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The most reactive facet of the most reactive form of popular media, the very idea of late-night TV arose from a need for instant commentary on the day’s events unencumbered by journalistic scruples. The likes of Carson, Leno and Letterman transcended their roles as talk-show hosts when sinking their incisors into that night’s top stories, taking potshots at the left and right as needed. But in recent weeks, as the full enormity of the threat posed by a Trump administration has come into view, there’s been a shift in the tenor of late-night’s monologuing. What was once innocuously political has become more urgently politicized.
In times of great crisis, political comedy as usual can take on an unattractive pall of triviality. An average week’s topical material would engage with important political developments, but in a harmlessly jocular capacity. Even when punchlines took aim at a specific figure, they were little more than wisecracks, a way for the viewer to vicariously blow off some steam by sharing frustration with this lawmaker or that. The lack of any impactful, dare we say radical ideology was a function of network-mandated nonpartisanship; while most late-night fixtures leaned to the left, they could always be relied on to mock with equal opportunity. The Republicans got painted as dim-witted bullies, but the Democrats were ineffective and ineffectual – you choose which one’s more embarrassing.
That all-in-good-fun status quo can no longer stand, not when the stakes for the American people include the gutting of healthcare or the looming possibility of nuclear war. In an interview earlier this year, comedian Kate Berlant expressed her frustration with the limits of humor to spark change, saying: “Talking about things is not the same as doing them. I’m waking up to the reality that we haven’t done enough, and have to do so much more, so maybe that might separate us from the fun of making art.” With the tangible consequences of Trump’s political doctrine now coming to pass, late-night diatribes have taken on a more actionable bent.
Jimmy Kimmel struck a chord with audiences earlier this week when he delivered a tearful monologue detailing the recent birth of his son and the complications that followed after a nurse discovered the infant had been born with a potentially fatal heart disease. The moving display concluded with a plea for reason, Kimmel’s final statement being that healthcare absolutely must remain affordable and available to those who need it. Though he emphasized that he didn’t intend the speech as a partial call to arms – “This isn’t football, there are no teams, America is the team, so let’s not let their partisan squabbles divide us,” Kimmel implored – his words drew a harsh blowback from ultra-conservative types on social media, who took the monologue as propaganda in support of socialized healthcare. 2017: a year in which the opinion that no infant should be too poor to live registers as controversial.
With a variety of stunts translating words to deeds, other faces from late-night have consciously courted the politicized side-taking that Kimmel tried to shrug off. The most over-it woman on late-night, Samantha Bee recently mounted her Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, an evening-long combination of out-and-out roasting and free exchange of political ideas. The broadcast nearly out-rated the event it parodied, drawing more viewers in the coveted 18-to-49 demographic, but more importantly Bee donated all proceeds from ticket sales to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver put his money where his mouth is and purchased ad time on Fox & Friends to reach out to Trump about the dangers of passing his proposed healthcare plan. Stephen Colbert elevated invective to public rabble-rousing when he likened our sitting commander-in-chief’s mouth to a “cock holster” for Vladimir Putin, and while LGBTQ advocacy groups objected to his faintly homophobic phrasing, that was nothing compared to the mass-rage aneurysms he inspired on the right. What ultimately amounted to name-calling may not share the righteous spirit of civic engagement, but anything inspiring the #FireColbert hashtag must be a step in the right direction.
While members of Congress cast votes in direct contradiction to the best interest of their constituents, the much-vilified “media elite” has done what it can to serve as the people’s mouthpiece. One-liners and impressions, no matter how withering, no longer carry the weight to enact meaningful change. A couple administrations ago, Jon Stewart never missed a chance to take the hot air out of Dubya – but he solidified his place in the pantheon with the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, a physical follow-through on his espoused viewpoints. Actions, as ever, deafen words