For Seth Meyers, the Donald Trump humor is apparently wearing thin.
The reality show billionaire and his boastful swagger, ridiculous hair, and allegedly tiny hands have long been punchlines for America’s late-night comics, who like to tell Trump jokes while also inviting him on their television programs to trade quips, schmooze, and presumably spike ratings.
A welcome guest on David Letterman’s and Jay Leno’s shows back in the day, Trump has appeared twice with Jimmy Fallon, once with a strangely diffident Stephen Colbert, and has even hosted Saturday Night Live during the 2016 presidential campaign.
But Trump has spurned invitations to go on Late Night with Seth Meyers, still nursing a grudge for Meyers’s savage ridicule of him five years ago at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
The late-night TV entertainer—who was unavailable for an interview—is likewise finding the presumptive Republican nominee no longer all that funny.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” said George Mason University communications professor S. Robert Lichter, who has spent the past 30 years studying the impact of late-night television comics on presidential campaigns, and is co-author of Politics Is a Joke!: How TV Comedians Are Remaking Political Life. “Trump has already driven journalists crazy. Now he’s driving comedians crazy as well.”
This was not always the case for the 42-year-old Meyers, SNL’s former head writer and anchor of the “Weekend Update” segment. He has brilliantly and hilariously lampooned Trump over the past year since the real-estate mogul rode the down-escalator to his candidacy—not only in the opening Late Night monologue but in a series of highly-produced desk pieces titled “A Closer Look,” a feature in which Meyers takes a deep dive into issues of the day, à la HBO’s John Oliver, and mines them for clever mockery.
Of the 20-odd Trump-focused installments, Meyers has tackled the Trump University lawsuits and Trump’s “incredibly racist” attacks on the Indiana-born Hispanic trial judge; Trump’s impersonation of his own fake publicist to brag about his sexual conquests; and Trump’s apparently abortive plans to reinvent himself as a reasonable-sounding general-election candidate.
To be sure, the Trump “A Closer Look” segments have been stinging and even devastating, but Meyers has taken infectious joy—and a certain amount of professional pride—in having a bit of fun with his great white whale.
By contrast, the host (who according to federal records donated $4,600 in 2008 to presidential candidate Barack Obama) has been noticeably gentle on Hillary Clinton.
His recent “A Closer Look” segment about her FBI-investigated email troubles, for instance, trivialized her willful violation of federal regulations—skewering the pundits, the press, and the government bureaucracy far more than it did Trump’s Democratic opponent.
“The only way this scandal could be more boring is if Wolf Blitzer talked about it—here, I’ll prove it,” Meyers said, introducing a clip of Wolf Blitzer talking about it—and pretending to nod off.
The studio audience roared.
But on his program this past Tuesday night, Meyers shed his professionally sardonic persona and comedic detachment to deliver a blistering, seven-minute diatribe against Trump that was long on invective and short on laughs.
Meyers warned his insomniac viewers—an audience consistently bigger at 12:37 a.m. than that of his CBS rival, British import James Corden (especially in the 18-49 age demographic on which advertising is sold)—that Trump is a dangerous bigot, a White House aspirant with a “Cal Ripken-esque streak of making inflammatory statements without any evidence whatsoever… Man, I gotta say when it comes to bigotry, Trump keeps upping his game.”
Reacting to Trump’s anti-Muslim speech in response to Sunday’s carnage at the LGBT Pulse nightclub in Orlando—and also to Trump’s ban of The Washington Post from his campaign press bus—Meyers declared that the speech “was a new low… Trump’s comments on Monday were especially jarring when you consider that just last week the the Republican officials supporting him had expressed hope that he would soften his incendiary rhetoric and stick to the GOP message…
“To be clear, this is bigotry, plain and simple. To claim that any group of people, immigrants or anyone else, has anything in common with the terrorist murderer, based simply on their ethnic background or their religion or where they’re from, is dangerous and wrong. That wasn’t the only heinous and patently false statement Trump made on Monday. He also claimed, without a shred of evidence, that there are Muslims in this country that are knowingly protecting terrorists.”
Trump is telling “a bigoted lie,” a grimly unsmiling Meyers went on. “This hateful, dangerous rhetoric has the potential to make Muslim Americans feel threatened and unwelcome… Trump is stoking fear and spreading hate…”
Meyers added that Trump’s “vague innuendo” that President Obama is somehow in sympathy with the terrorists, while refusing to explain exactly what he means, “is not an accident. This is a strategy he uses to try to appeal to the outer fringes while also avoiding accountability.”
Meyers also dismantled the candidate’s claim that he’d be better for the LGBT community than Clinton, and showed video clips of Trump promising to appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn the legality of same-sex marriage.
All laudable sentiments, to be sure. Yet Meyers’s impassioned oration, leavened here and there by a laugh line—such as vowing to block Trump from his Late Night couch “in solidarity with” the Post (“although to be fair,” he acknowledged with a grin, “he wasn’t coming on anyway; let’s be honest, he had no interest in being here”) was less satire than condemnation.
It could have been written—though it wasn’t—by the wordsmiths on Clinton’s communications staff.
Still, as professor Lichter pointed out, if Meyers’s goal is to persuade voters, he’d be better off sticking to telling jokes instead of giving a lecture.
“The problem for late-night comics is that their impact comes from their humor,” Lichter told The Daily Beast. “One element of a joke is surprise—something that you didn’t expect. That’s what makes it funny. But when you just deliver a diatribe, you may be satisfying yourself, but you’re not going to influence many people.”
Lichter’s long-term studies of how late-night TV comics affect voter attitudes, as director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University, have shown that the impact can be significant.
According to Lichter’s statistics tallied from September 2015 through April 2016, more than 1,000 televised jokes were aimed at Trump, while only around 300 targeted Clinton—and Trump was the object of more comedy derision than all of the other candidates combined.
“We’ve found that late-night humor changed public attitudes toward candidates, and that the more jokes about a candidate, the less favorable his poll numbers,” Lichter said, adding that the sheer volume of Trump jokes, and the multiplicity of platforms, digital and otherwise, through which voters have been exposed to them, are undoubtedly contributing to his decline in recent public opinion surveys.
“The impact is for real,” Lichter said. “There’s no question whether all the Trump jokes could be hurting Donald Trump. They are.”
On the other hand, Lichter argued, Meyers and other comics who try to administer the anti-Trump medicine without a spoonful of humor risk losing their mojo.
“Comedians are just sputtering at Trump and trying to figure out what they can do about him,” he said. “The best thing comedians can do about Trump is to joke about him. To warn about him defeats the purpose. As a comedian, you have an impact through making people laugh. Telling them what you think is not making them laugh. It’s kind of a paradox. You think you’ve got all this influence, but the moment you trade on it, you lose it.”
In fairness, Meyers hasn’t completely abandoned making light of a candidate he clearly sees as an ominous threat to treasured American values.
He opened Tuesday’s monologue: “The latest polls show Hillary Clinton now leads Donald Trump nationally. I guess she’s getting some traction with her new slogan, ‘Come with me if you want to live!’”
Later in the show, he was a receptive audience as guest Martin Short—at his oleaginous best—claimed to have attended Trump’s 70th birthday celebration and unleashed a series of rapid-fire japes.
“It was a wonderful, wonderful party… We played Pin the Tail on the Mexican… Oh, then, the cake came out and we sang, ‘Oh, for he’s a jolly-good racist! He’s a jolly-good racist!’… In person, you know, that’s not a hairdo, that’s a wind advisory. I think he’s misinterpreted. He’s standing for so many things—Orange Lives Matter is my favorite… He has a big ego. He screams out his own name during sex. You know he’s doing a remake of Three Amigos, which was a film I was in, called No Amigos.”
“Bang! Bang! Bang! One after the other!” Meyers noted appreciatively—conceding, for the moment, the peerless power of humor.