Why Late-Night TV Is in for a Rude Awakening Post-Trump
The late-night shows have been wall-to-wall Trump for more than four years. Will they be able to move on and... mock Joe Biden?
On Nov. 9, 2016—mere hours after Hillary Clinton graciously conceded the presidential race—I wrote a piece for this website that asked the question, “Can Comedy Survive President Trump?” The answer, which has been revealed bit by bit over the past four years, could best be summed up as a resounding “just barely.”
As predicted, comedians ultimately found a way to make the horrific Trump era funny, but when it came to the big late-night talk shows, it often felt a little too easy.
Trump dominated the news cycle from day one of his campaign, let alone his presidency, and therefore he dominated the late-night shows as well. The Late Show host Stephen Colbert, who became the undisputed ratings king by going all-in on Trump, likes to say that his job is not to report the news of the day, but rather to share his comedic take on that news. As he told a crowd of comedy fans at Carnegie Hall last fall, he wants to reassure his viewers that they are “not insane” no matter how much Trump is “trying to convince you that what you’re seeing isn’t really happening.”
What that has meant in practice for him and his late-night competition has been a lot of impersonating the president while reading his tweets out loud. Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers and Trevor Noah all employed slightly varied Trump impressions on a near-nightly basis—often regurgitating something ridiculous that the president actually said and then struggling to find a punchline that made it even more ridiculous. To their credit, Jimmy Kimmel, James Corden, John Oliver, and Samantha Bee never really attempted to imitate Trump at all.
Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of hilarious Trump jokes along the way. But in retrospect, they all kind of blur together into one big outrage morass that may have made viewers feel less crazy but did relatively little to shape the national perception of a man who would ultimately attempt to overthrow American democracy.
Perhaps it’s recency bias, but when I think about the Trump-themed comedy that made me laugh the hardest over the past four years, it’s previously unknown TikTok and Twitter comedians like Sarah Cooper and Blaire Erskine who were able to break through the noise and find unique angles on MAGA-world. Well, them and Anthony Atamanuik, who delivered both the funniest and most satirically biting Trump impression ever on his short-lived Comedy Central series The President Show.
So now that Trump is slowly starting to realize that his White House days are numbered, what comes next for late-night TV?
When you ask political comedians about the notion that Trump has made their jobs easier, they tend to scoff and say that it hasn’t. And yet during a recent conversation with Larry Wilmore, Seth Meyers more or less admitted as much when he compared the president to a stand-up show “heckler” that allows comedians to “crush” without using their best material.
“But if you’re a good comedian, hopefully the next time you go out you’ll be able to succeed without that heckler there,” Meyers added. “So I feel like Trump’s been the crowd work heckler for the last four years.”
In other words, now the hard work begins again. And the struggle has already revealed itself as late-night hosts have attempted to find comedic ways into President-elect Joe Biden.
Colbert has been openly workshopping his Biden impression—with a little help from SNL alum Jason Sudeikis—but so far it mostly consists of leaning back in his chair, strapping on some aviator sunglasses, and saying the words “Corn Pop” a lot. Samantha Bee, meanwhile, showed more willingness than most to mock Biden’s #MeToo apology in early 2019, but mostly backed off when it became clear he was going to be the Democratic nominee.
Biden presumably provides more avenues for comedy than President Barack Obama, who made life hard for the hosts over his eight years by almost entirely avoiding drama and scandal—and repeatedly outshining them with his own comedic chops at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Instead, they turned their satirical ire to congressional Republicans and Fox News, who will inevitably get more airtime on late-night over the next four years as well.
Another challenge will be how much the hosts are willing to either ignore or indulge Trump when he tries to muscle his way back into the spotlight over the next few years. It’s already easy to imagine Colbert, Meyers, and others excitedly telling jokes about the latest absurd Trump intrusion. Or Alec Baldwin not-so-reluctantly returning to Saturday Night Live when the 45th president is back in the news.
SNL in particular seems to be entering a reset mode after four-plus years of constant celebrity cameos that can garner big headlines and ratings but also serve to sideline the show’s talented cast into semi-obscurity. In their last episode of 2020, SNL jettisoned Jim Carrey and introduced cast member Alex Moffat as the new (and improved) Joe Biden. It was a welcome development from a comedic perspective, but also one that might struggle to retain viewers who were drawn in by Baldwin and Carrey’s star power.
At the same time, co-head writer Colin Jost pointed to the future by telling one legitimately harsh “Weekend Update” joke about the president-elect: “The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed suggesting that Dr. Jill Biden stop using the term doctor because she has a PhD and is not a medical doctor. Though she has at times functioned as a nurse.”
The audible groans from the limited audience in attendance revealed both how easy it’s been to please late-night viewers with Trump jokes over the past four years and how much harder it will be to make them laugh moving forward. It didn’t help that earlier in the segment, Jost got huge laughs by simply playing a montage of Trump’s most embarrassing moments.
Meyers, who served as head writer and “Weekend Update” anchor for much of the Obama administration and, to my mind, has produced the most consistently cutting Trump jokes in his sprawling “A Closer Look” pieces, summed up this new dilemma best in that conversation with Wilmore.
“Everybody’s ready to flex their muscles and show to your aunt and your dry cleaner and all the people who have said the comedy must write itself—we’re all desperate to let them know that we actually have been writing comedy,” Meyers explained. “And hopefully, post-Trump we can prove it.”
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