5 ways the 2020 election will be shaped by late night comedy

Political comedy played a defining role in the 2016 election. It will only be more important in 2020

By Sophia A. McClennen

Contributing Writer

Published February 23, 2019 11:00AM (EST)

"Full Frontal With Samantha Bee;"Saturday Night Live;" "The Daily Show" (Michele K. Short/Will Heath/NBC/Brad Barket)
"Full Frontal With Samantha Bee;"Saturday Night Live;" "The Daily Show" (Michele K. Short/Will Heath/NBC/Brad Barket)

Just over four years ago, on February 10, 2015, Jon Stewart, then host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” announced he was stepping down from his post as the nation’s satirist-in-chief. Over the years Stewart had increasingly become one of the most important critics of the flaws in our democracy and by the time of his departure he was regularly considered one of the most trusted “journalists” in the nation. Stewart, often in tandem with Stephen Colbert, broke stories, cut through the BS of political spin and invigorated a nation hungry to step outside of the culture of fear that so often predominates on televised news.

When Stewart made his announcement, Colbert had previously left his post on Comedy Central to prepare to take over for David Letterman on CBS as host of “The Late Show.” The idea that we would face an election cycle without either of them offering a critical, witty, sarcastic take on the latest political absurdity led to worry. By the time that Stewart made his announcement, Donald Trump had already joined the race and he had already made a habit of spewing a series of racist, unsubstantiated, and incomprehensible comments that flabbergasted those of us who’d like a president capable of complete sentences. By then there was also a “clown car” of GOP candidates to process. Who would step in and call out Fox News when necessary? Who would remind the press to do their jobs? Who would help us make sense of Trump’s nonsense? Who would dig behind the spin and ask candidates the kinds of questions the nation wanted to hear?

It turns out the answer to those anxious questions was that a whole pack of comedians would. It’s valuable to remember this history, and the anxieties that Stewart’s and Colbert’s transitions caused, because it’s almost laughable that we fretted back then, given the prominent role political comedy plays today. Sure, Stewart and Colbert stepped down, but, at the time, we had a wide field of political comedians in place that were more than ready to tackle the absurdities of the day. In fact, arguably, the departure of Stewart and Colbert from Comedy Central opened the field and allowed a whole range of comedians to rise to prominence and pack a political punch when we needed it most.

The late-night political comedy leading up to the 2016 election wasn’t weaker for the absence of Stewart and the transitions of Colbert: It was stronger than ever. Recall that it was John Oliver who broke the story that Donald Trump’s family name had actually been Drumpf. Samantha Bee launched “Full Frontal” on TBS in early 2016 and came out swinging, hosting an epic encounter with Trump supporters, one of whom eventually called her a “whore.” Michael Moore penned an open letter to Ivanka Trump, coaxing her to “do the right thing” and stop her dad’s “downward spiral” by getting him to drop out of the race. Seth Meyers got increasingly sharp in his takedowns of Trump, especially in his “A Closer Look" segments for “Late Night” on NBC. And, of course, we had Alec Baldwin’s impersonation of Trump for “Saturday Night Live” on NBC, a performance that has acquired iconic status for its repeated ability to send Trump into a meltdown.

Political late-night comedy may not have kept Trump out of office in 2016, but it still played a major role in shaping public opinion, influencing news, encouraging voters to action, and framing debates. While the mainstream news media struggled to find a way to cover Trump’s rise with “balance,” the comedians went straight after his hypocrisy, lies, incoherent arguments and hubris.

The catch, though, was that a sizable feature of that comedy was aimed at Trump. Arguably it was almost all Trump, all the time. Trump was already a joke. So, making more jokes about him was easy and irresistible, a fact that Colbert himself parodied on his very first show for CBS.

So, what does this all mean as we enter into the 2020 election? Will the focus still be on Trump? How will comedians handle the wide slate of Democratic contenders in the primaries? And if comedy can’t get past Trump, will it become irrelevant as an influencer of public opinion?

Here are five things we should expect:

1. There will be more Trump jokes, but not only Trump jokes.

Donald Trump is without question the most mocked president in U.S. history. He offers an endless stream of material, and making fun of him has not just been valuable to a public exhausted by his bullying, lies and invective; it has been profitable.

Trump jokes are everywhere on late-night. Even apolitical Jimmy Fallon eventually started to jab at him. Colbert moved to the number-one slot among the big three networks for late-night when he started to mock Trump more often and with more bite. Seth Meyers, who is sometimes credited with prompting Trump to run, also saw his ratings rise after he turned his attention more squarely to Trump. Explaining why Trump features so often on his show, Meyers has said that “[Trump] turned himself into an object of ridicule.” It is simply impossible for comedians not to go after him.

There is little doubt that the comedians will continue to expose the hubris, folly and hypocrisy of Trump, but that won’t be all. Nor has it been. Despite Trump’s constant whining that he is unfairly mocked, the truth is that, if the comedians have an agenda, it is to go after the best jokes. Expect comedians to continue to make fun of the Trump administration and other figures on the right, as Melissa McCarthy did when she impersonated Sean Spicer for "SNL." Also, given the broad slate of Democratic contenders in the primaries we should expect a number of jokes aimed at the left. Recall that Larry David impersonated Bernie Sanders for "SNL" in 2016 to great effect. There is little doubt that we can only expect more Democratic-aimed comedy too.

So, as we head into 2020, we should expect Trump to continue to dominate as the subject of ridicule, accompanied by a healthy dose of comedy aimed at any and all political figures that deserve it.

2. Satire will keep making the news (and becoming it).

Political comedy is so often a source of news — and a subject of it — that it is easy to forget that this was not always true. The Stewart-Colbert era ushered in a radical shift in the relationship between satire and news: Rather than comment on the news; satire became it. Studies showed that at the turn of the millennium increasing numbers of U.S. citizens were tuning in to late-night political comedy shows to get their news of the day. And, even more importantly, studies also showed that viewers of these shows were regularly more informed on issues than folks who just watched cable news. Satire wasn’t just becoming the news; it was often better at it.

John Oliver arguably occupies the top spot as the nerdy satirist who digs deep on a topic and informs his viewers. Not only did he break the Drumpf story, a number of his episodes have raised public attention to major issues. From the corrupt coal industry to net neutrality and the border wall, there are numerous examples of how his show matters.

Another highlight is the work of Samantha Bee, whose field pieces for “Full Frontal” are regularly full of news-shaping material. Hasan Minhaj’s new show for Netflix, “Patriot Act,” is also poised to break stories that aren’t getting enough media coverage. His “deep-dive” style has allowed him to cover significant political issues with depth, insight, and a large dose of wit.

Oliver, Bee and Minhaj, though, are not on in a nightly fashion, which means their work is not as closely tied to the daily news cycle. For political comedy that responds to the news of the moment we can continue to expect sharp wit from Colbert, Noah and Meyers, who all offer nimble, comedic retorts to the absurdities of the day.

3. Satire will frame opinion and affect voters.

When Tina Fey impersonated Sarah Palin for "SNL," she didn’t just nail it; she actually influenced voters. Fey’s impersonation was powerful because it simply exposed Palin for the inarticulate, unprepared, irrational candidate that she was. In contrast, Chevy Chase’s impersonation of Gerald Ford for "SNL" gave viewers an impression of Ford as clumsy, when in fact he wasn’t.

The point is that political comedy does shape public opinion and that influence can either be spot on, as was the case with Fey, or misleading, as was the case with Chevy Chase.

But the power of political satire today goes well beyond the role impersonations can play in affecting voter ideas about particular candidates. Because satire takes aim at faulty logic and flawed reason it is well-positioned to mock false binaries, hypocrisy and inflammatory policy ideas. When progressive candidates are excoriated by the right for being “socialists,” a mantra we should expect to be repeated endlessly during the 2020 race, it will be the comedians who do the best job of deflating those attacks.

4. The satirists will keep it real when we need it most.

Not all political comedy is equal and not all Trump jokes are the same. Making fun of his hair, orange face, tie or accent is just pure mockery. It deflates him; but it isn’t especially political or powerful. More importantly, those types of jokes certainly don’t make us smarter; in fact, they may just make us smug.

In contrast, satirical comedy, like that found in the work of Oliver, Colbert, Bee, Noah and Lee Camp’s “Redacted Tonight,” goes after faulty logic, hubris, hypocrisy, abuses of power and spin. This is why satirical comedy is such a good complement, or even foil, to traditional TV news. Since TV news has increasingly shifted into a tabloid style of hype and fear, it is the satirists who have oddly become one of our main sources of critical reporting and insightful analysis.

As Carlos Maza has pointed out for Vox, the reason why late-night political comedy does a better job of going after Trump is because it goes after BS and doesn’t bother with “balance.” While almost every panel on CNN, for example, includes a Trump apologist in an effort to present multiple viewpoints, the satirists champion reason and logic. In 2020, we should expect the inverted reality, where comedians play it straight and point out political folly better and more often than the straight news, to only become even more obvious.

5. Yes, the candidates will keep using these shows for free PR, even if they can’t control the outcome.

There has been a steady uptick in candidates using late-night shows to help draw attention to their campaigns. The watershed moment that ushered in this new era was Bill Clinton’s appearance on "Arsenio Hall" in 1992. Playing the sax, Clinton’s guest appearance gave him major media coverage — for free. If before, candidates thought they should only appear on “serious” news shows, those days were over for good.

Of course, not all efforts to appear on late-night shows work well for a candidate. Palin’s in-person appearance on "SNL" didn’t help her in the race — if anything, it hurt. But there have been times when candidates could be fairly confident that an appearance would pay off. Appearances with Colbert on “The Colbert Report” almost always resulted in the “Colbert bump” — an increase in attention and donations that worked for candidates across the political spectrum.

In 2020, we have already seen a number of candidates turn to late-night for free media coverage. Kirsten Gillibrand announced her candidacy on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” Beto O’Rourke teased with a possible announcement when he appeared with Oprah Winfrey, even though he didn’t commit.

Once the field settles, candidates will line up to do interviews or other pop-ins to help draw attention to their campaign. The results of these appearances will be mixed, but as a general rule, viewers should expect some of the best interviews of 2020 to be conducted by comedians. Last election cycle, Colbert gave Ted Cruz one of his toughest interviews of his campaign. In the 2016 race, Trevor Noah’s interview with Rand Paul fell a bit flat, but those were early days for the new host of “The Daily Show” and 2020 candidates can expect him to be much tougher and more seasoned. Across the board, we can expect interviews with late-night comedians to go far beyond the humanizing, hip experience of Clinton with Hall.

While it is too soon to know how the race will shape up, there is one thing we can count on in the 2020 race: Political comedy will matter more than ever. Its role as an entertaining, enlightening, and informative source on politics won’t just help make following the election fun; it will make following the election possible.

By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book is "Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't."

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