Donald Trump wanted a feud, and the faces of late night wanted a cold open. After Trump tweeted at Jimmy Fallon in response to Fallon expressing regret over his role in normalizing the then-presidential candidate in 2016—and after Trump then doubled down and expanded his ire to include all of the late-night hosts during a rally in South Carolina on Monday—it was only a matter of time before this happened. The attention garnered by a spot in the daily Trump news cycle is just too enticing for the Fallons and Colberts of the world to pass up; that Trump had given them a target and topic to unify against (in historical fashion) was just a bonus.
In a brief cold open that led The Late Show With Stephen Colbert and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on Tuesday night, the hosts offered their latest entry into the futile, neverending conflict with Trump. The skit began with Colbert video-chatting Fallon to chat about Trump saying “some pretty bad stuff about us,” before Conan O’Brien joined the call mid-shave. O’Brien, pale as ever, feigned shock over learning that the “real-estate guy who sells steaks” is actually president. The segment ended with Fallon and Colbert making lunch plans at … Red Hen, the restaurant that refused to serve press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders last week. Both Colbert and Fallon—and to a lesser degree, O’Brien—appeared quite pleased with themselves and their ability to smile in the face of Trump’s insults. Good for them.
Trump lashes out over something innocuous (while actual, horrendous issues persist), and the late-night gang giddily responds—such has been the cyclical nature of late night since 2016, a transformation from news-of-the-day treatises to daily breakdowns of the latest Trump scandal. (Even John Oliver, who airs his HBO show weekly and likes to devote lengthy segments to things as seemingly innocuous as chicken farming, typically leads Last Week Tonight with a “What the hell did Trump do this week?”–style roundup.)
Just on the merits of the actual jokes, Tuesday’s cold open was a collection of low-hanging fruit—Colbert and Fallon adopting Trump’s “lowlife” and “lost soul” monikers (neat!), a stray, topical mention of Red Hen (timely!). But beyond the lack of ingenuity, the skit itself begged the question of why the late-night hosts engage in the first place, and whether this sort of exercise is even vaguely worthwhile. Frankly, there are no winners here. The prestige and Emmys consideration Colbert seeks, the ratings boost Fallon yearns for, and the general reminder of his existence that Conan hopes to attain will never be found via a stunt like this. What it ultimately achieves—especially for a host like Colbert, who has engaged in plenty of political fervor—is a feedback loop for the hosts’ (overwhelmingly liberal) viewerships, and a distraction Trump and his base is more than happy to indulge in. The solution isn’t attempting to bridge the increasingly large gap between these two poles—or god forbid, trying to be “civil.” Maybe there isn’t a good solution at all. But at least beacons of late-night comedy could recognize how meaningless, and most of all exhausting, this lowball banter with Trump is. And at least they could stop looking so damn excited about having a new feud to latch onto. “You guys are obsessed with Trump … and now you’re profiting off of him,” Michelle Wolf said when addressing the headline-obsessed media at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in April. The same goes for the late-night comedians who are more than willing to take part in this kind of banter.
The longer these late-night hosts insist on actively engaging with the president in derivative back-and-forths that find familiar punchlines, the longer their shows feel like exercises in futility. While late-night hosts like Colbert have been lauded for contextualizing the horrible events of the day with humor and pathos, you can get those same thrills from watching an increasingly deadpan and exasperated Jake Tapper on CNN. Better yet, Seth Meyers’s NBC show is often the most informative; his frequent “A Closer Look” segments are the most thoughtful and substantive breakdowns of the latest Trumpian discourse in the space. What it lacks in jokes it makes up for in clarity and contextualization. And though Jimmy Kimmel has undoubtedly capitalized on responding to Trump and his lackeys to the tune of better ratings, at least his retorts have skipped trying to be funny and gone directly to heartfelt empathy.
Meanwhile, every time a Fallon or Colbert gives Trump exactly what he craves in exchange for a semi-viral online hit, nobody is prevailing. And even though the late-night crowds let out a chuckle, nobody is really laughing.