Comedians feed off the non-stop chaos of the Trump administration
The Santa Clara
February 22, 2017
After months of speculation that he was going to get the boot from “The Late Show,” Stephen Colbert has recently given Jimmy Fallon and “The Tonight Show” a run for their money with his aggressive political satire. Photo: CBS.
“Nobody’s bigger than me. Nobody’s better than me. I’m a ratings machine,” Donald Trump declared with startling foresight in his 2004 opening “Saturday Night Live” monologue. Since his debut on the political scene, Trump and his team have offered ample material for late-night comedy giants to exploit for cheers and jeers.
Just in the first month of Trump’s presidency, ratings have spiked for late-night comedy shows partaking in political satire. Beneficiaries of the Trump Effect include “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” “The Daily Show” and “The Late Show.” SNL alone attracted its largest audience (10.8 million) in six years on the Feb. 11 episode hosted by Alec Baldwin.
With an onslaught of controversies coming from everywhere inside the White House, late-night comedies are making it their mission to tackle every new development with punchlines and impersonations. However, the more they do this, the more they draw a line in the sand about what responsibilities late-night comedies have. Should late-night comedies go straight for the easy laughs or should they aim to simultaneously educate and amuse?
There is no easy answer. It seems we are living in political times which Abraham Lincoln would classify as “a house divided”—you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Trevor Noah, who was widely praised for his one-on-one throw-down with outspoken Republican commentator Tomi Lahren, can attest to this. After his debate with Lahren, he was reprimanded for bringing her on his show and for getting “peace” drinks with her later.
“People go, ‘You wouldn’t talk to this person if she wasn’t a blonde, beautiful woman.’ And I go, ‘No, you didn’t notice when I spoke to an average-looking man,’” Noah said. “You’re not providing a platform for this person. What you’re doing is, you’re trying to get into their space and talk to them as a person, but more importantly, you’re trying to talk to people who would never hear you in the first place.”
But these shows are the ones that (along with the media at large) are consistently blamed for fueling the fire of Trump’s campaign. Perhaps because of this, they are now attempting to undo any damage they’ve caused by competing to see who can fact check Trump with the wittiest one-liner.
Audiences are also playing a part in shaping the responses of these shows. Those who want fun, pop culture bits can strap in for Carpool Karaoke with “Late Late Show” host James Corden or watch Jimmy Fallon’s lip sync battles on “The Tonight Show.” But even these apolitical hosts throw in the occasional jab at the White House, as Jimmy Fallon’s recent press briefing cold opening shows.
But that segment, featuring Fallon mindlessly spouting Trump’s catchphrases without nuance, was a flop. It was seen by many as an attempt to cash in on the political hoopla making Stephen Colbert’s previously ailing “Late Show” a serious ratings competitor for the 11 p.m. time slot. Colbert has never censored his viewpoints and isn’t afraid of dropping the comedic safety blanket to admit his true dismay. Meanwhile, let’s not forget it was Jimmy Fallon who caught flack for affectionately tousling Trump’s hair back in the fall.
And so, somewhere between SNL’s Kellyanne Conway “Fatal Attraction” parody and Bill Maher dedicating an entire section of his show to befriending Milo Yiannopoulos, the late-night landscape has become a minefield of politics in and of itself.
Politics have always been a part of the late-night game, but never before has a president so relentlessly prompted segment after segment dedicated to him. On the ratings-breaking Feb. 11 episode of SNL, there was not one, but four skits dedicated to the White House.
The non-stop Trump Express must be exhausting to the writers of these shows. SNL is already starting to sag around the edges, as its cast dispassionately name checks controversies as fast as Trump can create them.
“Let’s be honest: This was probably the weakest Trump-centric sketch since Baldwin took over portraying him,” Rolling Stone said of SNL’s “Trump’s People’s Court” sketch. “While much of this week’s episode was good, it rarely transitioned into truly great. There were many solid but forgettable sketches this week.”
Being the butt of every joke must also take a toll on an administration for which image is key. Not to mention the fatigue critics and audiences alike feel after five weeks (yes, only five weeks) of seeing comedies turn CNN alerts into punchlines.
The end of the election cycle was supposed to signal a return to normalcy, but the inauguration has only ramped up the farcical cross-examination of an administration always eager to comment.
“I think we’re very anxious to not make it all Trump, all the time, both on a level of interest and on a level of what the human soul can sustain,” John Oliver said recently. But with the New York Times starting a new column dedicated to rounding up the “Best of Late-night TV,” the spotlight on the late-night kings won’t dim anytime soon. At least we’ll always have Seth Meyers to guide us through these next four years—whatever alternative facts they may bring.
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