Can late-night comedy recover from the Trump presidency?

Adrian Horton
·8-min read

As the results trickled in on election night 2016, Stephen Colbert, host of The Late Show on CBS, processed Donald Trump’s victory live, before a shocked audience. He lamented America’s partisan divide (“how did our politics get so poisonous?”), professed belief in the utility of comedy (“in the face of something that might strike you as horrible, I think laughter is the best medicine. You cannot laugh and be afraid at the same time”) and offhandedly prefigured the identity crisis to come for late-night television: “I’m not sure it’s a comedy show any more.”

Colbert performed the role of late-night host nimbly, even if the genre of an election night comedy hour was poorly suited for the victory of a candidacy that had been viewed by many as a joke. Trump, as the TV critic Emily Nussbaum argued in January 2017, had long performed, and audience-tested in rallies, the role of a boozy, heckling, aggrieved standup comic, one who shrugged off countless taboos as “sarcastic” jokes, one with an endless appetite for attention.

Related: How late-night TV comedy has responded to a tumultuous year

Nussbaum’s essay, published in the first week of Trump’s presidency, evinced the trap facing liberal political comedians: “How do you fight an enemy who’s just kidding?” How do you skewer a performer who never made any attempt at sincerity? How could network and cable comedy, overwhelmingly delivered by straight white men, effectively lampoon a self-evidently ridiculous social media troll whose only currency was attention? Trump may have seemed at the outset like a boon to jokesters, but his presidency – the flat denials, the destabilizing cascade of crises and a fractured, contemptuous media landscape – has killed political comedy.

Where does late-night go from here? Regardless of whether or not Trump is re-elected, his presidency has altered the genre in form and function. For four years, political comedy, and in particular late-night television, has lurched through a cyclical Trump attention loop: hosts mock the president, Trump continues with the next galling lie or lashes out on Twitter (or both), hosts mock Trump again, attention paid and courted and repaid. In the 2010s, as the lines in American cultural commentary blurred – political propaganda, social life and memes blended in a gorging timeline of content – Trump jokes became the default late-night currency. Even Jimmy Fallon, the affable Saturday Night Live (SNL) alum who infamously tousled Trump’s hair in 2015, was forced by a ratings war into more political monologues.

In the Trump era, the genre has morphed to shoulder two burdens: to metabolize liberal outrage through short-circuited Trump jabs (Seth Meyers’ Closer Look segments, SNL’s too-numerous cold opens, whose main insight seems to be the sight of various celebrities game for impersonation); and to process the torrent of headlines in our confounding, infuriating, oversaturated reality.

The latter is not an insignificant function, given the time and sanity-erasing blankness of constant disruption and, say, a global pandemic. During the nationwide protests against anti-black police brutality this summer, late-night shows helped keep people tethered to, rather than escape from, the feverish timeline of deeply unfunny police crackdowns and ongoing pandemic surges. Many people got the gist of impeachment, the Mueller report, the Russia investigation, Trump corruption and justice department manipulations through late-night comedy shows. (The leading program, Colbert’s Late Show, averaged 3.45m viewers in 2019-2020; Saturday Night Live drew 8.24m viewers for its 46th season premiere last month, its highest audience since 2016.)

There’s certainly a democratic function to that processing; when everything is politicized and the news landscape is calcified either in bad faith propaganda (Fox News) or norms of impartial politeness (the Sunday talkshows), late-night “comedy” – a pastiche of recaps, clips and jokes delivered by a host allowed to call bullshit – becomes a manageable way to keep up with things. But that doesn’t mean it was necessarily funny or sustainable or, to quote Colbert on election night, really a comedy show any more. Kimmel and Fallon seem to view jokes as a formality before the more entertaining work of interviewing celebrities; Late Night’s Seth Meyers has almost dispensed with jokes entirely in his outrage-laden, indignant Closer Look warnings on America’s descent into authoritarianism.

Late-night political comedy, following the model of The Daily Show, built a common language through the George W Bush and Barack Obama years: point out bad faith and dishonesty through videos stitched with hard news reports, then voice collective outrage at the con. But the past four years have undermined the belief that comedy could serve as an effective weapon against an administration whose reality show is outdone by its horrifying, very real “accomplishments”. The late-night shows once seemed to get under Trump’s skin, but to what effect? He might call the hosts “very weak and untalented” on Twitter, or continue his longstanding feud with SNL (and especially his impersonator, Alec Baldwin, although his attention for late-night shows appears to have waned this year). But in a polarized, post-hypocrisy world, jokes don’t so much thwart the hypocrite as draw viewers back into the reactive loop.

The host perhaps most successful at navigating the Trump years, and the most critically acclaimed, is John Oliver, whose unsparing, morally clear, melodically ranting explainers on HBO’s Last Week Tonight focus on the rot around or tangential to Trump, rather than the man himself. Full Frontal’s Samantha Bee similarly works in allusive jokes around issues-driven monologues, as one of the few female hosts and a rare success in the 2010s boom and bust of liberal news comedy shows which evince the struggle to break fresh ground in the Trump era. The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore, Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj, The Opposition With Jordan Klepper, Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas, The Jim Jefferies Show and The Break With Michelle Wolf all premiered after January 2015, and have all since been cancelled.

Sharp-toothed political comedy, meanwhile, has shifted to the masses on social media, and in particular TikTok. Political accounts run by Zoomers, which overlay pop music on bespoke factchecking, dances, healthcare advocacy and nihilistic memes, have become “cable news for young people”. Sarah Cooper’s lip-syncing Trump impressions blew up on TikTok and Twitter, leading to a guest-host gig on Jimmy Kimmel Live!. But her Netflix comedy special, Everything’s Fine, slams into the wall of Trump-centric satire and exemplifies the dilemma of traditional comedic forms; absent the fundamental insight of her impressions – that nothing satirizes Trump more than his own words – comedy rooted in the destabilizing chaos of the current moment sprouts starchy, disposable bits, jokes that strain when they should zing.

What, then, can late-night comedy do? The shows do, after all, retain huge audiences, with institutional legitimacy and social media platforms that reach millions. Their guest slots can and have elevated diverse and “radical” perspectives, such as prison abolition advocates and Black Lives Matter activists. In 2020, late-night TV has gained the most cultural cachet when it embraces not redundant Trump jokes but the flexibility of the format – performing the duties television journalists refuse to do, for example, such as Colbert’s grilling the motives of the former Trump adviser John Bolton.

Ironically, it’s perhaps most relevant when it’s serious, self-aware, stripped down. In June, Trevor Noah released a quarantine-filmed video in reaction to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, in which he spoke plainly to white audiences as a person of color, a child of apartheid South Africa who understood state violence. “That unease that you felt watching that Target being looted, try to imagine how it must feel for black Americans when they watch themselves being looted every single day,” he said. “Because that’s fundamentally what’s happening in America: police in America are looting black bodies.”

Noah’s video was shared widely on social media and cited by activist Kimberly Jones in Minneapolis, whose words were then incorporated in an episode of Last Week Tonight. More recently, Colbert has straight-up implored people to vote out the president; “We have two weeks to decide what kind of country this is gonna be,” he said last week, in reaction to news that the administration still had not reunited 545 children, separated from their families at the border, with their parents.

There’s no laughter in such statements, no finding humor as an antidote. Earnestness – anathema to internet humor – is an awkward spot for late-night comedy to find itself in. But it’s cutting through bullshit, the leg work of sorting context and promoting inquiry, where late-night comedy can still find wiggle room, fresh territory with or without Trump. It’s not so much telling jokes as telling it straight – humor as a prerequisite but not the punch.