Historically, late-night broadcast TV has played it safe, not wanting to alienate a segment of the audience by taking sides on serious issues. “Hosts from a different generation were really surface in their comedy,” says Medill grad Michael Schneider ’95, executive editor at IndieWire and editor at large at Variety. “They really focused on the more silly aspects of politicians — how they looked, how they acted. That doesn’t work right now because of what’s going on, because of the real issues we’re facing and what this administration is actually doing.”
“Johnny Carson was edgy, but he certainly never made anyone feel uncomfortable,” says Lou Wallach ’91, a communication studies graduate, independent producer and former programming executive at Comedy Central. “The last thing before you went to bed was sort of nice, not polarizing or provocative. Times are changing. Now there’s an expectation — dare I say an obligation — to be polarizing and provocative, and I think Colbert and Meyers do it brilliantly.”
These may be politically polarizing times, but left-leaning political satire has proved popular with late-night viewers. Once Colbert started taking on Trump, he overtook his more apolitical competitor Jimmy Fallon, host of NBC’s Tonight Show, in total viewers and significantly narrowed the ratings gap among young viewers.
“I think the audience is like me: They’re desperate for some relief,” Colbert says. “If half of the country votes for somebody you feel is the absolute nadir of what it means to be an American, and that person gets the highest job in the land, it can be a lonely feeling — that maybe you do not have a community to belong to … . People seem grateful that there are shows like ours or Seth’s on the air to put the day into some context and make you feel not alone.”
Even the affable and typically apolitical host Jimmy Kimmel, whose ABC show Jimmy Kimmel Live! is executive produced by School of Communication graduate Jill Leiderman ’93, has been unable to stay neutral on the sidelines. Kimmel’s highly personal monologues about his son’s heart condition were credited with helping defeat the initial attempts to repeal “Obamacare.” And after one of the worst mass shootings in American history, the concert shooting in Las Vegas last October, Kimmel’s heartfelt call for commonsense gun reform resonated with Americans frustrated to see no action — other than thoughts and prayers — under Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress.
“It especially resonated because Jimmy generally doesn’t take on these types of issues, so when he does, it means this is real,” Schneider says. “This is something personal. He’s not trying to be political. He’s just speaking from the heart.”
In fact, most of these hosts would bristle at the notion that they’re acting in a partisan manner. “They don’t want to be painted as purely liberal or left wing because that does sort of alienate a chunk of the audience,” Schneider says. “They basically shy away from those labels and say they’re just pointing out what’s going on in Washington and speaking truth to power. And right now, who’s in power? It’s Donald Trump and the Republicans.”
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