Today the Atlantic’s Andrew Ferguson has a piece about the death of comedy on late-night television. His observations are prompted by the recent arguments over the White House Correspondent’s Dinner which hit an iceberg last year in the form of Michelle Wolf’s mean and not funny routine. This year, President Trump has said he won’t attend and has ordered members in his administration to do likewise. That was seen as a terrible thing by some in the media but I’m with Ed on this one: So what.
In any case, Ferguson writes that what happened at last year’s WHCD is really part of a larger move away from actual jokes which you can see happening in real time on the various late-night shows. He says he first learned about this when the NY Times began sending him a morning report with the best of late-night and he invariably found none of it was funny.
The one quality that unites these late-night jokes is that they scarcely ever make me laugh—or you either, I’m guessing. Usually I’m a cheap date for comedians, a regular Rudy Roundheels; anybody from the Three Stooges to Mrs. Maisel can get a laugh out of me. At first, I thought that the consistently unfunny lines in the Times briefing reflected poor selection—maybe a couple of tin-eared interns had been given the wrong editorial assignment. But when you follow through and click on the links, which take you to the full monologues stored in a corner of the vast Times ecosystem called “Best of Late Night,” your heart goes out to the interns. What a job. Good thing they get paid! (They do, don’t they?)
The jokes, seen in context, don’t get any funnier. Very often, they are simple statements of fact, with minimal humorous adornment…
On TheLate Show With Stephen Colbert, Stephen Colbert (who else?) bravely “takes on” congressional Republicans and their never-ending quest to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. “Remember ‘repeal and replace?’” Colbert joshed. His audience showed premonitory signs of volcanic laughter. “‘We’re going to repeal and replace’? Well, after nine years, they still haven’t gotten around to the ‘replace’ part. [Lava gurgling from the audience.] They have no plan. [Burbling …] In fact, there is no plan to make a plan.” Krakatoa! Too true! But … true is all it is. The two-step formula of a stand-up joke, setup followed by punch line, has been edited down to the first step and left at that. Colbert notes a string of superlong (long for Twitter) tweets from Trump. “Brevity is the soul of wit,” Colbert points out with a pedantic lift of the eyebrow. “And he is evidently witless.” Late night is where punch lines go to die, to drown in the bathtub of literal-mindedness…
Of all the comedians the Times directs me to, none tries harder not to be funny than Samantha Bee of TBS. Not long ago, Bee gave a six-minute monologue on the resignation of Kirstjen Nielsen, the former secretary of homeland security. Knowing its readers are busy, busy, busy, the Times decided to summarize Bee’s monologue like so:
But [Bee] also worried that President Trump might replace Nielsen—who oversaw the administration’s notorious policy of separating migrant families trying to enter the country—with someone even more willing to enforce hard-line border policies. Before her ouster, Nielsen and Trump had been clashing over whether to embrace harsher measures, some of which Nielsen reportedly believed might fall outside the limits of the law.
Note well that this is not meant to be a news report. It’s the summary of a comedy routine.
Despite his obvious disappointment with the lack of effort to produce actual comedy, Ferguson expresses some misplaced sympathy for the comedians: “It can’t be fun, much less funny, feeding line after line to a studio audience only to elicit what Seth Meyers—in an earlier, funnier phase of his career—called ‘clapter.'” I think he’s got this a bit wrong. On each of these shows, the comedian sets the tone. If all of Colbert’s jokes have become political points with mugging, there’s a reason and his name is Stephen Colbert.
But really, you have to credit the biggest name in the game as the person who really transformed TV comedy into politics by other means. I’m talking about Colbert’s old buddy Jon Stewart. He left the Daily Show years ago but it’s still going with another host as are several other shows like it. Jon Oliver’s career really took off at the Daily Show.
Of course, all of these shows are still occasionally funny. The Daily Show’s take on Jussie Smollett was hilarious. But the overwhelming push to turn comedy into a tool for making almost exclusively left-wing political points has been a net negative for comedy. There’s a generation of people who believe this sad, timid clapter material is what comedy is supposed to be and who are eager to punish anyone who deviates from the script.
It’s also been a net negative for politics because once you’ve neutered the comedians and turned them all into mugging political activists, the message has been sent that ideological conformity is expected of everyone. There’s a straight line between comedy that no longer tries to be funny and students who attempt to no-platform every speaker they disagree with. It’s really the same narrow approach applied to different cultural spheres. In both cases, the ultimate goal is to regulate what can be said.