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Does a Late-Night Show Need to Be Political to Succeed in 2017?

The case of Jimmy Fallon suggests an answer

(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)

On Wednesday, The New York Times published an interview with Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon, with the headline “Jimmy Fallon Was on Top of the World. Then Came Trump.” (To emphasize the angle, Fallon was pictured sitting on top of the famous 30 Rock sign — with a glum expression on his face.) Fallon’s show has never been political, and for a while, that didn’t matter: he regularly attracted a million more viewers than his main competition, CBS’s Stephen Colbert. But then came the hair-tousle heard ’round the world, and Donald Trump’s electoral victory. Since then, Colbert has embraced the political and subsequently overtaken Fallon in the late-night ratings. (Fallon maintains an edge in the coveted age 18–49 demographic.) Fallon says he regrets not explaining his now-infamous Trump moment, but won’t alter the DNA of his show: “People that voted for Trump watch my show as well,” he explained.

The conversation, and this late-night moment in general, raises some larger questions: What is a late-night host’s job in 2017? Is a good late-night show necessarily political? What makes for a successful talk show right now? Here, Ringer staffers debate those questions.

1. Does a late-night host need to do political material to succeed in 2017? Is it a late-night host’s responsibility to do political material?

Amanda Dobbins: I don’t like the word “responsibility” when it comes to late night (or any other entertainment product) but: to succeed, yes. Late-night shows are built around the current moment; if you are ignoring politics right now, then you are deeply irrelevant.

Justin Charity: Pursuing flattery, gimmicks, and general frivolity seems to be working out well enough for James Corden. If you let Politics Twitter tell it, yes, these network TV comedians have a solemn duty to eviscerate the entire GOP caucus in order to provide more pop trivia junk food for The Resistance. It’s important to note here that Politics Twitter has never itself been funny.

Kate Knibbs: I don’t think late-night hosts have any responsibility beyond entertainment. That said, it seems deeply weird to host a late-night show that covers topical news without having a perspective on politics. I don’t think it is irresponsible to not talk about politics on a show that exists to lightly riff on current events as much as it is odd and unsatisfying.

Alison Herman: Having major presidential candidates on your show to further their political careers is an inherently political act that demands to be treated as such, and no amount of “But I just wanted to have fun!” is going to change that.

Katie Baker: If a late-night host of a legacy-style program can’t find a way to incorporate the aspects of society that are on the forefront of people’s minds and lives, then maybe that person isn’t a very good late-night host?

Sam Schube: The answer to the first question is yes. The answer to the second is also yes. It is literally impossible to ignore politics right now; to pretend that’s not true is to court embarrassment.

Rob Harvilla: Responsibility is a strong word — the past year has taught us a pretty brutal lesson about not trusting comedians and/or celebrities with political matters. Don’t get involved in things you don’t understand seems like a fine mantra for wannabe politicians and successful entertainers alike. For some big late-night names — Fallon definitely, Conan usually — it’s just not their strong suit, and/or their hearts aren’t in it, and Trump’s just a doofy guy with a ludicrous haircut.

Succeed is different — if these shows are in any way supposed to reflect and riff on the National Mood, there’s just no way in 2017 to stick your head in the sand and declare every night Apolitical Family Game Night. The less firebrand-ish hosts will consequently drop a bit in the ratings, but there are worse fates. There are definitely a ton of ways to fail.

2. Is there room on television for a broadcast late-night show that avoids politics?

Knibbs: If it were entertaining enough to compensate for how weird it is to completely avoid politics, sure.

Charity: Many things that aren’t avowedly partisan are nonetheless political, and I think it’s increasingly difficult for hosts to avoid the scrutiny of political analysis. Still, I think there’s room for Fallon and Corden so long as they’re funny. Jimmy Fallon isn’t funny. I wish more of his critics would straightforwardly argue that he isn’t funny rather than dressing their distaste for him up as some severe ethical objection. Jesus Christ, we are talking about Jimmy Fallon.

Harvilla: It’s funny how antiquated the phrase “room on television” is in 2017. Sure, there’s a market for both Trump devotees sick of seeing their guy bashed by everyone and for Trump resisters exhausted after a full day of bonehead scandals and Twitter indignance. Theoretically it’s a nice thought that somebody could preside over a cheerful neutral zone, but the very notion of neutrality is such a surreal idea these days that you’re better off watching Adult Swim and detaching from reality entirely.

Herman: Of course there is! James Corden and Conan O’Brien (yes, I’m counting him) don’t avoid politics entirely, but they’ve successfully built an apolitical brand. The secret is not to make that apolitical vibe seem disingenuous by hair-mussing a candidate.

Baker: Despite what I just wrote, I do think there is, but the format would have to be adjusted. It would be fun to have musical performances and stand-up sets that feel a little more vital than they currently do. More importantly, the show would have to move past the standard “I am a celebrity reciting my previously-agreed-to talk show anecdote” format and deliver something longer and more insightful. (And insightful doesn’t have to mean boring and serious — here is where I refer you to the indispensable Watch What Happens Live, which has taught me so much about the people of the world.)

Schube: When we talk about how every late-night show has a middle-aged white dude as a host, we are having a political conversation. Even if you’re avoiding Trump jokes in the monologue, you can’t escape that. To borrow a phrase from a college lit class: these shows are always already political.

Dobbins: That, very broadly speaking, is what got us here in the first place.

3. Is Jimmy Fallon’s ‘Tonight Show’ about the institution of ‘The Tonight Show,’ or is it about Jimmy Fallon? In other words: Is it about the show, or the host?

Baker: I refer to the shows by the name of their hosts 100 percent of the time: “Did you see that wacky animal video that was on Jimmy Kimmel? Did you see Jon Stewart on Colbert?” If you mentioned The Late Show, The Tonight Show, and Late Night to me, I would have to blindly guess who does which.

Dobbins: All things on this earth — politics, entertainment, Silicon Valley, your relationships with your friends — are dictated by personal celebrity. (It’s about the host.)

Harvilla: I think the “Tonight Show as Hallowed Institution” angst burned itself out between the Letterman vs. Leno saga and the Conan vs. NBC debacle. Those are the three guys who really cared about doing right by Johnny Carson; now, two are retired, and the other one seems reasonably comfortable in his exile. Fallon is doing his own thing, emphatically, and it just so happens to register as insufferable for both political and aesthetic reasons. He’s not so much desecrating a legacy as simply wasting everyone’s time.

Charity: It’s about the host, which is why Fallon is such a lightning rod. Jimmy Fallon is a bro. It’s taken a couple of dozen entertainment reporters and TV critics to screw in that light bulb, but there you have it. Still, humor me here: what if late-night network TV has always been kind of stupid and not even remotely enlightening with regard to urgent matters of the day? What if I watch late-night network TV to hear stupid topical jokes as I fall asleep rather than to have some brother-in-neuroses vomit my anxieties back onto me? Slow-jam the news and keep it moving.

Herman: It’s about the host. Funnily enough, as Jason Zinoman points out in his excellent new book, Fallon’s style is drawn as much from Late Night-era Letterman as it is from Jay Leno: the stunts are similar; they’re just executed with a different tone. I’m hesitant to assign some blame for Fallon’s deficiencies to his platform when Letterman, Colbert, O’Brien, and even Johnny Carson did such different things at a similar scale.

Schube: The Tonight Show is not an institution, it’s a vehicle to sell advertising. And corporations aren’t making ad-spend decisions based on Tonight vs. Late. It’s about the host.

4. Can viral web videos and eviscerations of politicians coexist on a late-night show?

Schube: In this weird media moment, I think they have to.

Charity: Sure — didn’t The Daily Show do both those things simultaneously?

Baker: Absolutely — I think Jimmy Kimmel in particular does it really well. And also that’s like, Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog’s whole thing!

Knibbs: Definitely. There can even be viral web eviscerations of politicians — that’s basically an elevator pitch for Last Week Tonight.

Dobbins: Yes, if the viral web videos are actually funny.

Harvilla: The Colbert Report did it; The Late Show With Stephen Colbert seems like it’s starting to do it. John Oliver probably has 15 minutes of hilarious material on this topic, of which I’d admiringly watch maybe six, two weeks later.

Herman: Technically, yes; as equally dominant parts of an image, no. You can’t use the same tactics to interrogate a major politician and hype Jennifer Lawrence.

5. Who is your favorite active late-night host? Your least favorite? Why?

Charity: Kimmel. He’s my ideal blend of “Hey guys” and “Go fuck yourself.”

Herman: My respect and admiration for Samantha Bee’s cathartic rage is well-documented, though I’m well aware it’s because she caters to my demographic at the expense of largely everyone else. Ditto my distaste for Fallon, though my least favorite is probably Trevor Noah for doing so little with the chair Jon Stewart built into a pulpit.

Baker: I always vastly preferred The Colbert Report to The Daily Show, and even though he’s no longer in that character I will always love Stephen Colbert. I just feel like I’m watching real humans converse when I watch his show, and I appreciate that he can transcend slapstick and get kinda serious for awhile — while still retaining his sense of silliness and joy. As for least favorite — I used to watch Conan a lot, but when he started shoehorning his network snub into every last bit, the act grew old pretty quick.

Knibbs: I don’t watch late night with enough regularity to declare a favorite, but I will forever loathe Jimmy Fallon for bringing lip sync battles into the world. I hope he’s held responsible for his actions someday.

Dobbins: Desus and Mero have the best show — compact, energetic, engaged, and genuinely funny. Ellen is the best celebrity interviewer, with Andy Cohen a close second. Jimmy Kimmel’s health care monologue was the most affecting 13 minutes of Network Late Night this year. Jimmy Fallon is not cool or amusing. This concludes my pocket review of Talk Show Television.

Schube: I appreciate that Stephen Colbert still has a sense of outrage. I find Seth Meyers to be really good at skimming Twitter.

Harvilla: I neither hate nor love anyone currently. God’s honest truth is that mostly I just miss Craig Ferguson.