I had a conversation a couple of weeks back with a friend in the entertainment business about the current state of late-night comedy. Note this was before the Vegas Shooting or when Jimmy Kimmel made his initial push for Universal Healthcare. We both grew up during the age of Jay Leno and David Letterman. For the most part, we discussed why Leno always beat Letterman in the ratings and part of the reason we discussed was the fact that Leno appealed more to the classical late-night audience. If you remember late night during those days the structure of a show was pretty simple.
1. Opening Monologue
2. Comedy Skit or Bit
3. Interview Two Celebrities Promoting a Project
4. Musical Guest
5. Sign Off
Pretty straightforward stuff. There was also a slight political aspect to the feud as well. Letterman, especially during the George W. Bush days, would goof on him a lot and rightly so. Leno had a different approach in which he famously said: “I put the joke first and the politics second.” When Leno did go political, he didn’t spare Democrats or Republicans which gave Leno the appearance of being fair with his jabs giving him a more broader audience. Even though I preferred Leno over Letterman, that doesn’t mean Letterman wasn’t entertaining as well, I actually enjoyed their rivalry and it reminds me of the era that was in late night comedy.
Fast-Forward about 10-15 years later and the landscape of Late Night has changed and I can’t say for the better. Leno and Letterman are gone and they have been replaced with a different kind of late-night comedian. A kind of comedian who puts politics first and jokes second. When Jon Stewart left the Daily Show in 2015, a void was placed in the area of news and political satire comedy. Many of his former correspondents left to start their own shows like Trevor Noah who took over for Stewart, Stephen Colbert, who took over for David Letterman, Samantha Bee, and John Oliver to name a few. Suddenly, the tone of late-night comedy took a noticeable shift away from letting us all laugh together, to being a platform for political and social commentary.
Over the last few weeks Jimmy Kimmel, has made national news, not for anything to do with the content of his show, because he has become the mouthpiece for left-wing commentary in America, calling for universal health care and gun control and he isn’t the only one. Stephen Colbert, who has been venomously anti-Trump for years, makes headlines for going after the president on many occasions. Same goes for Seth Myers, Conan O’Brien, James Cordon…suddenly you realize, I’m not watching late night comedy anymore, I’m watching it late night political opinion. The only comedian who has tried to avoid politics is Jimmy Fallon and even he has been pressed to get into the political game due to the backlash of his Trump interview last year and the fact he hasn’t attacked Trump like many other hosts.
If you are fans of Rachel Maddow, Bill Maher, and Sean Hannity that’s great because you know what you are getting from them. The problem here lies in two ways, one, late night’s content is now outright hostile to half the country. If you were a fan of Kimmel back to his Man Show days or his skits with Matt Damon, you probably don’t appreciate him, saying “Maybe it is too soon for you because deep down inside you know — in your heart you know you bear some responsibility for the fact that almost anyone can get any weapon they want, and now you want to cover yourself until the storm of outrage passes and you can go back to your dirty business as usual.” You likely aren’t going to be tuning in for any future shows after listening to that. The second problem which is the biggest, you watch late night to be entertained not lectured to. Many people don’t watch late night for political grandstanding because that’s not what the platform was for, the platform is for comedy and many hosts have forgotten that. Take Seth Meyers for example, who took time to make a passionate plea to Hillary Clinton not to attack Bernie Sanders for the sake of Democrat Party Unity…
Is this still a comedy show?
At the end of the day, this isn’t about whether these guys have the right to say and do the things that they do. The argument is has late night comedy become too political to still be considered comedy? If you are a long time viewer of late night TV, can you still watch the current crop of shows and separate art from politics or has the current trend made it impossible to do so?
Editors’ note: So when I wrote this story, I had no idea that Hillary Clinton was scheduled to be on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon later that day. In that appearance you had writers of the show and Miley Cyrus give #HillaryThankYouNotes to Hillary Clinton herself as she made a continued push for gun control. I gave Fallon credit for being possibly the only person in the late night who didn’t go full politics, not only did that change last night but I seriously have to wonder if the classical era of late night is truly gone.
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