Once upon a time, the only things you needed to know about America’s political leaders to enjoy a piece of late-night talk show comedy were that Dan Quayle couldn’t spell “potato,” Bill Clinton was a womanizer or George W. Bush once mispronounced “nuclear.”
As America’s new president wages war on journalists, immigrants, civil rights and anything else he can fit into a tweet, the news has become much more personal to average citizens. And with the immediacy of social media spreading information faster than ever, previously apolitical people are getting engaged and speaking out.
In this climate, the comedic bar is higher. Facile jabs at Donald Trump’s bad haircut or failed marriages don’t cut it. Saturday Night Live makes headlines every week not for its accurate impressions but for the sting of its parodies. The same holds true for late-night television comics: hosts who practise sharper satire and tap into the nation’s newfound spirit of activism are reaping the critical and ratings rewards.
Stephen Colbert is one such winner. His Late Show was consistently placing a distant second to Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show in the 11:35 p.m. timeslot, but the tables turned in January after Trump was sworn in. Colbert gleefully dishes out Trump barbs that cut to the bone. After Trump launched a Twitter tirade against Democratic congressman and civil rights legend John Lewis in January, Colbert commented, “Trump spent the Martin Luther King weekend attacking a civil rights leader who marched and was beaten with Dr. King. What is he going to [tweet] on Easter? ‘Loser Jesus dead for three days and then we’re supposed to believe he just wakes up? Fake news. I like gods who don’t die. Where’s the rebirth certificate?’” Jokes like this are resonating. Colbert’s viewer numbers are up, giving Fallon some real competition.
Also surging in popularity is Full Frontal with Samantha Bee on TBS. Drawing from her experience as a former Daily Show correspondent, the Canadian-born Bee pulls no punches, and as the sole female host in the genre, she’s the best positioned to address issues like reproductive rights and sexist attacks on presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The day after the Women’s March on Washington last January, she deftly dismantled every conservative criticism lobbed at the protest, and capped it off with an in-studio performance by the all-female #ICANTKEEPQUIET Choir. In the year since her 2016 premiere, Bee has more than doubled her audience.
HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is similarly hosted by a Daily Show alum. For comedic takes on broader issues, Oliver is essential viewing. Going against common wisdom that shorter online videos are more successful, he racks up millions of YouTube views with his 20-minute deep dives on unsexy subjects like net neutrality, student debt and — yes — Trump. Remember the Internet trend of everyone calling Trump by his family’s original surname, “Drumpf”? Oliver started that.
The show that arguably started this satire renaissance, The Daily Show, is, as expected, seeing lower viewership since longtime host Jon Stewart departed in 2015. But current host Trevor Noah attracts a younger audience than his beloved predecessor did, suggesting the show is poised for growth. Noah is in a unique position to address Trump’s racially charged policies: as he details in his new memoir, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, growing up biracial in the apartheid era meant that his very existence violated the law. Before Trump’s election, Noah jokes, “people who hated me . . . were saying, ‘Go back to Africa!’ Now, it’s people who like me saying, ‘You should go back to Africa, man.’”
It makes sense that the election of Trump is attracting viewers to this style of comedy. Satire, by definition, challenges the status quo. Despite their anti-establishment rhetoric, Trump and his “alt-right” conservative fans support the status quo to an extreme degree. The underlying point of Trump’s “make America great again” slogan was to glorify a time in society when only white, straight, Christian men had a voice.
Enabling that status quo could prove problematic for The Tonight Show’s Jimmy Fallon. Comedy snobs have long maligned his penchant for celebrity carnival games and toothless jokes, but ratings-wise, he was the undisputed king of late night until Trump took office. Then, Fallon’s numbers slipped. The oft-cited turning point came less than two months before the election, when Trump was a guest. Instead of asking tough questions, Fallon lobbed a series of softballs, ending with a request to tousle Trump’s hair. He obliged.
Fallon was lambasted by critics who said the hair-tousling stunt made Trump seem likable and contributed to normalizing his rhetoric. The accusation recalls Richard Nixon’s infamous cameo on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In while campaigning for president in 1968. Seven weeks after uttering the show’s catchphrase “sock it to me,” he narrowly won the popular vote.
There’s little hard evidence to prove that comedy shows have an impact on voters, so demanding that a comedian, especially someone as affable as Fallon, hold a politician’s feet to the fire may be unfair. But in a deeply divided country, perception matters. Viewers who see Fallon as out of touch with their political concerns have good reason to tune out. (It’s worth noting that Laugh-In lost its top spot in the ratings not long after giving airtime to Nixon and never recovered.)
But nobody should be quick to dismiss shows that aren’t 100 percent political material. Ultimately, people look to comedy for comfort, and everyone defines “comfort” differently. Some find comfort in hearing a comedian mirror their own political feelings in a palatable way, making them feel that they aren’t alone in their frustration. Others want escapism, and would get that from watching Fallon and a celebrity guest getting covered in goo in a game of Egg Russian Roulette.
But for now, the late-night television comedians finding the most success aren’t targeting people who are simply awake; they’re targeting those who are aware.
Sharilyn Johnson is a writer in Toronto and author of the book Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z.