Late-Night Talk Shows are a cultural staple of an American’s media diet. Since the The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson popularised the form in the 1970s, millions of Americans spend each night watching charismatic men interviewing celebrities and joking about the day’s events.
Following Carson, David Letterman and Jay Leno adopted his winning talk-show formula. Keep it funny. Keep it light. If you delve into politics, keep it safe and inoffensive, so your network can attract a broad audience. As Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times put it, “the job of the late-night comedian was once so straightforward: Give Americans something to laugh about so they can forget about their workday worries.” They were the comic tonic that made a bruising day’s work go down smooth. But then Donald J. Trump ran for president and the Late-Night landscape experienced a seismic shift.
The first change was a complete transformation of the Late-Night line-up. Between 2014 and 2016, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jon Stewart, and Craig Ferguson stepped down as hosts. In their place, Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, and James Corden became the fresh new faces of American television, with John Oliver, Samantha Bee, and Hasan Minhaj setting up new shows on HBO, TBS, and Netflix. A diverse cast of hosts
has breathed new life into the old format.
A more dramatic shift, and one directly related to Trump’s presidency, has been in the politicization of Late-Night shows. You can chart this change through the career of Stephen Colbert, who in September 2015 faced the unenviable task of inheriting David Letterman’s slot at CBS, with the Late-Night veteran retiring after 33 years on the air.
8 months in, Stephen Colbert’s show was floundering. Ratings were low and CBS executives were growing restless. He had abandoned the sharp political edge that had won his previous show, The Colbert Report, numerous Emmy awards. This new approach was exemplified by the show he made after Trump’s Muslim Ban was announced and a terrorist killed 14 people in San Bernardino. Colbert opened it with a segment showing Victoria Secret Models eating fried chicken.
Then in mid-2016, Stephen Colbert tried something different. He brought in Chris Licht as executive producer, whose background was in TV news not entertainment. With him at the helm, Colbert abandoned the traditional non-partisanship of Late-Night and made the decision to take on Trump night after night, keeping his opening monologue unapologetically political. While Jimmy Fallon hosted Trump on his show and asked him tough questions like “I’ve read you eat fast food all the time” and “could I mess your hair up?”, Colbert called out every lie and rallied his crowd against the President’s poisonous rhetoric.
Rather than hurt him, Colbert’s new Trump-centred political focus saw him soar in the ratings. Democrats who felt alienated and exasperated by the continual drudgery of bad news flocked to his show with great enthusiasm. As of 22nd May, the latest TV ratings showed Stephen Colbert to be the undisputed King of Late-Night, thumping his less political rivals. The 3.82 million nightly viewers his show attracted dwarfed his rivals, Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel.
Colbert is not the only host to take this combative line with Trump. Seth Meyers, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, and John Oliver have similarly abandoned political neutrality to continually condemn the administration. In the past, The Daily Show had adopted a pro-Democrat stance, but Late-Night TV has never before seen such sustained opposition to one politician.
This phenomenon is part of a wider trend in American society towards politicisation. In sport, NFL players kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality. In Hollywood, glamorous actors now denounce Republicans in their Oscar acceptance speeches rather than thanking God. The lines of a cultural battlefield have been drawn across all society, and one must either choose a side or become a casualty to the crossfire. This polarisation explains why Late-Night hosts have adopted this new stance. They are supposed to be a stand-in for the viewer, reflecting the daily national conversation. But right now the viewer is more entrenched in their political opinions and our daily conversation is fuelled by rage.
Crucially, Late-Night hosts are not just defending liberal politics over conservatism. Instead they have begun defending democracy and longstanding political norms, which are under assault by a populist who has hijacked the Republican Party. How can you stay apolitical when one side refuses to condemn white supremacists? Jimmy Fallon has tried to keep politics out of his show, but after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017, he began his show by saying, “even though The Tonight Show isn’t a political show, it’s my responsibility to stand up to intolerance and extremism as a human being.”
So what role does this newly politicised Late-Night line-up play in the age of Trump?
One crucial function of Late-Night is to provide comedic catharsis for Democrats worn down by Trump dismantling everything they stand for, from climate change legislation to a woman’s right to choose. Comedy has always proved a useful coping mechanism. As Stephen Colbert said in an improvised monologue on Trump’s election night, “in the face of something that might strike you as horrible, I think laughter is the best medicine. You cannot laugh and be afraid at the same time.” As the electoral map of America bled red in real time, Colbert faced the camera with a drink in his hand and mirrored the emotional state of his audience. Yes, he was looking for laughs, but beneath the jokes one could get a sense of incredulity, exasperation, and defiance in equal measure. That night, and every night since, Democrats have endured the Trump presidency by laughing along with someone who feels the way that they do.
A more surprising role that some Late-Night hosts have adopted is holding the government to account through investigative journalism. While programmes that air every night are limited by the relentlessness of their format, weekly shows like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver are becoming an important source of political education. The focus of John Oliver’s fifth ever episode was Net Neutrality, which was in danger of being compromised by the Federal Communications Commission. Highlighting this imminent risk, Oliver encouraged viewers to submit comments to the FCC’s website. The site promptly crashed under a torrent of public outrage, pressuring the FCC to classify the Internet as a public utility and strengthening the rules governing Net Neutrality. This season, Oliver has kept his viewers afloat on every dangerous Trump policy that has escaped mainstream media attention. With traditional news outlets in decline, Late-Night is proving vital for public education. The comedy keeps the viewers engaged, but the jokes often pack a political punch.
As Trump adopts more authoritarian tendencies, attacking any institution that attempts oversight and denouncing the press as ‘fake news’, Late-Night Comedy has a powerful role to play in reaffirming Americans’ right to freedom of speech. The ability to mock the leader of your country is a good litmus test for the health of a country’s democracy. Late-Night talk shows have reflected the politicisation of the wider cultural environment they inhabit. This new political edge has reinvigorated the format, leading it to fulfil a more important role in American society, helping people through a time of profound disorientation, and standing up for the democratic norms that are being threatened by Donald Trump.