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How Late Night Responded to Trump

A brief check-in with the people trying to find the humor in all of this

NBC
NBC

We can agree, in hindsight, that the various election-night comedy specials were spectacularly, if understandably, misguided. Like their audiences, The Late Show’s Stephen Colbert and The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah had clearly planned their live-airing evenings with a very different outcome in mind. (Late Show performer Laura Benanti confirmed as much after the fact.) What was clearly conceived of as a way to begin moving past the election became a live demonstration of just how much bigger this was than just one election. Before, there was a shared, unstated assumption that all we had to do was push through the last few months, then weeks, then days before going back to normal. Now, “normal” was nowhere in sight.

If November 8 yielded more public reeling than comedy, then November 9 and November 10 gave us a rough draft of comedy in the age of Trump, the first stage of a slow-motion reckoning and the first step in comedians’ paradoxical quest to start joking about Trump seriously. Now may not feel like the time to start sharpening one’s satirical knife; honestly, now doesn’t really feel like the time for anything that isn’t existential dread or donating to nonprofits. But sooner or later, we’ll all have to acknowledge the reality of a President Trump, and with platforms like theirs, late-night comedians are ideally situated to show us ways we can start coming to terms with this, or to simply reflect how we will. Barely 48 hours out, we’ve already seen plenty of options.

The Craven

The first place to look was Jimmy Fallon, whose obedient-puppy relationship with Trump increasingly looks less like active malice and more like a constitutional aversion to substance. Even though Fallon spent barely five minutes on the election during his Wednesday night broadcast, he seemed visibly uncomfortable almost the entire time, firing off a few half-hearted one-liners during an abbreviated monologue, offering a well-at-least-we-can-agree-that-was-exhausting cop-out, and finally, making explicit his previously unstated attitude toward the election: “My job is to come out here every night and try to make you laugh, take your mind off things for a while.” And that’s exactly what he did, offering a cheery alternative to the reality he helped enable and apparently won’t acknowledge. What Fallon spun as escapism felt more like staging a distraction while he tiptoed around the mess he and so many others made. Here, watch British people play a fun game!

The Hopeful

Surprisingly, the host who’s become arguably most known for her open partisanship went conciliatory. Make no mistake — Samantha Bee didn’t skimp on the breathless profanity, coming down particularly harshly on her own demographic of white women. But even though Bee’s drawn attention for her vitriol toward Trump, she’s also long sought to distinguish Full Frontal by focusing on sub-presidential offices as well, a point of view she expressed by taking time to congratulate Tammy Duckworth, Kamala Harris, and Catherine Cortez Masto on their victories. The presidency isn’t the be-all, end-all of American politics, Bee’s always reminded us. Now, that comes across as not just a civic lesson, but a silver lining. The special — Bee normally broadcasts on Mondays, putting together a second episode inside of a week — closed out with an ecstatically hopeful, catharsis-minded performance of Lizzo’s “Good As Hell.” There are other things to focus on, and other things to fight for, an encouragingly forward-looking approach from late night’s most unapologetic left-wing advocate.

The Thoughtful

Late Night released Seth Meyers’s election night monologue online ahead of the actual broadcast, as if to signal its urgency. Including an interview with MSNBC host Chris Hayes parsing the results, almost two-thirds of the show was centered on the election; even an interview with Wendy Williams was introduced by specifying it wouldn’t be about politics. Meyers and his writers had the luxury of collecting their thoughts on the surprise result rather than spilling them out in real time, opening Wednesday with a monologue that started with crudity and edged into sobriety: “Well, that was a real grab in the pussy” gave way to Meyers addressing the hypothetical first female president, a segment that left him audibly choked up. Late Night wisely split the show into two monologues — one quippy and Update-style, which came second, and the opener, which largely swapped out humor for earnestness: “It would be wrong for me to think my emotions are somehow more authentic [than Trump supporters’ emotions]. We’re always better as a society when we have empathy for others.”

Thursday night, Meyers kept his focus on the election to the point of turning it away from himself. In a tacit, previously expressed acknowledgement of his own limited perspective, he passed the microphone to writer Amber Ruffin, who closed her appearance by speaking directly to fellow women and people of color: “You are unstoppable … All you have to do is live your lives right in their faces, and it proves that we simply cannot be stopped.” If Fallon wanted his show to be a nonpartisan place of escape, Meyers wanted his to be a place of like-minded processing.

Noah, ever the self-styled outsider, reacted mostly with quiet bemusement, but that detachment felt particularly tone-deaf when raw emotion was simultaneously driving thousands of New Yorkers into the streets. Noah only widened the distance Thursday night by admonishing said protesters not to damage anything, not quite realizing that perspective was nowhere near as needed as empathy. American viewers were well aware of how dysfunctional our electoral system is without being reminded that other countries limit their campaigns to a matter of weeks. After all, it got us here.

Luckily, Noah’s correspondents had more than enough indignance to go around; Seth Meyers alum Michelle Wolf, in particular, went all-in on Wednesday, miraculously offering a new spin on “grab ’em by …” (“YOU DON’T GRAB A PUSSY! … How are you supposed to handle a country if you can’t handle a pussy?”) before tearing up at Hillary’s advice to young girls. Noah himself has yet to build up as strong a following as his predecessor, but between Wolf, Hasan Minhaj, and Ronny Chieng — of “Is it hard to fit Bill O’Reilly’s entire scrotum in your mouth?” fame — The Daily Show’s reputation as a talent farm remains intact, and is now notably more diverse. The show is finally starting to outgrow those self-deprecating “Senior [Identity] Correspondent” labels it’s been using all these years.

The Just Plain Sad

Out of all the hosts, Colbert — who took a whopping 18 minutes to think his way through Trump’s victory on Wednesday — was the most vocal in his opposition, and the most encouraging of others’: “Don’t stop speaking up. Don’t ever be cowed by what happens in the next four years.” By the next night, he’d hardened into open confrontation, pretending to beg Trump for forgiveness before closing with “… That’s what a pussy would say.” It earned him an in-studio standing ovation.

Where even Meyers preached empathy for Trump supporters, Colbert made jokes at their expense — all the more jarring given that Colbert’s always been careful to mock fact-averse demagogues rather than their audience, and that was before he moved to CBS. He was also by far the most openly despondent host. The Late Show opened its first post-election show with Neil deGrasse Tyson preaching a “cosmic perspective” on Earth’s relatively miniscule problems, to a nonplussed Stephen, who then proposed chucking Tyson’s telescope over a balcony. It opened its second with a joke about self-harm, “to feel something.” Even Stephen’s angry and destructive.

Colbert’s Wednesday performance was more than a little alarming; his Thursday one culminated in a ranting, rhyming impersonation of Sarah Palin that felt positively unhinged. It also felt true. One of comedy’s many uses is to legitimize our feelings by showing us they’re shared, albeit by someone funnier and wearing a much more expensive suit than us. And if Colbert has to alienate swathes of his potential audience to do so, the empathy is an even more intriguing, captivating risk. Ironically, Colbert felt most reassuring when more or less admitting he didn’t know what to do and had no certainties to offer us. Whether we like it or not — “and for the record,” Colbert said, “not” — this is the reality they, and we, now have to work with.

Late-night comedians aren’t leaders, but they’re media figures whose importance at least feels less diminished than that of the pundit class, who emerge from this week almost entirely discredited. We no longer have any reason to turn to the scream symphony of CNN or the false prophets of CNBC for insight; no matter what happens, though, we’ll still turn to our televisions for entertainment. Humor and the pressing need for it certainly feel more constant than data and bluster, and the people who offer it therefore are guaranteed a mass audience in the years to come. They’ve modeled studied ignorance, introspection, venting, and soldiering on. They’ll continue to model how to take in whatever’s coming next.