Editor’s Note: Bill Carter, a media analyst for CNN, covered the television industry for The New York Times for 25 years, and has written four books on TV, including The Late Shift and The War for Late Night. He is an executive producer of “The Story of Late Night,” a new CNN Original Series on the history of the iconic genre. Watch on Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT starting May 2, and listen to Carter’s companion podcast “Behind the Desk: The Story of Late Night” here. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
If you enter American politics, especially at the highest level, you understand two things: The media will hold you up to unrelenting scrutiny; and the late-night TV hosts will hold you up to unrelenting ridicule.
Welcome to Washington, D.C.
At least since Johnny Carson made his monologue a must-see ritual, this has been the pattern: A top politician misspeaks, missteps, even misspells, and the jokes fly like flocks of pigeons, the hosts eager to put in their rightful place every exalted man (or woman) bronzed by national fame.
If you play golf and keep hitting spectators with errant tee shots (Gerald Ford); if you block two airport runways for a $200 haircut from a guy named Christophe (Bill Clinton, according to The New York Times); if you shake hands campaigning in a department store and grab the hand of a mannequin (George H.W. Bush); if you misspell potato (Dan Quayle); if you say you “took the initiative in creating the Internet” (Al Gore); if you try to escape a press conference in China and keep pulling on locked doors (George W. Bush), you can be absolutely sure that you will have made the job of late-night joke-writers delightful for days, maybe weeks.
This has become an all-but sacred tradition in American politics — and comedy. It has long been cited as a sign of what America stands for: complete independence, and the freedom to publicly mock our leaders, without fear of retribution. This act of unfettered satirizing has been nowhere more exercised than in the late-night hours on stages in New York and Los Angeles.
For most of the history of late night, this system worked well — mainly because intentions on both sides were never ugly, even if they weren’t always good.
Those were the days. But that is certainly not how the mix of politics and late-night comedy could be described now. In what will inevitably be called the Donald Trump era, the relationship between joker and target became a blood sport.
It was surely not that way during the long dominance of Johnny Carson in late night. Carson, though he navigated times at least as turbulent as today’s — with the civil rights movement, Vietnam and Watergate roiling the nation — resisted taking any kind of overt stand on the issues, big as they were. He offered a simple rationale: Why would I want to alienate half my audience?
Jay Leno, who succeeded him, adopted the same philosophy — equal opportunity joke-telling. The idea was to draw laughs, not blood. David Letterman, until later in his career, mostly followed the strategy. Conan O’Brien, whose trademark was smart silliness, was even less political.
Trump may have shaken up late-night traditions more than any individual who preceded him, but he was not the catalyst for the most significant shift in how late-night covered politicians. The true turning point was the naming of Jon Stewart as host of “The Daily Show.”
Under its first host, Craig Kilborn, “The Daily Show” was built around loony, real-life news, like the invention of diapers for birds. Stewart, after he took over the show in 1999, pushed it in what one of the then-writers, Allison Silverman, called “an editorial direction” in an interview she did for my podcast, “Behind the Desk: The Story of Late Night.”
Which is another way of saying: Stewart injected point of view. Late night has not looked back since. Stephen Colbert elevated the form to satirical ju-jitsu, offering up bombastic right-wing views to illustrate how wrong they were.
John Oliver essentially imported the tough POV approach of “The Daily Show” to his HBO series, “Last Week Tonight,” where he raised the stakes on issue-comedy. Seth Meyers adapted his own acerbic take on the news from “SNL” to NBC’s “Late Night” show. Jimmy Kimmel, because of his baby son’s health crisis, found himself thrust into the middle of the nation’s health care debate — and he spoke out forcefully.
It is not only a conservative talking point to say that Barack Obama got through eight years almost completely unscarred by late-night jokes. He was clearly helped by having views more in sync with late-night hosts (and writers). But Obama also steered clear of major scandals and didn’t offer easy caricature.
Virtually every other president has had a comic persona forced on him early and the monologue jokes flow naturally: Nixon was tricky; Ford was clumsy; Carter was a hick; Reagan took a lot of naps; the first Bush was patrician; Clinton was a hound; on and on. Obama was mainly seen as aloof, not exactly fodder for wild comedy.
Trump defied the easily characterized persona as well, because he did and said so much that smashed the scales of political comedy:
He was comically narcissistic; comically rude; comically uninformed. He bragged about his sexual prowess. His staff was sycophantic to the point of lickspittle-ism; his family was farcically outrageous; his cabinet was frequently embroiled in scandals; his own Secretary of State called him a moron; his former national security adviser said he’s not fit for office; he was accused of having an affair with a porn star; he appeared to alter a weather map; he tossed paper towels to hurricane victims; and eventually he suggested people ingest disinfectant to cure Covid. And he was impeached — twice.
Several of the current late-night hosts mentioned to me that this excess amounted to something like a comedy bacchanal — a wild party at first, with everyone having fun throwing things at Trump; then it got to be just too much. Worse, it got to be downright dangerous.
For some, the tipping point was the white supremacist march in Charlottesville (one dead). For others, it was gross negligence in handling the pandemic (more than half a million Americans dead). For all of them it was the threat to democracy in Trump’s lie that he was the rightful winner in 2020 and his instigation of the insurrection at the Capitol (five dead).
Desus Nice, the co-host with The Kid Mero of Showtime’s late-night entry, “Desus & Mero,” told me it was great for a nascent show like theirs when “Trump falls into our laps.” But there was a problem: It wasn’t funny. “It was like: It hurt people,” Desus said. “And it hurt democracy.”
Mero added, “To be tremendously trite and corny and cliché, it’s like laughing to keep from crying, you know what I mean? Like: This guy is lighting our country on fire.”
The idea that Joe Biden might bring nothing but boring “he’s old!” jokes to the nightly monologues seems a fine prospect to shows happy to be out from under the unceasingly funny but equally unsettling behavior of the Trump administration.
But the news may not cooperate. The undying loyalty to Trump among Republicans, and their commitment to backing his debunked claims of winning the election looks like it will continue to be a story.
When Facebook’s Oversight Board announced last week that its ban on Trump would continue for at least six more months, it was just like the old days: wall-to-wall Trump jokes. You could almost hear the late-night hosts’ collective lament: “Just when we thought we were out, he pulls us back in!”