Politics, especially in the television era, is constantly mired in the tension between the endless detail of actual policy and the slick spin of good salesmanship. Policy stances are reduced to soundbytes; stump speeches are remembered for gaffes. Practicality, inevitably, wars with entertainment value. The political process is infused with showmanship—both in terms of making much of politicians’ successes and in terms of covering up, with spin or equivocation, the unpopular failures. American politics is always engaged in the effort of flattening its complexity and sanding down its edges to become TV-consumable. More often than not, it fails. The debates offer a venue for a frank discussion on policy, which occasionally yields moments of appreciable complexity; op-eds and discussions on Sunday morning shows might do some more. But in reality, the governing of the richest country in the world is a pretty difficult task, one that lots and lots of people take part in. It has a high barrier to entry, and requires a lot of targeted interest to understand.
In near-complete contrast stands late-night television. The defining feature of late-night is that it is theoretically somewhat topical—but also that it is not too serious about any of those things. The format inherently lacks substance, from the quippy opening monologue to the second guest celebrity shilling a mid-tier movie. It’s late at night, and in all likelihood the audience is watching this while drifting off to sleep, with the remote falling out of one hand. There’s a reason late-night television is so predictable, so formulaic, so dominated by white men: It’s meant to be as nonthreatening and comforting as possible for a broad audience, which means hewing closely to the status quo. (Often, it feels like broadcast networks have a pretty limited sense of what the status quo is—or maybe are pitching programming to a status quo last measured in 1964—but that is its own separate issue.) The news is discussed to offer new material for the same jokes; the passage of time is marked by how many times a celebrity guest has dropped by for a 10-minute conversation. And altogether the audience, the show, and the topical material can enjoy an hour or so of low-impact togetherness. Because everything is so superficial, anyone at any level can pop in to see what’s up in America—what faces are on TV, what kind of jokes are being made, what sort of music gets played after the interviews. It’s the daily pageantry of mass culture, in a few slightly different iterations.
So it is always a bit of an occasion, when unbearably light late-night television briefly shakes hands with unbearably heavy U.S. politics. It’s almost a microcosm of the event horizon of American voter apathy—somewhere between the consumerist fantasy of commercials, the empty comedy of a not-too-provocative host, and the repeated talking points of a careful politician. There are so many grand forces at play, forcing the moment into uneasy tidiness.
Still, it is not all “Requiem For A Dream” around here. At its best, late-night television is where apathy and politics do not just stand in détente but can briefly shake hands. There is no fixing the strange, ossified bureaucracy of the military-industrial complex, but there is at least crisply acknowledging it. After all, we are drawn to these moments of proclaimed candor for just one reason—in the hopes that someone, anyone, will go off-script. Perhaps a candidate will really say something candid on stage; perhaps a host will really push for an answer to a tough question. And we hope this because we know that every now and then, it’ll happen. This is the promise of TV: you won’t believe what happens next.
If there was ever a moment that promised unvarnished entertainment from presidential candidates, it is this one, when Donald Trump is high in the polls and has nearly as many late-night appearances scheduled as the current Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton. Indeed, late night television has focused almost exclusively on the two New Yorkers, both in parody and in-person. (It’s a testament to Bernie Sanders’ rising profile that he just got his own non-cast member impressionist on “Saturday Night Live,” in the form of Larry David.) Trump is every comedian’s go-to target, for either the hair, or the wall, or the way the candidate says “huge.” Stephen Colbert, before he started as host of “The Late Show,” confessed to reporters that he was desperate to get in front of a camera and mock the candidate. Jimmy Fallon, on “The Tonight Show,” regularly impersonates Trump—going so far as to interview both Clinton and Trump himself as Trump. That second bit, “Donald Trump interviews himself in the mirror,” had echoes of a particularly self-aware “Saturday Night Live” sketch with Kate McKinnon talking to Hillary Clinton, as Hillary Clinton. (Clinton, meanwhile, played a bartender named Val. The results were thought-provoking.)
Perhaps what is strange, then, is that while Trump’s appearance routinely spikes the ratings for any show he’s on, there is almost nothing there to be seen under the surface. This past week, Trump canceled on Jimmy Kimmel, meaning we have just two examples to go off of—his appearance on Colbert’s show, and his appearance on Fallon’s. Both were almost interchangeable, in terms of how little Trump was moved by either host—he still wants to build a wall, he still wants to cut government spending, he still manages to sound sort of nice and affable when he’s answering questions, as long as you don’t pay any attention to the actual words. Perhaps there’s truly no artifice to Trump. It’s more likely, though, that Trump is just always playing to the late-night audience, and doesn’t have to alter much of anything when he’s sitting on the guest-couch. Tellingly, none of the other Republican candidates have even attempted to make a play for the general audience.
Meanwhile, Clinton herself keeps demonstrating more and more seemingly incongruous facets to her personality, in what has made for intriguing viewing. On “Saturday Night Live,” she was the bartender you could have a drink with; on Fallon, she was part obfuscating politician, part policy wonk, and part maternally concerned grandmother, commiserating with Fallon on his daughter going to preschool. Then her husband, former President Bill Clinton, was on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” talking up her candidacy from the position of doting husband. This Tuesday, she herself will be on Colbert, and the following week, on Kimmel, in the run-up to the next round of primary debates. And lest we forget about her for a minute, she was on television for 10 hours on Thursday, leading to her exasperated, exhausted face meme-d and gif-ed everywhere, including on late shows like “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah.” Clinton as candidate is ubiquitous and unavoidable, especially in the recesses of late night. McKinnon, on a recent “Saturday Night Live,” played Clinton like a automaton—dinging both Clinton’s oddly mannered persona and her assured triumph in the general election, or as we might as well call it, the inevitable robot revolution.
In this election cycle, Clinton has revealed more warmth and competence than ever, though certainly not consistently, or on every topic. She’s lived in the public eye for so long that there’s a flattened, TV version of herself that is readily available to her, and also readily discarded, if necessary; her grinning during the Democratic primary debate, and that mic-dropped “no,” seemed quite at odds with the warmer, fuzzier Hillary we’re being sold for 2016. It happened to be quite welcome, at the time. But I wonder if Hillary’s strongest moments will be those rarely revealed moments of emotion—like the tears in New Hampshire in 2008. They hit a more controversial tone for the traditional notion of a president, yes, which is why her campaign keeps them so tightly in check. But in terms of reaching an audience, occasional hints of woman behind the machine make for far more interesting television.
Sanders has been the newcomer to the TV cycle, so far. And so far, his two appearances—with Colbert, in September, and with Kimmel, this past week—have been surprisingly more thought-provoking. Colbert’s interview with Sanders was more combative than his interview with Trump—a bit surprising, considering Colbert’s politics, but not entirely so. Trump is a joke candidate to Colbert; Sanders is campaigning much nearer to Colbert’s heart. And so Sanders’ progressivism came under scrutiny, for impracticality—the host pushed him on tax rates, on the negative impact of the term “socialism,” and on refusing money from a superPAC, counseling, “Don’t bring a spoon to a knife fight.”
It wasn’t Sanders that shocked anyone with his answers (except for those viewers who had never witnessed an American socialist before)—it was Colbert, with his questions, which were as close to hostile as the comedian gets. (Perhaps that was just because the audience, instead of chanting “Ste-phen! Ste-phen!” adopted “Ber-nie! Ber-nie!” for the evening.) Colbert remarked, with a little irritation, that his show was funded by huge corporate capitalism, and he raised the specter of an 80 percent tax rate for the wealthy. He played “capitalism’s advocate” against Sanders, clearly interested in crossing swords over what he sees is a fundamental tenet of the American way. He compared Sanders both to Trump and to Ralph Nader, for either tapping into rage or for splitting the liberal vote. There was a moment at the end where Colbert seemed to wish he could slip into his old persona, so he could hammer Sanders even further. It was a moment that indicated what the future might hold for the Sanders campaign, as even comedians who made their careers stoking liberal rage find themselves leaning conservative opposite him.
And then there was last week’s appearance on Kimmel. Sanders—who is so true-to-type he walked right into David’s impersonation—tossed off a perfect Brooklyn “God forbid,” at the notion the Republicans might win. Kimmel picked up on that. “You say you feel culturally Jewish, but you are not religious. Do you believe in God, and if so, do you think that’s important to the people of the United States?”
Sanders response was part Popeye, part brilliant: “I am who I am. And what I believe in, and what my spirituality is about, is that we’re all in this together.” Immediately beforehand, Sanders spoke at length about voter turnout in America, a topic he wrote on a year ago, as well. He spoke of disillusionment and disenfranchisement, and of big corporations and small individuals. And it was a strange moment, in the late-night-political-cycle-talk-show extravaganza, where the monster briefly became aware of itself. Sanders is so intent on making his point he sometimes forgets the applauding audience is there at all; the manufactured smoothness of live television somehow seems to not affect him. For the pre-cynical teen liberal who still lives in my brain, it’s too much to be true. Could this be American politics, in the era of godless television? Even President Obama slow-jammed the news!
Well, I suppose we’re about to find out.