Tragedy and comedy do not easily mix. And yet, late-night comedy being what it is—a responsive, blank format, desperate for material—the medium practically has to absorb anything that happens during the day, funny or terrible. And as the number of politically oriented late-night hosts is proliferating, those comments are even more pointed. To point to a notable example, last November, when terrorist attacks in Paris happened late on a Friday evening, “Real Time With Bill Maher,” obviously, took the lowest possible road.
But that show did, at least, have the excuse of airing live, just hours after a particularly horrifying set of attacks in a city that feels much closer to home to most Americans than anything in the Middle East. Yesterday’s suicide bombings in Brussels felt like an extended shockwave of the Paris attacks—both because Brussels is not quite so emotionally and historically relevant for Americans as Paris is, and because the attacks were apparently coordinated by the exact same criminal cell, probably in retaliation for the arrest of Paris-implicated organizer Salah Abdeslam.
It is a ghastly situation, and following comments made by the president and presidential candidates, some of the first non-journalist national framings of any crisis come from late-night hosts, serving as commentators or mouthpieces of some subsection of the population. And perhaps because, in America, these hosts have had a lot of practice with tragedy, given the sheer volume of mass shootings we experience, last night’s reactions to Brussels were decidedly low-key, if not nonexistent.
The major late-night host most prone to heartfelt displays of emotion is Stephen Colbert, of CBS’ “The Late Show,” but the comedian’s show is in repeats this week, meaning that last night’s episode, which originally aired March 2, focused on “The Bachelor” and “Fuller House.” Colbert’s late-night partner on CBS, James Corden—who might have had a more emotional connection to Brussels, given that he is European himself—was also in repeats.
And of the hosts that were taping yesterday—and could not possibly avoid it, given that the Brussels attacks happened so early in the morning—the only late night host to address the attacks in the cold open was Larry Wilmore, on Comedy Central. The cold open is undoubtedly the most difficult time to introduce a discordant note of tragedy—at the very beginning of what is supposed to be a half-hour to an hour of laughs, for a live studio audience that has already been waiting to tape for a couple of hours. Wilmore aced it, in typical Wilmore fashion, with the rock-solid confidence he has in his connection to the audience. “Our hearts are with [the people of Belgium]. This type of thing really has to stop. And until it does, we will all continue in the fight. Here at ‘The Nightly Show,’ you know, we’ll do our part by hopefully providing some laughs.”
Trevor Noah, at “The Daily Show,” delivered what might have been his most sincere if awkward message to the audience in some time, following an interview with the Estonian prime minister, Taavi Rõivas. Rõivas talked a bit about how American leaders are always praising the Estonian government for its digitally savvy infrastructure; Noah then pivoted, a little awkwardly, to asking about being a European leader at a time like this, when attacks on Brussels are raising the question of refugees, migration, and policing. Rõivas responded in a brilliant and sane way, urging for unity, and saying that he would not be cowed by fear into the mindset of intolerance.
Noah picked up on that for his closing remarks, which fed right into “The Daily Show”’s Moment Of Zen, offering his condolences to both the people of Brussels and Ankara, in a dig at the Eurocentric tenor of most dialogue around Brussels. “Please know that we love you,” he said, before shifting to a totally silent Moment of Zen that was straight from someone’s Facebook wall: A heart with Belgium’s flag and a heart with Turkey’s, rendered in diffuse watercolor style.
In between sentiment and direct address was Jimmy Kimmel, who did not bring up the Brussels attacks except in the sit-down interview with his guest, Senator Bernie Sanders. It was by far the most intellectual way to bring it up, because it was in the context of an American political discussion; Kimmel did not waste any more time on heartfelt remarks, though. The NBC properties—Jimmy Fallon, on “The Tonight Show,” and Seth Meyers, on “Late Night”—did not, from what I could tell, address it all, even though Meyers, in particular, skews very political in his show, and both hosts discussed the other major news of the day—President Obama’s diplomatic visit to Cuba.
The gamut of reactions suggests that perhaps no one knows what to do with this kind of tragedy anymore; it’s gone from something that demands acknowledgement, or eliciting genuine emotional response, to an episode of domestic terrorism that happens all around the world with worrying frequency, whether you decide to joke about it or not.