Tuesday, December 26, 2017
December 26, 2017: Reviewing Resistance: Late-night Comedy
[Whether we like it or not—and it likely goes without saying that I don’t—2017 has been defined by Donald Trump. So for this year in review series, I wanted to AmericanStudy five forms of resistance to all things Trump. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the year, Trumptastic or otherwise, in comments!]
On three distinct and interesting ways late night hosts have challenged Trump.
For anyone who has followed his television career, from its origins on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show through his tremendous success with The Colbert Report, it comes as no surprise that Stephen Colbert’s CBS Late Show has been one of the most consistent and pointed critics of Donald Trump’s first year as president. After all, The Colbert Report took apart 21st century right-wing extremism from within the belly of the beast, with Colbert’s bloviating and bombastic persona not only a pitch-perfect imitation of conservative media figures like Rush and O’Reilly but also a striking (if frustrating) prediction of Trump himself. While it might be somewhat surprising to see a network’s late-night show take such an aggressively political stance—these shows are competing for the biggest audience share they can find, and of course partisanship might lead many such potential viewers away from Colbert—that’s who Colbert has always been, and I’m quite sure CBS knew what it was getting when it hired Colbert to take over from David Letterman in 2015. Letterman hasn’t shied away from criticizing Trump either, but I can’t imagine he or anyone would fill that role better each night than Colbert has (although Seth Meyers of NBC’s late-late show has done pretty well too).
At the exact opposite end of the spectrum (from both Colbert and Meyers) is NBC’s principal late-night host, Jimmy Fallon of The Tonight Show. Fallon has always been aggressively a-political, presenting his humor and now his show as entertainment that all perspectives can enjoy, and used that stance to defend controversial moments like his interview with Trump during the 2016 campaign. Even as recently as this past October, Fallon was likewise defending the dearth of Trump jokes or coverage on his show as “just not what I do.” That’s Fallon’s prerogative, and while I don’t necessarily agree with it, I do understand that entertainment doesn’t—and can’t—fit in any one box or category. And Fallon’s overall stance could be said to make individual moments such as his emotional and eloquent response to August’s white supremacist/Nazi rally in Charlottesville (and to Trump’s odious response to said rally) that much more meaningful. Which is to say, while political satire from Colbert might have become par for the course, such pointed commentaries from Fallon are far more surprising; and while we desperately need hosts to point out Trump et al’s follies and horrors nightly, those who do so only in particularly egregious moments can thus help highlight the special awfulness as well.
Offering a third iteration of these late-night comic commentaries is ABC’s principal host, Jimmy Kimmel of Jimmy Kimmel Live! Kimmel is perhaps current late-night’s closest heir to Letterman in style, not nearly as politically engaged as Colbert but also far more sarcastic and dark than the mainstream, likeable Fallon (himself an heir to Jay Leno in many ways). That combination might make political commentary even more unlikely on Kimmel’s show (he prefers pranking both celebrities and audience members alike), but earlier this year such commentary emerged from a particularly personal and powerful cause. Kimmel’s son was born with a rare and dangerous heart condition that has required multiple surgeries in his still very young life, and through those experiences Kimmel has become both an impassioned advocate for health care access and an equally passionate critic of Trump and the GOP’s health care proposals and agenda. Kimmel has been called “America’s conscience,” and I think the phrase is not hyperbolic—in these moments he is speaking not as a talk show host, not as a comedian, not as a public figure at all (although he’s certainly hoping to use his public platform, and rightfully so), but as an American parent, hoping for the best for his son and angry at how our government are seemingly so willing to ignore such concerns and voices. That’s a powerful form of resistance in its own right, as are all three of these hosts in their very different ways.
Next review tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other 2017 stories you’d highlight?