. (It’s what makes James Corden’s apolitical silliness enjoyable where Fallon’s reads as irresponsible.) And, Meyers noted, Trump would never come on his show because he knows Meyers won’t give him a friendly audience.

That’s because Meyers has spent the past few months delivering blistering monologues on the state of our country. Branded "A Closer Look," they’re a clear pivot toward the "Update"-style delivery that catapulted Meyers into late night in the first place. Meyers made a show of taking a seat during his topical monologue just over a year ago, but his more notable shift wasn’t in format; that his move to the desk made news was just a sign of how staid and rigid the network hour is. No, the big shift was in the openly appalled tone Meyers took toward the election, and in his willingness to branch out from an endless stream of coy one-liners into the openly prescriptive. (On Trump’s attempt to blame Hillary for birtherism: "You don’t get to peddle racist rhetoric for five years and decide when it’s over," he said. No punch line necessary.) By giving up both the possibility of a Trump sit-down and the veneer of objectivity, Meyers broke with network convention — and wound up with a segment unmistakably closer to the late-night format that’s truly been dominating this election cycle. Out of frustration, some of the biggest names in broadcast have essentially gone cable.

In election cycles past, the role of late night’s foil traditionally went to Jon Stewart’s Daily Show or Colbert’s former Report. Like many of their circa-2012 peers, though, Stewart and Colbert have since retired or moved on; in their place, they left a tragically diluted version of one show’s former self and a prematurely canceled successor to the other.

Yet even though Trevor Noah’s Daily Show has receded to the background but for the occasional Fox News parody, two of the franchise’s de facto spinoffs seemed to start 2016 at the top of Colbert and Meyers’s learning curve, and without some of their principal handicaps. Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, on HBO, and Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, on TBS, share a common ancestor (and — fun fact! — a studio). Most importantly, though, they share a natural evolution of that ancestor’s sensibility. Both shows are unabashedly centered on their hosts and their perspectives, doing away with guests and even, for the most part, correspondents. What’s left is pure personality: Oliver’s informed skepticism, lightened with silly hypotheticals and asides; and Bee’s exasperated fury, rattled off in as many insults and exhortations as she can pack into a single breath.

Oliver has slowly molded his show into a voice of reason, while Bee has made hers a weekly injection of moral urgency. There’s no line between the shows’ comedy and their advocacy; they’re one and the same. In a sense, they’ve moved past parodying the talking heads who have so warped our public discourse, in the vein of Stewart and Colbert, and fashioned themselves as an alternative to them. In September, Ross Douthat attempted to lay the blame for our polarized media landscape at Bee and Oliver’s feet. The truth is that things had fractured long before Bee and Oliver claimed their small pieces of the pie. They’ve simply given up on countering bad-faith partisanship with even-tempered civility and given a voice to a niche of their own. Besides, the narrower you aim, the more lethally sharp you can be.

And thus we’ve arrived at this perversely just possibility: that the only way to respond to the election that cable punditry has wrought is with the tools cable punditry has given us. Bee and Oliver are liberated from luring in guests they don’t want or playing to a mass audience they don’t need. Just look at their responses to Pussygate: Oliver’s takedown of Billy Bush is methodical in its single-minded quest to dismantle the career of an enabling lackey; Bee’s scorched-earth, tripartite screed is frankly exhilarating in its contempt and its obvious roots in Bee and her writers’ personal experience. Even the well-intentioned Meyers seemed tame by comparison, muzzled by network standards of profanity and the tradition he and Colbert are breaking from, but still very much a part of.

Bee and Oliver have the distinct advantage of working without a precedent, which means they’re especially well-equipped to take on an unprecedented election. Their shows don’t come with a legacy of playing to both sides, or boosting both candidates, nor are they premised on a (false) choice between entertainment and politics. Only those doing their best to abandon that legacy — or better yet, those who never had to cater to it in the first place — have figured out how to face him down.

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