Late-night hosts are, by conventional wisdom, comedians – entertainers who commune with “our moment” somewhere on a spectrum between playful to biting. Which is a tall order, as our moment keeps getting darker, flooded with bullshit increasingly exposed but rarely expunged. A late-night host in the overwritten script that is 2020 has been tasked with discussing, somehow processing (a word taxed beyond its means this year) the impeachment of the president; the mishandling of a public health emergency by the federal government; the loss of more than 100,000 Americans in a global pandemic; the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression; the gruesome killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on camera, which has sparked the most widespread protest movement for racial justice since the 1960s; and brutal crackdowns by police on people protesting against police brutality.

Late-night TV has proven to be a strangely helpful way for many to stay tethered to, rather than escape from, the feverish timeline of this deeply unfunny year and reality TV presidency. Though the genre remains overwhelmingly white and male, programs such as the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the Daily Show with Trevor Noah and Jimmy Kimmel Live! can dispense with the both sides-ism still rampant in mainstream media, or cable news’s fixation with images of burned property, or the false (white) ideal of objectivity in journalism. The programs are almost all politically engaged and mildly outraged by default, serving neither as antidote nor an escape so much as a bracing tonic – manageable, congenial content that gets down enough important information without tipping into paralyzing overwhelm.

Still, the Black Lives Matter protests since the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on Memorial Day has presented late-night shows with a challenge: how to adapt to a surging movement without seeming didactic, aloof or problematic; to avoid the gauzy “preach love, reject hate” emptiness of celebrity statements, or seem too passive to the moral imperative for racial justice and accountability. Each host has had to recalibrate to the warp speed of widespread protests under a hostile administration in a pandemic, revealing a range of sharpness and political immediacy for each show and audience.

The struggle of articulating the summer of 2020 is best embodied by the Tonight Show’s Jimmy Fallon, the host striving most for the ever-disappearing political middle. The Tonight Show is usually a wheelhouse of affable celebrity interviews and YouTube-worthy game segments. But on 1 June, Fallon, a gregarious comedian still living down the infamous Trump hair-tousling moment from 2016, offered a vulnerable mea culpa after video from 2000 of him donning blackface to impersonate comedian Chris Rock on Saturday Night Live circulated on Twitter. Nervous and solemn, he admitted he didn’t know what to do other than speak up, since “the silence is the biggest crime that white guys like me and the rest of us are doing”.

“We need to say something, we need to keep saying something. And we need to say ‘that’s not OK’ more than just one day on Twitter,” Fallon urged. “We can’t just hope that everyone loves each other. We can’t say, ‘Be the change.’”

Since then, Fallon has taken the mildest tack into America’s, and particularly white America’s, moment of racial reckoning: an interview with the NAACP president, Derrick Johnson; a comic bit with the Tonight Show writer Tim Barnes on white guilt meltdowns via “just checking in” texts; and an interview with former tennis player James Blake about his assault by a New York police officer before the US Open in 2015.

Jimmy Kimmel, who strives for the everyman but has pivoted in the past three years to frequently mocking Trump, also spoke of a personal reckoning catered to an audience potentially defensive or uncomfortable sitting with the idea of white privilege. Kimmel was once defensive about the term, too, he admitted. “I rejected it, because I didn’t understand what white privilege meant,” he said, and offered viewers a concrete starting definition: “White privilege doesn’t mean your life hasn’t been hard, it just means the color of your skin isn’t one of the things that makes it harder.”

Meanwhile, shows whose host, time slot and network favor unapologetically political personas have doubled down on monologues as urgent, frustrated clarifiers peppered with pop or consumer culture references. Seth Meyers, who has staked his claim on Closer Look segments – extended monologues specifically and repeatedly lambasting Trump and his associates – has almost dispensed with jokes altogether in his fire alarms about America’s “worst-case scenario” descent into authoritarianism and calls for radical reform.

Meyers, along with Samantha Bee and John Oliver, has not only recapped the popularity of calls to “defund the police” but worked to destigmatize the concept for a (probably sympathetic) white audience and offered space for activists such as Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, to explain movement aims. Bee urged viewers to “defund the police!” while Oliver spent 33 minutes on the racist history of American policing and the argument to defund it on Last Week Tonight, then explained the concept as a guest on Fallon’s show.

Somewhere in the middle of personal examination and political action lies Stephen Colbert, an erudite former political satirist who took over the top ratings slot when, after a year and a half at the Late Show, he committed to monologues frequently roasting Trump. Colbert’s monologues on the protests shrewdly thread the needle between recapping the demonstrations and understanding calls to defund police without explicitly echoing them; his guests have included the politicians Stacey Abrams and Cory Booker and black media figures Emmanuel Acho and Charlamagne Tha God.

And then there’s Trevor Noah, the only host of color in this group. A master code-switcher (and polyglot), Noah has seamlessly tailored seasoned understanding of uprising and oppression, as a biracial man growing under apartheid and a police state in South Africa, to the potential defensiveness and confusion of a mostly white audience.

In an 18-minute video now viewed more than 8m times, Noah tempered fixations on “looting” with an explanation of the uprising’s logical, necessary response to the violation of society’s social contract. “That unease that you felt watching that Target being looted, try to imagine how it must feel for black Americans when they watch themselves being looted every single day,” he said. “Because that’s fundamentally what’s happening in America: police in America are looting black bodies.”

In an illustration of the current late-night processing ecosystem, Noah’s video was cited by Kimberly Jones, a black activist in Minneapolis, in a viscerally emotional two-minute clip. “Trevor Noah said it so beautifully last night,” she said. “There’s a social contract that we all have, that if you steal or if I steal, then the person who is the authority comes in and they fix the situation, but the person who fixes the situation is killing us.” Jones’s anvil-heavy words served as the backbone for Oliver’s Last Week Tonight episode on the protests and police brutality the next week. “The best thing for us to do was to basically to give 33 minutes of context for that two-minute clip, and then just shut up,” Oliver told Fallon.

Oliver offers perhaps the best model for late-night in the summer of 2020, a time when so many need to listen, and the hosts are paid to talk: step up with context, education and inquiry – made more, not less, potent by the flexibility of genre.

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