With the federal government once again on the verge of shutdown before the holidays, Stephen Colbert found himself in an unexpected position: He felt Congressional Republicans’ pain.
He quoted from a reporter who said that members of Congress were waiting for President Trump to tweet before they voted on whether to fund a border wall. “That’s what the [expletive] serving in Congress has come to,” one unnamed member of Congress said.
Colbert was outraged — but he couldn’t help but feel some solidarity. “Waiting for Trump to tweet so you can find out what your job is that day? That’s also what the [expletive] hosting a talk show has come to,” he deadpanned.
We’re nearly two years into the Trump administration, and late-night television remains obsessed. Almost every day of the week, the late-night indignation machine seizes on some new comment from Trump, then feeds its interpretations back into a news cycle that Trump himself — a devoted TV watcher — consumes.
The ouroboros effect is real.
I’ve covered late-night TV four nights a week since February 2017, in our Best of Late Night column. In 2018, a few lessons emerged.
Trump’s Twitter account giveth, and it giveth some more
The president’s off-the-cuff, often-vitriolic Twitter feed is the hosts’ most consistent source of comic material. In January, Trump seemed to contradict himself with a series of tweets about the Russia investigation, then capped one message with, “Get smart!” It was perfect bait for Colbert.
“We need to get smart? You’re the only one live-tweeting a debate with yourself — that you’re losing.” — STEPHEN COLBERT
Months later, after waffling for days, Trump took to Twitter to announce that he’d scuttled a planned meeting with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, using typically extravagant language. James Corden made fun of him for that.
“Trump canceled the meeting with North Korea over their, quote, ‘tremendous anger and open hostility,’ which is ironic, considering ‘Tremendous Anger and Open Hostility’ is Trump’s 2020 campaign slogan.” — JAMES CORDEN
Samantha Bee is a journalist
The line between reportage and entertainment has blurred over the past two years. Viewers of John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” on Sundays know that he often gets deep into the policy weeds. (Best of Late Night only covers weekday shows.) For late-nights hosts broadcasting every night, it can be hard to match that amount of research.
But Samantha Bee only broadcasts on Wednesdays, and usually includes at least one lengthy investigative segment in each show.
In June, she sent the correspondent Allana Harkin to Ireland to report on a recent victory for abortion-rights advocates. And in October, she explored the various techniques being used by Republicans to make voting more difficult, now that the Supreme Court has weakened the Voting Rights Act.
“Voters who actually like Republican ideas are dwindling. To stay in power the GOP is using techniques like gerrymandering, blocking judicial appointments and voter suppression — otherwise known as Mitch McConnell’s version of the ‘Devil’s Triangle.’” — SAMANTHA BEE, referring to a phrase used by a high school-aged Brett Kavanaugh
You don’t need to impersonate Trump to roast him. But it helps
Colbert, Seth Meyers, Trevor Noah and Jimmy Fallon have all mastered the art of the Trump impression: grimacing, sandy-voiced and full of jerky hand gestures.
Jimmy Fallon has caught flack for his reluctance to hammer the president on substantive issues, and it’s true that he treats Trump in a way that reflects how late-night hosts used to deal with past presidents: He portrays Trump as quirky and confused, but rarely expresses real consternation. Fallon’s funniest moments often come when he impersonates Trump. On Halloween, he played the president as a tanning-addicted Dracula.
“I was able to save the taxpayers money by reusing the cape from my costume last year, when I was the Count from Sesame Street. ‘There were one million, two million, three million people at my inauguration!’” — JIMMY FALLON
Some hosts never perfected a Trump impersonation. Instead, Jimmy Kimmel and Samantha Bee in particular often use a different tactic: the un-joke. Without relying on parody, it can be hard to find a way to make humor out of Trump’s unorthodox conduct. So they just go slack-jawed, and enact the amazement that many viewers feel.
After it was revealed in November that Ivanka Trump used a private email server for White House business, Kimmel said: “Sometimes the jokes write themselves.” Then he allowed the president to handle his own impersonation: He played back tape from the 2016 campaign, when Trump pilloried Hillary Clinton for using a private email server.
Enigmas can be funny, too
Melania Trump’s tenure as first lady is being defined largely by her inscrutability. In June, she made news in the worlds of fashion and politics with one fell, silent swoop: While traveling to meet migrant children who had been separated from their parents, she wore a Zara jacket emblazoned with the words “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?” The message might have been intended for the media, but Noah joked that it sounded like something she’d say to the president.
“It is kind of sweet that she made a jacket out of her and Donald’s wedding vows.” — TREVOR NOAH
Non-Trump humor was like water in the desert
Some of the best laughs of the year came from timely jokes that had nothing to do with Trump. These now feel like a vintage commodity, nearly lost in an era after Jay Leno and David Letterman.
“In Indiana, police found a man at a White Castle with a container of dangerous chemicals. Yeah, a man at a White Castle with dangerous chemicals is known as the cook.” — CONAN O’BRIEN
“Today is the first official day of summer. Right now everyone’s thinking, ‘I’m going to hike, I’m going to go camping, I’m going to hit the beach.’ While Netflix is like, ‘Sure you are.’” — JIMMY FALLON
“Kim Kardashian and Kanye West celebrated their fourth wedding anniversary today. ‘I love you more than ever,’ said Kanye to a mirror.” — SETH MEYERS
Late-night loves mocking Facebook almost as much as it does Trump
This has been a tough year for Facebook, as it has shown a reluctance to be truthful with the public about how it handles users’ data. It came out in March that the right-wing strategists at Cambridge Analytica illicitly gained access to 50 million users’ personal information. Facebook didn’t immediately notify users when it found out — which irritated Colbert.
“Really? The one time I actually would have wanted a Facebook alert. Perhaps that could have replaced one of the four messages I get a day about my ex-roommate’s college girlfriend’s one-woman show. I’m a maybe, Sarah. That means no!” — STEPHEN COLBERT
Back in April, when Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was called to testify before Congress, Noah pointed to a root cause. He said that members of Congress who receive gobs of campaign cash from tech giants, and are lobbied by them constantly on Capitol Hill, seem unwilling to regulate the companies.
“Congress has to deal with big corporations the way rich white people punish their kids. ‘Young man, there’s going to be consequences for this! Now you go to one of your bedrooms and figure out what the consequences should be. And give me your iPhone! Here’s the newer one.’” — TREVOR NOAH
And this week, after a New York Times report revealed that Facebook had been sharing users’ data with other big tech companies without the users’ consent, Jimmy Fallon joked that maybe this was Facebook’s idea of generosity.
“You guys, it’s the holiday season and everyone is in the giving spirit. In fact, Facebook just gave away all of your private information. Isn’t that nice?” — JIMMY FALLON
Sometimes happy-go-lucky beats snarky
James Corden, as any viewer figures out pretty quickly, is not a stand-up comedian. His affect toggles from bubbly and sweet (“You’re the best!” he tells almost every guest) to campy super-seriousness (especially when he’s reconnecting with his stage-acting roots).
One of Corden’s favorite things to do, now as ever, is sing. And his Carpool Karaoke skits have continued to provide a needed bit of respite from the onslaught of political outrage that dominates the rest of late-night TV. Recent karaoke sessions with Ariana Grande and Cardi B were both hits, but the year’s most exciting — and viral — chorister was Corden’s fellow Brit, Sir Paul McCartney. He and Corden drove around the Beatles’ hometown Liverpool while singing “Penny Lane.”
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