Without Trump, late-night ‘comedy’ becomes even more insufferable
Late-night comedy used to represent the ultimate escapism for viewers young and old: There was Carson, Letterman, Leno. Later came Stewart, Ferguson, O’Brien, Kimmel and Fallon.
Before June 2015, each of these men had a unique set of skills — skills they had acquired over very long careers. Short version: Each could make an audience laugh in his own way, aided by excellent writing staffs that could churn out quality content and A-list guests on a nightly basis.
But then Donald Trump rode down that escalator at Trump Tower, and within a short period of time became an unlikely frontrunner for the Republican nomination for president. This was an absolute Godsend, particularly for Stephen Colbert. Because at the time, the CBS late-night host was mired in third place in the TV ratings, well behind the Jimmys Fallon and Kimmel. On some nights, NBC’s 12:30 pm ET program beat his show at the friendlier 11:30 pm slot despite massive hype after being selected as Letterman’s replacement at the Ed Sullivan theater. It was looking like Chevy Chase all over again.
The reason for Colbert’s struggles was an easy one to trace: He seemed to want his show to appeal only to the half of the country that saw conservatives and Republicans as evil idiots. A Hollywood Reporter survey in November 2015 showed that only 17 percent of self-described Republicans watched Colbert. For context, Jimmy Fallon, almost entirely apolitical and the ratings winner at the time, the split was only 36-31 Democrats to Republicans.
But as Trump gained stream in 2015-2016, Colbert did likewise in turning his program into an edgier version of CNN-primetime-meets-The-Rachel Maddow Show. And after Trump won, Colbert was genuinely shocked during his election night special, which included comedic gems like this:
“Anything that you want to tell us about how you’re feeling right now?” Colbert asked one of his guests, comedian Jana Friedman, after Trump took Florida and appeared to be in position to win Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
“I feel as if I’m about to give birth to a baby that’s already dead,” she replied.
You could hear a pin drop despite the live audience. It was that awkward to watch this funeral disguised as a comedy show.
Colbert likely later realized that he had been presented a four-year gift that would propel him ahead of Kimmel and Fallon every night. The show became a go-to stop for every Democrat in D.C. and every Trump-hater and #NeverTrumper on cable news. And it paid off big-time on the ratings front.
Fallon was the hardest hit in this paradigm shift, especially after having the audacity of having Trump on his air and (gasp) playfully messing up his hair after joking with the candidate about his hair not being real.
— The Atlantic (@TheAtlantic) September 16, 2016
The late-night party ended in November 2020. When the election was called for Biden, the hosts who refused to lay a glove on the gaffe-prone former vice president celebrated their guy’s victory.
But after the confetti was cleared off the virtual stage, a hard reality soon set in: How would a majority of the monologues that focused on Trump be replaced? With the entertainment world basically at a standstill with very few new movie offerings hitting the big screens (where big screens are even open), what celebrity currently not working can attract an audience? For evidence of how little star power exists for late-night to feature these days, check out the Golden Globe nominees for best picture below:
“Promising Young Woman”
“The Trial of the Chicago 7”
Be honest: Have you even heard of these films, let alone seen them?
Of course, the Colberts and Kimmels and the Seth Meyers of the world could continue to book Pelosi or AOC or Jake Tapper or Rachel Maddow. But without Trump being central to the conversation to dump on, what’s the point? A glimpse into the future came a few weeks after the 2020 election. And it was both awkward and downright tedious to watch.
“I just want to take a moment to drink you in for just a moment because I’m having to get used to looking at a president again,” Colbert gushed to former President Obama.
Stephen Colbert gushes during Obama interview: ‘I just want to take a moment to drink you in’ https://t.co/vyQq41z0G5 The year is 2030: Late night hosts interview liberal politicians while giving them back massages. They still insist media bias doesn’t exist. pic.twitter.com/jluUvvkzCN
— Douglas Ernst (@douglasernst) November 25, 2020
Could you imagine Carson ever saying that? To anyone? And what exactly is funny about this kind of conversation? Colbert would be better off jumping to HBO and adapting a Bill Maher-esque program at this point in his career, but the money must be too good at CBS.
Seth Meyers rips Biden for taking the GOP seriously on COVID bill: “Nothing they say about compromise and bipartisanship should be taken seriously. They’ve been pulling this same scam for years.” https://t.co/rexWcn8MBD
— The Daily Beast (@thedailybeast) February 2, 2021
If that doesn’t put you to sleep, nothing will.
Carson’s best moments were with Don Rickles, Joan Rivers, Jerry Lewis and Joey Bishop.
Carson brought in more than 19 million viewers per night during his final week on the air and regularly pulled in nine million viewers per night.
Colbert/Kimmel/Fallon don’t even bring in those audiences combined.
Because maybe having Adam Schiff or Stacey Abrams or Joe and Mika on as the headliners while making jokes about COVID-19 relief and the filibuster just ain’t LOL funny.
Joe Concha is a media and politics columnist for The Hill.