During the Trump presidency, late-night TV hosts made more jokes targeted at the White House than at any point in the genre’s history. So why did so many liberal and politically engaged viewers choose to change the channel? Stephanie d’Arc Taylor charts the decline of the late-night comedy format and considers the alternatives.
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 as hazily remote as a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving dinner. The world is more urgent now, says comedian Kate Willett, who co-hosts the leftist feminist comedy podcast Reply Guys, and people’s dietary needs are different when it comes to media. “People in the US are following politics a lot more now,” says Willett over Zoom from her apartment in Brooklyn. “So much wild stuff is happening that it’s really noticeable to people.”
Comedy writer David Litt agrees. In a former life, Litt wrote speeches for Barack Obama, including the president’s memorable addresses to several assemblies of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. “You don’t really get to be neutral in America today,” says Litt, from his office in Washington, D.C. “Comedy has to figure out what to do about that. The comedians who have been the most successful are the ones who are recognizing that circumstances have really changed. It’s like if your house caught fire and you just continued the conversation you were having before. That would be very off-putting.”
Politics and comedy have always gone hand in hand. Jokes about politicians are evergreen fodder for dinner parties and stand-up shows alike. They work largely because they are universally relatable. “So much of comedy is about finding the absurd in our everyday lives,” says Litt, “and few things are quite as absurd as politics.”
Politicians being funny can also work, to diffuse tension or gauge a crowd. After his 1981 assassination attempt, Ronald Reagan cracked wise to his team of surgeons as he was being wheeled into the operating theater: “Please tell me you’re all Republicans.”1 Humor can also get at an unacknowledged reality hovering in a room, says Litt. “If a politician tells a joke and everybody laughs, that shows that there’s a kernel of truth there.”
In fact, the first time any politician publicly mentioned the now generally acknowledged truth that the Republican party has a special relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin was when Barack Obama joked about it at the 2014 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. The joke didn’t really land, though, until Obama started talking about conservative political commentator Sean Hannity’s preoccupation with Putin’s topless photos. “Now the fact that the right is in bed with Putin is common knowledge,” says Litt, “and it’s something Democrats talk about all the time.”
Politics and comedy work so well together that recently a handful of actual comedians have been elected to high office all over the world. In 2019, Ukraine elected Volodymyr Zelensky, a former television star and professional comedian, as president. Guatemala, Slovenia, Italy and Iceland have also sent former satirists and comedians to their highest offices. Even Donald Trump was a comedian in his way—a fun-house amalgamate of a clown, an insult comic, and a physical satirist.
But just as there is more comedy in politics, plenty of us are finding politics less funny. Many point to Trump’s election as accelerating the shift away from the broad, gentle late-night comedy of a bygone era (you know, the aughts). In the anxiety age of Trump’s America, comedians no longer had the luxury of simply being funny for funny’s sake. “The number of comedians stepping back and asking, ‘What is the purpose of my comedy?’ is higher than ever,” says Litt. “The number of comedians saying, ‘It’s about making people laugh and that’s all that matters’ is lower.”
But Trump’s election coincided with (or was perhaps helped along by) an increasing fragmentation of the media landscape due to the internet and social media. To be successful either financially or in terms of reach, contemporary media personalities don’t need a television studio or even hordes of listeners. Millions of people, literally, have bought mics and audio software off the internet and launched podcasts—as of 2020, there are over two million podcasts registered with Google.
“You don’t really get to be neutral in America today.
It’s like if your house caught fire and you just continued the conversation you were having before.”
Political podcasts have been part of this population explosion, on both sides of the political spectrum. They are frequently characterized by pundits making fun of people who don’t agree with them. Media channels associated with the self-described “dirtbag left,” a term coined by one of the hosts of the podcast Chapo Trap House, combine comedy with condescension—and a fair amount of anger. Whereas traditional talk shows go for the low-hanging fruit that appeals to the largest possible audience, the internet, and podcasting in particular, has opened up a market for people with smaller followings. It’s also created a way for these people to earn money. Patreon is a website that many left-leaning content creators use to sell subscriptions to their fans. In February 2020, Chapo Trap House became Patreon’s highest-grossing account, earning over $160,000 per month.
Kate Willett’s Reply Guys podcast is also listener-funded, but its hosts aren’t pulling in that kind of money. At the end of 2020, according to their Patreon page, they had 118 subscribers paying a total of $586 per month. But, Willett says, there are perks to having a smaller following: “The only people we have to please are the people who like our show. It gives us the freedom to have stronger opinions.”
The current stars of the late-night comedy circuit, says Willett, are largely carrying on the long-standing tradition of groveling for ratings—such as they are in 2020. “The late-night shows like Stephen Colbert are going to go for jokes that the most amount of people can relate to and not be offended by,” she says. “They’ll make fun of Trump for being orange or rude or dumb.”2
On Reply Guys, Willett and her co-host don’t have to pluck the low-hanging fruit. “We don’t make fun of Trump for being orange,” Willett says. “We take a broader look at what would make it possible to have a completely different country—not just getting Trump out of office.”
But ironically, it was Willett’s appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert that gave her podcast a big boost in listeners—and not exactly those in their target market. “[Colbert] has a huge audience, and a lot of them are older people, what you might call boomers,” she says. Not only are these listeners tuning in, but they’re also responding to Reply Guys’ left-leaning message. “We get these really cute messages from people who are in their 60s and 70s,” she laughs. Even they, it appears, are open to learning a new trick or two. “It’s so adorable to be a part of radicalizing boomers.”