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Remember When Political Comedy Was Funny?

As Election Day approaches, late-night TV is ratcheting up the tension instead of relieving it.
  • Photos: TBS, Comedy Central, CBS, NBC.
    Photos: TBS, Comedy Central, CBS, NBC.

    Of all the head-turning, didn’t-see-this-coming developments of 2020, here’s one you might have missed — The Tonight Show, arguably the GOAT of American TV shows, has fallen into third place in the late-night ratings. And it’s not even close. Three weeks into the fall season, Stephen Colbert’s Late Show is averaging nearly twice as many viewers (2.79 million) as Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show (1.43 million), with Jimmy Kimmel somewhere in the middle (only 1.68 million viewers, but equal with Colbert in the younger demos).

    What happened? Donald Trump happened. Colbert had been floundering in second place, seemingly lost without the right-wing alter ego he’d left behind at Comedy Central. But with encouragement from a new producer brought in from MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Colbert, a serious person with a serious funnybone, began mocking Trump nightly. The president noticed. The audience noticed. Meanwhile Fallon, who in 2016 was declared “the undisputed ratings leader in late night,” playfully mussed the hair of candidate Trump during an appearance on his show, sparking a huge backlash that began Fallon’s ratings tailspin. As a result, the storied Tonight Show has become something that no one in the heyday of Carson or Paar or even Leno could have imagined it becoming — utterly irrelevant.

    I should be delighted at this turn of events. I’m a fan of Colbert’s going back to his Dana Carvey Show days, and Fallon’s appeal has always mystified me. But as we get closer to this election day, I find myself weary of this new strain of “political humor,” led by Colbert, that's less about making audiences laugh and more about making them cheer on another sucker-punch of Trump.

    Comedy is supposed to lighten the load and offer an escape from the tension of the alarming headlines that refresh every few minutes. But that’s no longer the case. More often than not, comedy is only ratcheting up the tension. I’ve written about the increasingly alarmist tone of news, documentary, even so-called entertainment programs. You either accept that democracy is in peril or you don’t. (I don’t.) And I stubbornly hold to the idea that political comedy can be political and funny. I don’t want my comedians speaking truth to power. Will Rogers once said, “If you ever injected truth into politics, you’d have no politics.”

    It's not just Colbert. Watching Trevor Noah most nights leaves me longing for the light-hearted pick-me-up of Amy Goodman and Democracy Now. Bill Maher used to be good for a few big laughs at the end of a grueling week of grim news. Now look at some of his latest YouTube hits — “Power Talks and Losers Walk,” “Think Like a True QAnon,” “American Carnage.” These aren’t comic monologues, they’re Lincoln Project ads.

    The seriousness bug has even infected SNL and its cast of political impersonators. Jim Carrey was an inspired choice to play Joe Biden, but his debate performance parody was squandered by the writers, who insisted on having him deliver a hysterical tirade against Trump. The studio audience, or what there was of it, cheered like they were at a Bernie Sanders rally. Carrey was a little more in his element the following week, playing a fly atop Mike Pence’s helmet hair, but SNL's writers managed to ruin that too, upstaging him with a second fly — Kenan Thompson as the afterlife of Herman Cain. You know, just in case you needed reminding that Cain died of COVID after attending a Trump rally.

    Look, I’m not saying it’s wrong to get angry at Trump. (It isn’t.) But trying to get a laugh at the same time strikes me as a bad idea. And this has been clear from the beginning of Trumpism. Let’s go back to the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner. By the time the D.C. media’s annual prom rolled around, Trump had spent several months as the most prominent and forceful amplifier of the birther conspiracy. Without Trump, birtherism would’ve gone bye-bye much sooner. Instead, thanks to the Donald’s gold-plated dog whistle, President Obama was forced to produce a birth certificate — just before the Correspondents Dinner, just in time for the President and Seth Meyers to tag-team an epic Trump takedown:

    As it happened, I was in attendance at that dinner, the guest of C-SPAN (home of cancelled debate moderator and notorious stoneface Steve Scully). The laughter that night was something I’ll never forget. It was revenge laughter from the D.C. establishment and their left-leaning showbiz friends, directed against one man in the center of the room. Trump has always denied that that was the night he decided to run for president, but I don’t believe that for a moment, and I’m not alone.

    So here’s the problem, as I see it. If Trump wins, we get four more years of — well, a lot of things, but topical comedy will be a certain casualty. If Trump loses, that likely won’t stop the political messaging in late night, either. On the rationale that Trumpists will rush the stage when their exalted leader departs, that will only embolden Colbert, Maher, Noah, Bee, and Meyers to keep doing what they did before the election. It’s depressing even to think about.

    Thankfully, a few people seem to have remembered what the point of comedy is — to forget the headlines for a while, not have them drilled into our heads. Three that have been brightening my fall have been Conan O’Brien, Amber Ruffin, and Robert Smigel. Conan’s voting PSAs are on-brand, funny, and arguably more effective than the umpteenth Samantha Bee rant:

    Ruffin, the talented writer for Late Night with Seth Meyers, has a new Friday show on the Peacock streamer. It showcases her charming and winning style that candy-coats some pretty edgy material on black lives and Trumpism. It’s a tightrope she’s walking and she may still fall into the net, but her personality brightens up even the darkest humor.

    Robert Smigel, the former Conan and SNL writer best known for his gut-busting puppet Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, released a new political comedy special with puppets called Let’s Be Real that was largely overlooked when it aired earlier this month on Fox. It’s on Hulu now and is worth watching. Even though it was a prime-time special, it had a definite late-night show feel to it, since much of its material was written in the days before the special aired. What I loved about it was that it was truly an equal opportunity offender, with spot-on takedowns of Biden, Trump, Mike Pence (Smigel’s Boy Scout Pence puppet is sublime), Nancy Pelosi, Rachel Maddow, former NBC golden boy Matt Lauer trying to make a comeback hosting a local midday show with Charlie Rose, and more.

    Here’s a clip of Pelosi and Biden prepping for a debate. Yes, a mean old Trump stereotype is used here. So what? As we used to say in the good old days: I don't care who you are, that's funny.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Trump Presidency, CBS, Comedy Central, FOX, NBC, The Amber Ruffin Show, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Late Night with Seth Meyers, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Let's Be Real, Real Time with Bill Maher, Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Robert Smigel, Late Night, White House Correspondents’ Dinner