Somehow, it’s been almost a year since the advent of late-night television’s post-Trump conundrum – with the end of an administration that was both a boon for ratings and a creative dead-end, how would liberal political comedy move forward? Late-night television, from Stephen Colbert’s emotional monologues to Seth Meyers’ furious Closer Look segments to Saturday Night Live’s star-studded cold opens, helped millions of viewers process an un-processable deluge of deranged, infuriating headlines in the years after the 2016 election.
It also tested the definition of insanity, stranding writers and hosts in a rut of stale jokes about an administration beyond parody. Four years of bad impressions and too-similar jokes exposing the limits of satire; one night in 2018, five late-night hosts told the same one. Where would one of the most consistent and least diverse genres of variety television find itself when the outrageous presidency ended?
Of course, the former president’s relevance to topical comedy didn’t end with his defeat in the 2020 election. There was his big lie of election fraud and the insurrection of the Capitol on 6 January, fallout from which still peppers late-night comedy as a Republican party now tethered to the tenets of Trumpism – denial, fearmongering, minority rule – refuses to hold anyone officially accountable. The courts stacked with conservative justices during his administration continue to make (or abstain from making) decisions crucial to millions of Americans’ lives. The playbook haphazardly invoked by the Trump campaign to disenfranchise minority voters and discredit elections has been codified into law in several states.
So on some level, political comedy aimed at relevance couldn’t completely avoid the former president. How programs as disparate in pace, template and tone as The Tonight Show and Last Week with John Oliver have handled the past year of turbulence and transition, however, has varied. There have been earnest and haphazard attempts to move forward and refocus, but like the current administration, late-night comedy remains haunted by the last one.
Shows such Stephen Colbert’s Late Show have taken to openly avoiding the name of the former president while repeatedly skewering the Republican party now crafted in his image. Others, namely Late Night with Seth Meyers and Jimmy Kimmel Live!, have doubled down – continuing to mock Trump and his supporters, keeping up with the goings on of his former confidants (Rudy Giuliani, Kellyanne Conway), and stoking outrage over his attempts to remain relevant without social media and the nation’s highest office. (Kimmel even controversially hosted a frequent target, the MyPillow CEO and election conspiracist Mike Lindell, for an interview in April.)
Still others, from The Daily Show with Trevor Noah to the weekly programs with the time and mandate to dig deeper into less reactive topics, have barely mentioned Trump as they tackle thornier, more complicated material – vaccine hesitancy, bitcoin, anti-abortion laws, extreme weather, even, on the Daily Show, an explainer of how Nicki Minaj’s misinformation-filled viral tweet about her cousin’s friend in Trinidad burdened Covid defense efforts in that country.
Saturday Night Live, too, is no longer calling on Alec Baldwin for his much ballyhooed and overdone Trump impressions, but has continued its cold-open political parodies in the Biden era to middling interest. The 47th season premiere on 2 October, in which new cast member James Austin Johnson, known for his online Trump impressions, impersonated Biden, drew 3.5 million viewers, down 35% from last year; recent episodes have seen record-low ratings.
Of the nightly programs, the most popular one, the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, evinces the median strategy – the host, who has led ratings for five years straight with an average of 2.95 million viewers, has taken to not saying the former president’s name as a bit (fans can submit punny monikers on Twitter). But the Late Show still takes as its guiding mission to talk about what everyone is talking about, which is often, in 2021, stuff not really processable through the mechanisms of comedy – mass shootings, climate disaster events, the callousness of GOP politicians restricting abortions or voting rights. Books about the chaos of the former administration, residual fallout from the 6 January insurrection, and the tribulations of Rudy Giuliani still make the broadcast, but the monologue has mostly pivoted away from kneejerk reactions about the latest White House circus toward other circuses, such as the billionaire space race or the partisan Arizona election review.
Meanwhile, the weekly, more expressly liberal shows – Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Last Week with John Oliver – have continued to investigate single topics less apt for a punchy rage-click headline. From argument to research to chagrined, feisty presentation, these shows barely function as comedy – their segments play more like passionate explainers from a well-informed, animated friend free to call bullshit and puncture analysis with a cathartic dose of obscenity.
The Trump years saw a host of experimental late-night programs hosted by not straight white male talent fizzle out – The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas and The Break with Michelle Wolf all premiered and were cancelled since January 2015. The past year has once again seen some potential for new entries and perspective for the genre.
Showtime’s Ziwe, a full-length version of the combative, cringe-humor Instagram Live show hosted by a narcissistic, sly persona of the Nigerian American comic Ziwe Fumudoh, aimed for zeitgeisty discomfort. The show features a take on Fuck, Marry, Kill called Enslave, Appropriate, Silence; a jazz number called Lisa Called the Cops on Black People; and the question “what bothers you more: slow walkers or racism?” for Fran Lebowitz. The 29-year-old host is sharp-toothed and withholding, the show’s satire a mid-2000s Colbert Report lacquered in hot pink for irony-poisoned millennials.
HBO’s Pause with Sam Jay, which also premiered this spring, eschewed the standard desk-and-chair set-up altogether for something looser, more reminiscent of actual late-night conversations in rooms when white people are the minority. The former SNL writer, a black, lesbian comedian raised in around the projects of Boston, hosts a kickback with friends at her New York apartment, drinks flowing, topics pinging from pro-black conservatives to self-righteous Twitter critics.
“The conversations have kinda become a little repetitive, and I also don’t know, sometimes, who the fuck they’re even talking to,” Jay told the Guardian earlier this year of late-night staples. “I hate to say it that way, but that’s kinda how I feel sometimes, like who is this for, exactly? Because it’s not for any of my friends.”
These shows, unbound from the news cycle and the burden to appeal to middle-aged white audiences, are edgier, more dynamic, more abrasive (Ziwe) or languid (Jay). The recent return of Jon Stewart, arguably the king of late-night satire, to topical television has also demonstrated a desire to move on from reactive, personality-driven style. Apple TV’s The Problem with Jon Stewart, which has aired two episodes to date, finds the former Daily Show host in his usual mode of outrage, though this time with half of each episode (the first on War, the second on Freedom) devoted to a panel of guests, such as veterans and their spouses, directly affected by the issue.
Stewart’s program, full of righteousness and empathy but not particularly funny, is perhaps the best encapsulation of where late-night TV, as a whole, seems headed. The genre remains overwhelmingly white and male, with a monologue and a desk, still to varying degrees drawing punchlines and outrage from the former president. There isn’t a lot that’s funny about the news, about the state of America’s democracy, about politics. But there is a function in attempting to translate issues of the day to a larger audience, to help combat habituation to horror, to breaking down events in plain language untethered to outdated notions of objectivity and seriousness. Candor isn’t the same thing as comedy, but they increasingly look the same on late-night television.