Late-Night Comedians: Take This Election…Please!

Print Share on LinkedIn More

November 10, 2016; New York Times and Mediafile

Comedic artists have been poking fun and making jokes about royals since before Shakespeare. Fast-forward a few centuries and Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show got the tradition going in the U.S. in earnest. Carson’s jokes were often funny, but not so much to their targets. According to the New York Times, “It certainly did not help former Sen. Gary Hart’s presidential run when Carson began including him in his monologues.” Carson’s jokes about Hart’s extramarital activities were surely not the only reason his political fortunes evaporated in 1988, but they were repeated often enough to have played some part. Johnny’s path has been followed in one way or another by Jay, Arsenio, David, Jon, the two Jimmys, Conan, Seth, Stephen, the late Joan Rivers, Larry, Bill, and current lone female host Samantha Bee—along with SNL’s entire cast. Even transplanted foreigners Trevor, John, and James can’t resist. The Brits gave equal time to Brexit, and Trevor Noah called out South African President Zuma. This year’s election was one for the history books and, if you listen to late-night pundits, Mad Magazine. It’s said that “Johnny Carson delivered…without revealing his party affiliation,” but that’s certainly not the case today. For those keeping score, its Trump/Republicans zero, Clinton/Democrats…every late-night comedian.

At the start of the endless campaign season, the comics seemed to appreciate Trump more. Maybe, like the endless pollsters and pundits, they didn’t really see him as a threat, with his quixotic quest for the presidency. Trump was the greatest gift to comedians since the mother-in-law joke. The mere mention of his name could be counted on to elicit a laugh. Monologue a little weak tonight? Throw in a Trump joke. Talk about reality TV, mention the latest of the many nicknames he coined throughout the primary. They pilloried Hillary, too, but it was a kinder and gentler ribbing, almost perfunctory. They made jokes about corporate speeches because the press talked about them. During the primaries, they made fun of 74-year old Bernie Sanders as an old man, but Hillary’s age (68) was almost never mentioned, except in kind references to her as a grandmother. They laughed about emails because the press talked about emails, and when James Comey talked about emails again, comedians laughed about past FBI indiscretions. But they never seemed to think that Hillary’s gaffes were as big as Trump’s. Hillary’s supporters would say it’s because they weren’t, and it was clear the late-nighters agreed. The Donald certainly gave his critics and the comedians, often one and the same, enough material to work with. He had “problems with” and made dubious comments about Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants, African Americans, women, unattractive women, and gays. This, coupled with his buttoned-up (bordering on ultraconservative) policy comments let the public know exactly what he meant when he said, “Make America Great Again.” The comedic floodgates opened.

CBS This Morning, which prides itself on no cooking or singing segments, started to run snippets of all the late-night comics’ comments, not just CBS-affiliated Colbert and Corden. It made you wonder if the funny men and woman were saying the things that journalists Charlie Rose, Gayle King, and Nora O’Donnell couldn’t and wouldn’t say. The comics became overzealous. Trevor Noah, Larry Wilmore, and Seth Meyers essentially signed up for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. On Late Night With Seth Meyers, the host leveraged his podium to scold Bernie Sanders supporters. Why? They were refusing to play nice at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

Hey! Pay attention. We are on the cusp of electing a racist demagogue, and that never ends well. I don’t know what class you ditched to go to those Bernie rallies, but I have a feeling it was history.

These insider commentaries were all anti-Sanders and Trump with unequal mention of Hillary’s transgressions. Take the Debbie Wassermann Schultz debacle where she used her seat as chair of the Democratic National Committee to favor Clinton’s campaign at the expense of Sanders’. She left the DNC in disgrace to take a high level position in Clinton’s campaign. During his show, Stephen Colbert performed damage control for the DNC leaks.

The lines are becoming more blurred. In late September, Jimmy Fallon interviewed Trump and was heavily criticized for not being “tough enough.” Many, specifically Hillary supporters, were concerned that Fallon’s ruffling Trump’s hair would “normalize” him to Fallon’s 43.6 million Twitter followers. Fallon does not have a journalism degree; he’s not a journalist. His jokes may be tough on candidates but his interviews are pure puff. Despite the jokes and laughs, Donald J. Trump won the election. It will be interesting to see if the late-night crew tone down their comedic coverage for a sitting president. Stay tuned.—Mary Frances Mitchner