Reexamining Late Night Television in the Midst of Election 2016

Max Shatan, ’18

            On September 15, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon unintentionally waded into a mire of controversy when the program hosted Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump as the night’s headlining guest. What followed was a bizarrely apolitical interview between the candidate and Fallon, which ended with the comedian playfully tousling Trump’s hair while the audience laughed and cheered. Internet backlash to the episode was immediate, with commentators accusing Fallon of “humanizing” Trump, who is well known for his incendiary comments on Muslims, women, African-Americans, Jews, immigrants, Latinos, Latinas, other presidential candidates, former mayors, current mayors, President Obama, people who drink Diet Coke, newspapers, comedians, the disabled, the pope, magazines, the Republican Party, and more. The incident provoked a conversation regarding the specific role of the late-night talk show host in a particularly charged election year, and whether Fallon should have been tougher on Donald Trump.

            What has led to this sudden reexamination of late-night television? First, this is an election year with no real precedent. The showdown between Trump and his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton has been messy, prolonged, and sometimes even hard to watch. There no question that this election is very different from 2012. The political climate has become superheated in the past four years, but something else has changed as well: the late-night hosts. On NBC, Fallon and his 12:30 counterpart Seth Meyers have only had their current positions for two years. On CBS, Stephen Colbert celebrated his show’s first anniversary earlier this month, and The Late Late Show With James Corden only premiered in March 2015. Throw in new cable hosts such as HBO’s John Oliver, Comedy Central’s Trevor Noah, and TBS’s Samantha Bee and you have a light-night landscape populated with election year rookies who are looking to define their style of political satire.

            Normally, the late-night shows on NBC and CBS aren’t particularly known for putting political comedy at the forefront, but lately, the genre has seen the rise of two master practitioners in Seth Meyers and Stephen Colbert. It should be noted, of course, that the two had a great deal of experience with political satire before taking their current late-night positions;  Colbert’s The Colbert Report ran for almost a decade on Comedy Central, and Seth Meyers was the head writer of Saturday Night Live from 2005 to 2013, as well as the long time host of that show’s Weekend Update segment. Throughout this election year, the two have been unflinching in their willingness to poke fun at both candidates, especially Trump, who is a common staple of both hosts’ monologues. However, with the campaign growing more bitter in recent months, so too has the comedic tones of the two hosts. After Trump banned The Washington Post from covering his rallies, Meyers jokingly banned him from appearing on his program, to which Trump replied that Meyers’ show had low ratings and that he would’ve made them much better. In the months since, Meyers has been clear in criticizing Trump, calling him a racist, a bigot, and a liar, and cursing him in response to Trump’s claims that Hillary Clinton’s campaign started the Birther controversy, a sentiment which Colbert backed up on his show, calling Trump a liar as well.

            Now, considering the charged environment on late-night television, it’s understandable that some would be upset with Fallon’s softball interview of Trump, but it’s not without historical precedent. The last batch of late-night hosts did not reach the heights of acerbity that Colbert and Meyers have attained, and Fallon mainly seems to be following in their footsteps. Craig Ferguson was a master of absurd, with a robot for a sidekick and no house band, Conan O’Brien had a smart, witty style he honed as a writer for Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons, and David Letterman was one of the best self-deprecators there ever was, but none of these hosts really went after politicians like Colbert or Meyers. Fallon’s comedy probably hews closest to his predecessor Jay Leno, who was also known for his play-it-safe style, nice guy image, and broad Middle-American appeal. Sure, Fallon may put more emphasis on games and musical bits with celebrities intended to go viral, but they both share the same fundamental drive: to please as many viewers as possible. The problem is, when the country is so polarized, is this even possible?

Fallon’s light on jokes, heavy on fun approach has been what’s carried him throughout his career on late-night, ever since he was appointed to host NBC’s 12:30 slot in 2009. He has created a sort of mythical world around him, where everyone is having as much fun as possible at all times. Fun is safe, fun is easy, fun doesn’t hurt anyone. Comparing Fallon’s show to Meyers’ or Colbert’s is like comparing a carnival to a book group. Fallon’s show is intrinsically pointless; fun for fun’s sake because fun is fun. However, this doesn’t work anymore. The average TV viewer is a lot smarter today than four years ago, and network television isn’t the only game in town. Should Fallon have been tougher on Trump? As a Sanders and now Clinton supporter, I believe that Fallon squandered an opportunity to expose even the most obvious and hateful of Trump’s untruths and innuendoes. But even from a nonpartisan perspective, he should have tried to show some depth. Interviews aren’t ten minute festivals of softball questions and hair-touching, they are opportunities to extract information that the public wants to hear. The most striking thing about Fallon’s interview is the sheer nothingness of it. No one learned anything. No one said anything interesting. And no one was funny. And on late-night television, that’s the worst crime of all.

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