Late night television grapples with politics in the age of Trump
A Year of Trump Coverage – Last Week Tonight Returns
In the year-plus that I’ve been writing for the work, Donald Trump has also been our president (in case you forgot). I mention this monumentally obvious fact because it certainly has had an influence on our pop culture landscape and what I consume daily, what I feel inclined to write about. I’m finding it more difficult to spend energy critiquing Justin Timberlake’s new album (spoiler: it’s not very good) when I’ve got a Twitter feed full of gun control opinions and feminist hashtags. As I write this, the Oscars will be airing in two nights, and this year, it will be less about what name is read for Best Picture and more about who is ignoring Ryan Seacrest on the red carpet. Whether it be in an acceptance speech, in a new standup special on Netflix, or in a late-night monologue, covering the news cycle in pop culture is not just obligatory, it’s unavoidable.
Last Week Tonight, John Oliver’s news-parody program on HBO, tries to differentiate itself by exploring the impacts of Trump’s presidency rather than just recapping headlines. Last Week Tonight was also the first pop culture thing I covered for the work about a hundred years ago, and it remains necessary viewing. In “Trump vs. The World,” a segment from February’s opener, Oliver looks at Trump’s international relationships and the effect of his behavior on America as a global leader. When Oliver’s jokes come, they feel more like tension-breakers than anything – which is necessary when Oliver points out the scary truth of just how many vacant US ambassador posts there are.
The show’s humor is a coping mechanism, really; otherwise, I don’t think I could sit through 30 minutes of hearing about how terrible the world is. It’s also in line with Oliver’s background – he’s coming from The Daily Show, which is a news show on a comedy network. That background in comedy frames his delivery, allows him to get deeper and more uncomfortable, because he knows just how to balance that with humor. It lets Last Week Tonight be less about headlines and more about why, with definitely lots of silly when it feels overwhelming.
From Last Week to Late Night
Stephen Colbert, another alum from The Daily Show, aims to strike a similar news-dystopia/comedy balance in Late Night. Even though CBS couldn’t be more different from HBO, Colbert’s take on Trump over the last year has more in common with Oliver than with other late-night talk show hosts. While Fallon and Kimmel do cover the Trump White House, Colbert uses his political savvy and a sharp delivery honed during his years on The Colbert Report to pull off some deep Trump cuts in his monologues. That background, and the fact that he can take such a damn-the-torpedoes approach with a smile and a laugh is why Colbert is now number one in ratings in late night television, beating The Tonight Show consistently.
Colbert offers what Slate calls a “distinctly comforting experience for viewers already overwhelmed by the news of the day.” As much as I enjoy watching celebrities play beer pong (a real bit Fallon does with real guests), I just want someone to joke about how insane our reality is right now. Oliver and Colbert both offer that in their nuanced, incisive approach to Trump, in a time where pop culture demands we must address the president nightly. Thanks for the laughs.
header image: Eric Liebowitz / HBO