America’s late-night hosts entered 2017 with a mix of trepidation and dread. After spending the better part of two years talking about almost nothing besides Donald Trump, many had hoped a Hillary Clinton win would give them a chance to finally move on.
“It’s weird when people say ‘this must be great for you’ about the Trump presidency,” Late Night’s Seth Meyers told The Daily Beast midway through the year. “I feel it’s like being a gravedigger in the Middle Ages and people saying, ‘God this plague must be so good for business.’”
The first year of Trump’s presidency has definitely been “good for business”—especially for those hosts like Meyers and Stephen Colbert who have become de facto mouthpieces for the #resistance. But while it has not always provided the plethora of laughs that some fans were expecting, it did help bring about some of the most compelling and unexpected moments in late night’s long history, many of which produced more catharsis than comedy.
While more than a few of the entries on the list below came from hosts who decided to forgo jokes in favor of a deeper emotional connection with viewers, there were exceptions to that rule.
In the best cases, comedians were able to get laughs while also revealing something profound about the target of their satire, be it Trump or the growing list of disgraced powerful men who have been rightly ousted from public life while the pussy-grabber-in-chief escapes unscathed.
10. John Oliver Coins ‘Stupid Watergate’
In the early days of the 2016 campaign, Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver did everything he could to ignore Donald Trump, famously telling his old Daily Show colleague Stephen Colbert during the GOP primary that he “couldn’t give less of a shit” about the candidate he assumed would be out of the race in no time. A few months later, he dealt Trump what critics hoped might be a knockout punch with his #MakeDonaldDrumpfAgain campaign. But while Oliver briefly touched on the president’s latest outrage in nearly every episode of his HBO show this year, he only dedicated one longer segment to him, going all in on the “Stupid Watergate” moniker he coined to sum up the Russia scandal.
“We used that framing device because it seemed like the best way to hold the thoughts that we had about the complexities and idiocy around that particular investigation,” Oliver told The Late Show’s Stephen Colbert in an interview last month.
“Look, it is not clear what is really going on here yet,” Oliver told viewers in the early days of the investigation. “Although one possibility is that this all amounts to what I’m going to call ‘Stupid Watergate’: a potential scandal with all the intrigue of Watergate, except everyone involved is really bad at everything, and the relevant question isn’t so much of ‘What did the president know and when did he know it’ as it is ‘Is the president physically capable of knowing things at all?’”
9. Jordan Klepper’s Cold Open on Guns
Given that he’s playing an over-the-top, Alex Jones-inspired conspiracy theorist character, it was never going to be easy for The Opposition’s Jordan Klepper to deliver the type of sincere reaction to tragedy that has become the norm for late-night hosts. He had his first big test just a few weeks into his new show’s run, the morning after dozens of men, women, and children were gunned down at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
In a deft and darkly funny cold open piece, Klepper sat behind a stack of newspapers and solemnly announced that America had “experienced a heartbreaking, unparalleled tragedy.” But when he picked up a paper from the stack, the headline was about the previous month’s mass shooting in Las Vegas. As it happened again and again, he became more and more frustrated.
“These are all mass shootings from this year?!” Klepper asked his producer. “This is too much! All of this is too much, right here. We need to do something about this... desk.”
8. Sarah Silverman’s Louis C.K. Monologue
Unlike her mostly male counterparts, Sarah Silverman has almost entirely eschewed talking about current events on her Hulu show I Love You, America. But there was one topic she could not ignore during an episode this fall: the sexual misconduct allegations against her friend, Louis C.K.
In an emotional monologue that left jokes aside, Silverman delivered the best commentary yet on what it feels like to find out something horrible about someone you admire—or in her case “love.”
“It’s a real mindfuck,” Silverman added. “Because I love Louis, but Louis did these things. Both of these statements are true, so I just keep asking myself: ‘Can you love someone who did bad things? Can you still love them?’”
It’s an uncomfortable question that so many women and men are asking themselves as this year comes to a close.
7. Larry Wilmore Tells Off Milo
Bill Maher is responsible for what was arguably the worst late-night moment of the year. Thankfully, his guest Larry Wilmore helped deliver one of the best.
Six months after he lost his Comedy Central show, Wilmore shared the stage with alt-right it-boy Milo Yiannopoulos during Real Time’s “Overtime” segment on YouTube. And he said what many viewers had hoped Maher would say during his cozy interview that opened the episode: “You can go fuck yourself!”
6. Seth Meyers Doesn’t Hold Back on Sexual Predators
It took the men of late-night television too long to fully address the bombshell sexual misconduct allegations against Harvey Weinstein, but once they did, no one was more relentless than Seth Meyers.
Forbes rightly got a lot of shit for calling Meyers the “feminist” Golden Globes host Hollywood needs this year, but at least compared to his late-night competitors he has gone above and beyond—not just on Weinstein but also on the men who went down in his wake. And that did not change when the men in question included his fellow SNL alum Al Franken and NBC network-mate Matt Lauer.
“This should not be a partisan issue,” Meyers said days after the Weinstein story broke. “Men need to speak up and address their complicity in the system that allows these things to happen.”
5. Colbert Refuses to Apologize to Trump
Stephen Colbert has told countless brutal jokes about Donald Trump since taking over The Late Show in 2015. But there was one this spring that, for whatever reason, felt like a bridge too far for supporters of the president. They launched a #FireColbert campaign after he said of Trump, “The only thing your mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin’s cock holster.” All of a sudden, the alt-right was horrified that the host had made what some perceived to be a homophobic insinuation.
Instead of apologizing, Colbert took a page out of the president’s playbook and doubled down. “I don’t regret that,” the host said of the joke that had so offended Trump. “I believe he can take care of himself. I have jokes, he has the launch codes, so… it’s a fair fight.”
He did, however, offer an apology of sorts to anyone in the LGBT community who took offense at his joke. “While I would do it again, I would change a few words that were cruder than they needed to be,” Colbert said. “Now I’m not going to repeat the phrase, but I just want to say, for the record, life is short, and anybody who expresses their love for another person in their own way, is to me, an American hero.”
4. Michael Che Calls Trump a ‘Cheap Cracker’
If Alec Baldwin’s Trump impression started to wear a little thin this fall, “Weekend Update” anchor—and recently named co-head writer along with Colin Jost—Michael Che’s commentary on the president has only gotten tougher.
Che came out swinging on Saturday Night Live’s season premiere, delivering an epic rant against Trump for failing to give Puerto Rico the help it desperately needed after Hurricane Maria.
“This isn’t a complicated issue, man, it’s hurricane relief,” Che said. “You just did this very same thing for white people, twice. So, tell Melania to put on her flood heels, get some bottled water, some food, pack up some extra Atlanta Falcons Super Bowl T-shirts and write them a check with our money, you cheap cracker!”
3. Sam Bee’s PSA for Men
Watching the late-night men struggle to come up with a funny way to talk about the Harvey Weinstein story made Samantha Bee’s seemingly effortless takedown of male entitlement culture all the more essential.
In a public service announcement directed at men everywhere, Bee offered up some tips on how to avoid becoming the next Weinstein. “Every day I wake up, get dressed, take the subway to work and then don’t masturbate in front of anyone,” Bee said. “Next time you get the urge to masturbate, just ask yourself, ‘Am I in front of an employee or a colleague?’ And if the answer is ‘yes,’ don’t. Just don’t.”
For a host who has become (perhaps unfairly) known for her searing anger, this calm and measured monologue served as the perfect comic response to a story that was anything but funny on its face.
2. The President Show’s Trump Sees a Truck
When Comedy Central first announced that it would be producing a weekly talk show centered around comedian Anthony Atamanuik’s Donald Trump impression, it felt like a risky proposition that could suffer from America’s growing Trump fatigue. But once the first episode aired, those fears were lifted thanks to a mostly improvised field piece shot on the streets of New York that included arguably the year’s funniest late-night moment.
Atamanuik’s Trump, exhausted from a day of stumbling around Times Square and gorging on fast food, spots a truck driving down the street. “Honk, honk goes the truck!” he says excitedly. But things turn unexpectedly dark when he imagines driving the truck into a river and drowning, “finally at peace” as the water fills his lungs.
In a message to The Daily Beast, Atamanuik said that he believes the bit resonated with viewers so much “because it shows Trump as this easily distracted child-man who is dazzled by big trucks and tough guys.” He added, “Then you cut under the surface and see that there is this emotionally stunted, lonely, damaged person who has delusions of grandeur coupled with violently self-destructive fantasies. It captures what scares the shit out of us about Trump.”
1. Jimmy Kimmel Breaks Down
Every late-night host likes to think that their words might have some positive impact on the lives of their viewers, even if it’s just giving them a good laugh at the end of the day (or, in many cases, the next morning). Only one can claim that their commentary may have actually saved lives.
Jimmy Kimmel’s powerful plea to keep the Affordable Care Act intact after his baby son’s near-death experience was so effective precisely because the messenger was so unexpected. If a relatively apolitical host like Kimmel felt so strongly about this issue, then maybe it was worth paying attention to.
Partly thanks to his relentless efforts over several months, Republicans failed to repeal Obamacare, helping to ensure, as Kimmel put it, that “No parent should ever have to decide if they can afford to save their child’s life.”
The host has repeatedly said that he wishes he could just go back to making fun of the Kardashians, but with a reality show star occupying the White House, he no longer has that luxury.