The 2016 presidential race permanently changed the jokes broadcast after the nightly news.
Late night comedians, fearing a Donald Trump victory, shifted their content aggressively to the Left. Jokes got massaged or simply nudged aside for talking points ripped out of a New York Times op-ed.
In short, they took sides in the Trump-Clinton steel cage match. The only thing missing? Blue pom poms. (Maybe they were just off camera…).
The networks didn’t spit out any press releases announcing the shift. It wasn’t necessary. You could hear it in every late-night monologue.
Trump’s shocking electoral win made the change permanent. Late night TV is now an extension of the Democratic Party, complete with progressive messaging, attack ads and get-out-the-vote prompts.
Some hosts reluctantly joined the fray, like Jimmy Fallon. By Trump’s fourth year in office, though, Fallon’s “Tonight Show” shtick looked shockingly like a Stephen Colbert or Bill Maher roast.
As a result, American progressives flocked to “The Late Show,” “Last Week Tonight” and others for cyber-therapy as much as punch lines. That showed up in the ratings. Colbert caught up with, and later surpassed, rival “Tonight Show” host Fallon.
The new normal settled in for liberals. They spent their days swapping HuffPo stories about President Trump’s latest “assault” on democracy. They went to bed assuaged by Colbert “destroying” said assaults.
So what if Joe Biden wins the presidency Nov. 3?
We just learned that 97-plus percent of presidential late night jokes attack Trump. The figure is hard to dispute, but it doesn’t share the crucial context.
Many Trump broadsides aren’t just tweaking him or his administration. They’re designed to damage him politically, either by embracing a specific talking point or deflecting from his achievements. And hosts routinely lie to get the job done.
And that’s assuming there’s jokes to be found in the commentary.
Here’s a recent, “riotous” sample from NBC’s Meyers:
“Trump and his toadies can whine about the media all they want. It doesn’t change the basic story of the campaign. Nearly 300,000 more Americans have died this year than, otherwise, would have. And 8 million have gone into poverty and it could have been prevented. Remember that.”
The few Biden gags uttered by late night TV hosts poke fun at his age or previous center-right positions. They aren’t meant to diminish him like a Trump barb.
There’s a reason “Saturday Night Live,” as fervently liberal as any late night show, hired Mr. Coiled Energy himself, Jim Carrey, to play an elderly candidate who spent half of September “calling a lid” rather than campaigning.
They’re doing all they can to shake the “Sleepy Joe” label. So what happens when that 97 percent Trump factor fades to black?
It won’t happen overnight. A defeated Trump will stay in the news cycle for weeks, maybe months. He may contest the election results, prep his followers for his next political act or make his remaining months in office as memorable as the first three-plus years.
By January he’ll be a historical footnote, leaving Team Late Night left holding a considerably smaller bag of tricks.
We already saw a watered-down version of this for eight consecutive years. Late night comedians tread carefully around President Barack Obama. They told some jokes at his expense, but they rarely had satirical bite.
They were never, ever mean spirited. Both “Saturday Night Live” and “Key & Peele” played UP Obama’s alleged strengths rather than mock him or his positions. And Late Night TV followed along.
Comics like Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel expended even less energy targeting then-Vice President Biden.
Political comedy was part of their late night agenda, but they mainly relied on sketches, interviews and other comic morsels. The Johnny Carson blueprint remained, even if much of it had frayed with neglect.
There’s little appetite on the left for stinging Biden barbs these days, and that won’t change once he’s in the White House. And, assuming Kamala Harris’ Vice Presidential tenure is brief, they’ll be even less reticent to mock a female president of color.
Trump will be fading into the background, even if he and his sons maintain a political presence. They’ll have less cultural power and zero political might.
The need for nightly cyber-therapy will be all but gone for hardened liberals. Where does that leave late night comedy without its go-to bogeyman?
It’s clear they won’t have many (any?) conservative audience members by that point. They spent four solid years mocking both Trump and his base. Kimmel famously said of his Republican fans, “not good riddance, but riddance.”
His colleagues’ tone said the same.
Conservative late night viewers left for good, opting for “The Greg Gutfeld Show,” “Louder with Crowder” and Andrew Klavan’s stinging YouTube monologues.
Why would any conservative rally back to Colbert’s side? To see Tom Hanks interviewed for the 104th time about his latest streaming project?
They won’t. They’re gone. Permanently.
But the Left will still love late night TV hosts, right?
Yes, but only to a point. They won’t need a cultural salve with Trump gone from the Oval Office. Liberals will have little appetite for jokes torching Biden/Harris, not that they’d be served up many in the first place. A recent New York Times story on late night TV shared how current writers can’t go near a liberal target for fear of angering “the base.”
Of course, a Biden victory will leave an already open door even wider for a conservative challenger.
That won’t happen, either.
The powers that be don’t care how much cash such a project might earn. They’d rather dictate the political jokes told than allow alternative voices to bloom. Even if it means leaving millions on the table.
And it likely does. Just consider Fox News as the greatest Exhibit A possible.
It’s why social media targets The Babylon Bee for daring to tell right-of-center jokes. It also explains why reporters won’t defend the Bee’s right to free expression.
What’s left for late night comics to mock? The remaining GOP figures, for starters. Sen. Ted Cruz will be a ripe target as will rising stars like Rep. Dan Crenshaw. They’ll also savage Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, hoping to diminish his growing clout or, fingers crossed, get him canceled for saying the “wrong” thing in, or out, of context.
That may feel good to Colbert and co.’s progressive audience, but it’s a far cry from classic Orange Man Bad takedowns.
One thing is clear. Trump will exit the White House, either in January or January 2025. Late night TV may cheer his exit, but they should worry about what happens next.