Essay:
Who’s Laughing Now?
Stephanie d’Arc Taylor charts the decline of the late-night comedy format and considers the alternatives.

Issue 39

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Arts & Culture

Frequently, and for a variety of reasons, the year 2014 feels like several millennia ago. This sensation is particularly acute when watching old clips of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon making jokes about President Barack Obama’s love of golfing in his opening monologue. But even more uncanny is the idea that 11 million people tuned in to watch Fallon do the monologue live. 

In 2019, an average of only two million people watched Fallon’s opening monologue. Viewership for late-night comedy has plummeted across the board. According to a former Fallon producer speaking to the Hollywood Reporter, Fallon’s steep decline—as well as the relative success of the more overtly political Stephen Colbert—may be attributed to viewers wanting a larger dose of politics with their comedy than ever before. 

The glory days of late-night comedy, in which David Letterman, Jay Leno and other genial middle-aged white men would make gently ribald jokes to starlets smiling toothy smiles, seem...

1. During the Cold War, the CIA collected a secret cache of Soviet jokes. President Reagan reportedly found one joke so funny he started using it himself. It goes: "An American tells a Russian that the United States is so free that he can stand in front of the White House and yell, 'To hell with Ronald Reagan.' The Russian replies: 'This is nothing. I can stand in front of the Kremlin and yell, ‘To hell with Ronald Reagan,’ too.'"

2. In 2016, Trump jokes outnumbered those about Hillary Clinton by a factor of three. In 2020, Colbert and Fallon made Trump the target of 97% of their jokes about candidates.

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