When news broke last week that the real-life MyPillow guy Mike Lindell had officially been booked as a guest on Jimmy Kimmel Live, the collective response online was best summed up by a GIF from another late-night talk show hosted by a guy named Jimmy.
The warning to Jimmy Kimmel was clear: “Normalize” Lindell at your own peril lest you end up apologizing for years, as Fallon ended up doing after ruffling Donald Trump’s hair on The Tonight Show six weeks before the 2016 election.
Another common refrain following Kimmel’s announcement, including from public figures like MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan, was a simple, “Why?”
It’s a good question. Kimmel has been ruthlessly mocking Lindell for weeks. That in turn led Lindell to gleefully read a transcript of those jokes at his own expense during his bizarre 48-hour livestream event to promote his new “social media” “platform.” Kimmel then spent much of his monologue the following night playing clips of Lindell reading his jokes.
After a certain point, it all started to feel a bit incestuous, culminating in Lindell accepting Kimmel’s invitation for a sit-down interview during his livestream. “We’ve been doing this show for a lot of years now and I don’t think anyone has ever been more excited to be a guest,” Kimmel said of Lindell. “Hey, listen, that makes two of us, Mike. We are Bed, Bath and Beyond excited to have you!”
But the fact that Lindell is so thrilled at the opportunity to bring his message of anti-vaxxer, democracy-denying “free speech” to Kimmel’s audience should at least give the late-night host pause. And it should make him and his team stop to think, “What exactly is the point of all this?”
The answer, more often than not, is of course ratings and buzz, which Kimmel’s sit-down with Lindell will no doubt receive. The driving force behind Saturday Night Live’s decision to have Elon Musk host the show next month is the same. That announcement was mostly met with some version of, “Has Lorne Michaels learned nothing?” in reference to Donald Trump’s disastrous turn as SNL host in the fall of 2015.
Michaels’ decision to give Trump that enormous platform right after he launched his 2016 presidential campaign with a racist tirade against immigrants has been widely criticized by past SNL writers like Mike Schur, who called it a “critical error,” and former cast members like Bobby Moynihan who delivered the only piece that actually attempted to take Trump to task that night.
Elon Musk is not Donald Trump, but the Tesla billionaire has spent the past year publicly railing against “fascist” COVID-19 lockdown orders and spreading vaccine disinformation on his popular Twitter account. So, you know, he’s not that different from Trump.
This time, SNL’s announcement received rare, if subtle, rebukes from current cast members. Aidy Bryant quickly posted a Bernie Sanders tweet about the “moral obscenity” of income inequality on her Instagram stories. And after Musk posted a tweet which read, “Let’s find out just how live Saturday Night Live really is,” Bowen Yang posted a weary face emoji followed by a far more direct response, asking, “what the fuck does this even mean.”
Now sure, there is a chance that Kimmel will thoroughly embarrass and expose Lindell this Wednesday night when he shows up for his in-studio appearance. And SNL might find a way to call Musk out for his irresponsible pandemic takes. But if the past is prologue in either case, each man will almost certainly emerge unscathed, if not stronger.
One only has to look at Kimmel’s extremely chummy interviews just last week with Ellen DeGeneres and noted painter George W. Bush to see how unwilling he is to hold his guests accountable for their past sins, be it mistreating low-level employees or full-on war crimes.
When late-night hosts are criticized for going too soft on their guests, they usually respond with some version of “I’m just a comedian.” Or as Fallon said a few days after his 2016 Trump interview, “Have you seen my show? I’m never too hard on anyone.”
But if that’s the case, then they clearly need to think harder about who they have on. At least Stephen Colbert admitted that he regrets his attempt to meet Trump with some form of grace, telling The New York Times, “Being nice to a guy who isn’t nice to other people, it doesn’t serve you that much.”
If you only want to have fun on your show, then maybe don’t book people who are actively trying to destroy democracy. If you are capable of legitimately confronting your guest about their “dangerous” rhetoric—see Seth Meyers’ stand-out interview with Meghan McCain—then do that and don’t hold back.
In an attempt to answer the question in the headline of this piece, no one “deserves” a platform on late-night TV. Certainly hosting SNL is a privilege that should be reserved for entertainers who have demonstrated some comedic talent beyond whatever Elon Musk is up to with former writers from The Onion. And denying someone that space does not mean they are “canceled.”
But there should at least be a purpose beyond making everyone involved feel like they had a good time and didn’t have to answer for their destructive behavior.
Ironically, some of the only “late-night” hosts consistently doing this right are the animated interviewers on Colbert’s Tooning Out the News. I couldn’t tell you why exactly Alan Dershowitz, Joe Arpaio, and Matt Schlapp, among others, agreed to appear on that program. But I think I have some idea as to why the show’s fictional cartoon news anchors have decided to leave the politeness aside and hold their guests accountable.
Rather than worrying about access and making sure everyone feels good at the end of the broadcast, they are using hard jokes to expose powerful people for who they truly are. If you can’t strive to make that happen, then why bother?
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