Mediator: Colbert, Kimmel and the Politics of Late Night
In this case as well, the content started with the president. As Seth Meyers, the host of NBC’s “Late Night,” told Vox recently, “The White House has the best writers’ room in comedy.”
Where football is any given Sunday, late-night comedy is every single weeknight. And with its harder charge into anti-Trump political humor, it has sailed into what the former New York Times writer Bill Carter called “absolutely uncharted” territory.
I checked in with Mr. Carter not only because we are old colleagues but also because he is the nation’s foremost student of late-night entertainment. He literally wrote the book on it — that is, “The Late Shift,” the classic yarn about the war between David Letterman and Jay Leno to get Johnny Carson’s job on the “Tonight” show. (He followed it up with “The War For Late Night,” about the Conan O’Brien debacle at NBC.)
“There’s no example of any kind of sustained attack like this on a politician,” Mr. Carter told me last week. “There’s a horde of writers writing jokes about Donald Trump every single night.” (And, he said, he wasn’t even counting the weekly shows like “Saturday Night Live,” “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” and “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.”)
This has brought about an abundance of incisive political satire. But it has also come with new complications that threaten to kill the fun, through blowback on the pro-Trump right and the rigid expectations of an anti-Trump audience that wants Resistance TV every night.
Mr. Colbert bumped up against the latter when he hosted the Emmys last week and decided to do a bit with the former Trump press secretary Sean Spicer. His writing team from “The Late Show” knew it might not be well-received in some quarters and debated the idea ahead of time, people familiar with the deliberations told me (they spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to be seen as violating the sanctity of the writing room).
By normal comedic standards, the idea seemed pretty basic: Put Mr. Spicer behind a mock White House lectern and have him make a fake boast about the size of the Emmy audience — evoking the false claim he made about Mr. Trump’s inaugural crowd. The sketch fast became heckler bait.
“Is it supposed to be comical that the former White House spokesman is now tacitly admitting that he lied to the American people?” a CNN White House correspondent, Kaitlan Collins, wrote in a tweet. Entertainment Weekly quoted Julia Louis-Dreyfus as saying, “There’s nothing funny about Sean Spicer and what his actions have been and what his behavior has been about. Period.”
The gag was woefully off-kilter with Mr. Colbert’s brand of principled, political comedy. Much of his criticism revolved around Mr. Spicer’s role in forwarding the president’s anti-press, “alternative facts” strategy. Now, he was being attacked for having “abetted Spicer’s image overhaul,” as The Times’s Frank Bruni put it.
But Mr. Spicer was a burning ember for every comedic set of hands — or lips — he touched. James Corden, the “Late Late Show” host who follows Mr. Colbert, felt compelled to apologize after a picture circulated of him giving Mr. Spicer a peck on the cheek at an Emmy party.
“Understandably, some people have been disappointed by this photo,” Mr. Corden told his audience. “In truth, I’m disappointed by it as well.”
Yet while Mr. Colbert and Mr. Corden were fielding criticism last week, Jimmy Kimmel was riding a wave of Resistance support, because of the way he eviscerated the latest Republican health care bill on his show. It became a big news story in its own right because it was such an unusual situation: Republicans pushing the plan, including the president, were facing their strongest opposition from a late-night talk show host on ABC.
Mr. Kimmel has a personal connection to the debate — his son has a congenital heart condition that, Mr. Kimmel has said, would potentially go untreated under the recently proposed new health care laws if the boy did not have a wealthy father. The response from the right was intense. But where that might have led to a course correction in the past, as it so often had, Mr. Kimmel pressed on for three nights in a row.
We’re at the point now where Mr. Fallon has been widely criticized for being too apolitical — and was eviscerated for playfully mussing Mr. Trump’s hair. He adjusted his show accordingly, a shift for “Tonight,” which is, after all, the original late-night talk show.
“Leno was the guy who was most likely to be down the middle with his commentary,” Mr. Carter said, referring to Jay Leno, Mr. Fallon’s predecessor, who led the late-night ratings through most of his 22-year tenure. He was more or less following the tradition of his own predecessor, Johnny Carson, who made plenty of fun of Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. But, as Mr. Carter put it, “Carson was judicious” about his criticism.
Mr. Leno’s direct competitor, David Letterman, was known in his later years for skewering former President George W. Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney, but for most of his tenure, he was not particularly political. “Dave would have said, ‘I’m just an idiot, I don’t really know anything,”’ said Mr. Carter, who now works as a media analyst for CNN.
And now, Mr. Carter said, “Colbert and Seth Meyers, they are like the voice of the resistance.”
One explanation, he said, is that late-night comedy has always played off the news, and these days, all of the news is about Mr. Trump. Then there is the content of that news, and the reactions it so often causes. In calling Mr. Trump’s response to the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va., “shameful” during an opening monologue in August, Mr. Fallon said it was “my responsibility to stand up against intolerance and extremism as a human being.”
For his part, Mr. Colbert is being true to the left-leaning political comedy he practiced, in character, on his old show, “The Colbert Report,” on Comedy Central, where he and Jon Stewart initially set the new tone we’re seeing today. Yet through the first half of the election campaign, in his new place on CBS, he did not embrace his politics. As his show struggled, critics and late-night insiders debated whether CBS was restraining him or he was restraining himself.
His increasing turn toward Trump jokes as the campaign wore on gave Mr. Colbert and CBS what they needed: ratings, which are, after all, network television’s answer to liquid courage. Mr. Trump doesn’t seem likely to rob Mr. Colbert and his cohorts of material any time soon.
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