When laughing matters: Late-night comedy gets serious in an absurdist era of governance

UPDATED: Salon talks to writers from "Late Night with Seth Meyers," "The Daily Show" and "Full Frontal"

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published February 19, 2017 8:30PM (EST)

John Oliver with a "Make Donald Drumpf Again" cap   (HBO/Eric Liebowitz)
John Oliver with a "Make Donald Drumpf Again" cap (HBO/Eric Liebowitz)

November was supposed to mark the end of the election circus. Comedians and journalists both expected Donald Trump's train to pull into the station one final time as the nation prepared to put foolish things aside and settle into being governed by, as Alex Baze called it, "The safe and steady hand."

As the head writer for "Late Night with Seth Meyers," Baze was looking forward to having a little distance from the shuddering throttle of Trump's campaign. "We'd be able to laugh at the guy, and laugh at ourselves for letting this guy get this far and isn't that crazy?" he recalled. And then. . . "We sort of passed through a membrane."

Steve Bodow, head writer for "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah," referred to election night as "hallucinatory." Bodow has been with "The Daily Show" since 2002 and was on deck when America re-elected George W. Bush in 2004, ushered Barack Obama into office in 2008 and returned Obama to the White House in 2012.  The Nov. 8 show "was definitely the hardest show I've had to do in my time here."

"All the fun was gone by then, pretty much all the fun was gone," said Jo Miller, the head writer for "Full Frontal with Samantha Bee." "My writers, they're young. They didn't have the experience of 2004 and thinking that the exit polls said one thing, and the election came out differently. It was a body blow to them. I made them sit down at midnight and write scripts. They brought it."

The political climate hasn't gotten clearer or calmer, and grinding out these programs night after night or, in some cases, week after week, hasn't gotten easier. But late-night comedy hasn't felt this necessary to maintaining our sanity for a long time, if ever.

By now Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Seth Meyers and Trevor Noah are established at their respective shows and networks. Colbert and Meyers inherited chairs formerly occupied by David Letterman; Noah took over for Jon Stewart. Bee and Oliver originated their own shows, "Full Frontal" on TBS, and "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" and HBO.

Now that Trump's administration has gotten down to the business of Making America Great Again, they've become the valued players who provide context and commentary to news headlines and the blizzard of executive orders.

The current late-night comedy landscape is dominated by alumni of "The Daily Show" who worked with Stewart and "Saturday Night Live." Baze was the head writer of "Weekend Update," which Meyers co-hosted with Amy Poehler, the gig that led to his assumption of the "Late Night" throne on NBC.

Bee and Oliver hired "Daily Show" writers Miller and Tim Carvell for their writing staffs at "Full Frontal" and "Last Week Tonight." Colbert, meanwhile, brought writers from "The Colbert Report" with him to CBS when he took over "The Late Show" in 2015. (CBS declined to participate in this story.)

In an era when the very definition of fact is under attack, lampooning the news has taken on a different tone. Years ago, when Stewart helmed "The Daily Show," its satirists celebrated the show's status as a fake news organization. But that concept has morphed into something more sinister.

Every day the president blithely discredits any journalistic organization that critiques his administration's action as "fake news." Websites and Eastern European teenagers are manufacturing falsehoods and passing them off as actual news, some of which Trump has cited as he spreads bald-faced lies via social media and in speeches.

"It's the opposite of what we've always tried to do," Bodow said. "The goal here is to try to get at the actual truth of things while maybe putting on fake news clothes and sort of dressing up as in the guise of news. But we're not making up facts."

Putting together a late-night comedy show in the best of times is a grind. Doing so under Trump poses new challenges to late-night writers across the board that the average person could not even conceive of.  The objective is the same, of course — they're all striving to find the comedy in even the bleakest of situations to help people go to bed with smiles on their faces.

But the sheer volume of news gushing out of Washington since the inauguration has served as a reminder that their job is a marathon, not a sprint.

"What's changed is the rate," Bodow said. "We've come now to take it as a given that whatever we think we have planned on Tuesday night for Wednesday's show will surely be different on Wednesday morning. It happens every day now."

Case in point: Thursday night, the evening following what may be the most alarming and bizarre press conference an American president has ever held.

"We had a really nice show planned for you," Noah told his audience as Thursday night's "Daily Show" episode began. "Very civil, very calm. And then, in the middle of the day, Hurricane Trump happened. Again." He went on to, very accurately, imitate Trump as if he were inebriated. "I'm not drunk. You're all drunk. You're all drunk," Noah slurred. "This my motherfucking house. This my motherfucking house."

Colbert was equally if more jovially flummoxed. "We're recording this in the early afternoon," Colbert told his audience. "It literally just finished. What I'm saying is this is fresh. It must be fresh because you can smell it . . . It's still steaming. You can warm your hands over this pile. It's kind of hard to characterize the press conference. Words fail me."

Meyers opted for physical humor, taking the script he and his writers had created for Wednesday night as Thursday's "A Closer Look" segment and feeding it into a shredder. "Bye, dead jokes!" he yelled.

"The weekly game and the daily game, they're different for sure, and they both have their strengths and weaknesses, especially when the fire hose is blasting so fast we don't have as much of an ability to craft a 15-minute really extended argument," Bodow said. "On the other hand, we're in it every day so I think we are able to go through a lot of materials, see a lot of stuff that's happening and piece things together in a bigger way."

Meanwhile, producing one show per week has made it possible for "Full Frontal" and "Last Week Tonight" to explore subjects with a level of complexity and depth that most news organizations no longer have the time or bandwidth to do, especially recently.

"Last Week Tonight" has enjoyed critical acclaim, as well as several Emmys and a Peabody, for its employment of careful research to inform its longer central segments.

Even the University of Georgia's Peabody committee observed in its citation that "Last Week Tonight" brought satire and journalism closer together, declaring that Oliver at times played the part of an investigative journalist "as skilled at interrogating his target as any Progressive Era muckraker."

Yet in a press conference held prior to his show's third-season premiere (which aired on Feb. 12) Oliver made his role very clear: He is a comedian. Just one who sources his material in a fashion similar to a journalist researching a story.

Carvell and Oliver desired to go deeper into main stories, as opposed to mimicking the speed-dating approaching of a nightly show. And their approach has allowed "Last Week Tonight" to get ahead of a number of topics that, sadly, have become more relevant now.

Oliver recalled that during a recent five-day period, "We realized that each executive order [Trump signed] related to a story that we had done in the previous year. We were retweeting from our show account, just saying, 'This is becoming a depressing pattern, but here's our story on Iraqi translators you might want to see. Here's our story on what the actual special immigrant visa process is. Here is the Fiduciary Rule, wave goodbye to it as it sails away in the distance.'"

Even so, "We are not journalists," he said. "That has to be the case."

Miller echoed that sentiment. "A free press is our immune system. I think that the other branches of government — the judiciary, especially — are our immune system. Comedy is an air freshener at most. A little Purell. It might make you feel better."

Unfortunately for these scribes, the flurry of alarming executive orders, intelligence leaks, gossip from inside the White House, surreal confirmation hearings and various rivers of hot messes don't show signs of letting up any time soon.

The upside it that their handling of the flood has also brought far more attention to their work.

It wasn't supposed to work that way. The serious stuff was supposed to be over by now.

"Before leaving 'The Daily Show' I thought, I don't have another election in me. I can't do it again," Miller recalled. "I've done that. I know how it goes. I've seen this play. I just don't have another one in me."

Bee's show launched around the same time as the Iowa Caucus, she recalled, "and I loved it. It was not anything like any of the other elections I've done. It was surreal, and exciting and frightening. . . It wasn't paint by numbers, as they tend to be. This was nothing but surprises. Ted Cruz was running. My God, it was just a comedy gift."

She added, "We live in interesting times. I know that's a Chinese curse."

These tumultuous opening weeks of Trump's presidency have been a boon to "Full Frontal." The Feb. 8 episode raked in an audience of 2.51 million. That's a 175 percent increase in its total audience compared to what it pulled a year ago when the series premiered. Indeed, Bee's viewership has steadily grown since the premiere of her series, and in the weeks after the election (when, among other things, she shared cake with Glenn Beck) the show's numbers spiked.

"The Daily Show" hasn't experienced ratings increases of that magnitude, but its total viewership for January is up by 7 percent year-over-year when compared to the series' January 2016 numbers.

"Do I wish all this stuff were happening in the world? I definitely do not," Bodow said. "But the job feels, and I think the show feels more energized. There are people who are excited to get into work in the morning. The email idea pitch list is going strong into the night. It's not because we're cracking the whip, it's because the people who work here are up and they're into it."

Meanwhile, Colbert has been relentlessly skewering Trump on "The Late Show" — and it seems to be working. CBS's late night flagship has caught up to "The Tonight Show" in the ratings; last week, Colbert squeaked ahead of Fallon by 134,000 viewers in live plus same-day averages, according to Nielsen.

Factoring in three days' worth of delayed viewing, that lead expands to 511,000. ("The Tonight Show" still dominates in season-to-date late night ratings.)

Truly Trump has fertilized the fields of late-night comedy, providing a wealth of material. But in case you ever meet Bodow, Baze or Miller, please do not rave about that. The look on Bee's face during any episode of "Full Frontal" is enough to tell you that her business of pulling punchlines out of garbage fires isn't exactly a cookie party.

To be fair, Baze used to think otherwise. Leading up to the election, he remembers Trump providing his show with a lovely advantage for a long time. "We were like, 'Yeah, it is pretty great, we're throwin' out good jokes!'" he recalled.

But this presidency has forced Baze, Meyers and the "Late Show" writers to change their approach. "After the election we found that by the fourth [Trump joke] in the monologue, there was sort of an exhaustion that set in with the audience," he said. "You could hear it in the laughs. . . it was the kind of laughter you'd get after somebody has climbed 10 flights of stairs and then you tell them a joke. People's shoulders kind of sank a little bit."

Meyers has since found a way of satirizing that's invigorated the audience and elevated his profile — a sharper, more combative style seen when he sparred with Kellyanne Conway in a pre-inauguration "Late Night" interview. The resulting video went viral.

"That was just when I got to see my host at his best, using his full brain power, and his decades of improv training," Baze said. "He's fast. It's probably the most important thing to have if you're going up against Kellyanne."

There are still places for viewers to enjoy apolitical jokes and celebrity fluff of course; "The Tonight Show" audience may be decreasing, but Fallon still doles out anesthetizing, harmless diversion, because what else can he do? He screwed that pooch when he fluffed the hair of the man who is now the POTUS.

And while Colbert affords frustrated viewers gentle catharsis, James Corden stills ferries stars around town in Carpool Karaoke on "The Late Late Show.'" Meyers' show regularly beats it in the ratings, but still.

As for how long viewers and these writers will be able to find humor in our political situation, Oliver put it this way. "I think we're very anxious to not make it all Trump, all the time, both on a level of interest and on a level of what the human soul can sustain."

"We have no idea what's going to happen," Baze said. "We don't know for how much longer it will be legal to make fun of the president. You know? I mean, it sounds crazy now, but a lot of things sounded crazy six months ago."

Max Cea contributed to this story.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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