Lately, my weeknights have been ending the same way. After a long day on campus, I usually retreat to my room and find that all I want to do is watch television. Considering the time, there’s not much on other than talk shows, so I throw on Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers on NBC and try to enjoy the last hour before I doze off.
Occasionally, however, I actually find myself engaging with these late-night hosts. Thus, so far this semester, I have come to a conclusion: their shows just aren’t as funny anymore. It’s not just Fallon and Meyers, either; Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, James Corden, you name the host — they just can’t produce laughs like so many great comedians before them.
Their monologues are stiff and can come off as desperate for even a chuckle. Their guests have been reduced to a typical Q&A role, as opposed to nuanced entertainment for the audience. Most of all, the show feels elongated, as if it’s trying to fill an hour time slot with maybe 15 minutes of actual, quality material. Therefore, I ask myself: what the heck happened to late-night comedy? Worse yet, have we forgotten how to laugh?
According to Fabian van den Berg, a neuropsychologist, we find funny things that violate our expectations or, in the case of these late-night talk shows, a script. Our brains are pretty good at predicting what should happen and, if our estimates are accurate, we aren’t predisposed to laugh as much as we could. For example, when Meyers sets up a joke by talking about Donald Trump’s failures as a political leader, we know that punchline is likely going to involve Trump. Scientifically, it becomes ‘not funny’ (it may also lack humor for other reasons).
Moreover, comedy, according to the University of Colorado-Boulder’s Peter McGraw, works best in a “shared experience.” With the return of live audiences, theoretically, it should be easier for comedians to elicit laughter from the crowd, right? Yes, except perhaps they’re still adjusting from the almost two-year period of isolation and the subsequent developments that have followed. I mean, let’s be frank here: society has not provided us with many laughing matters as of late.
That said, laughter is the best medicine. According to McGraw, it’s one of the best ways to cope with fear and uncertainty, which is why the role of these late-night shows and their hosts is more pivotal than ever nowadays. When I turn on my TV at night, I am looking to be amused and, hopefully, laugh. Instead, I am hit with hosts who are — in my opinion — afraid to cross the proverbial line, to defy the expectations of the audience. Perhaps that is a consequence of the culture within our society, but I’ll save that topic for another day.
Maybe, of all factors, this is where my dissatisfaction with comedy lies. At its best, comedy is daring. When Colin Jost and Michael Che do a “joke swap” on “Saturday Night Live”’s ‘Weekend Update,’ I usually end up rolling on the floor in laughter. The punchlines are intelligently crafted to exploit the situational irony and are so out-of-pocket that the audience knows they couldn’t possibly be true (and they most definitely are not). While it doesn’t happen enough, ‘Update’ has become a segment I look forward to with each show.
The difference between “SNL” and late-night shows is obvious: one airs once a week and the others air five nights consecutively. Thus, the quality of the satire is going to be higher for the former, as the writers have more time to draft and refine fresh, original content. Yet Fallon and Meyers were both cast members on “SNL” (Meyers was also a writer), while Colbert performed at Second City, a famous pipeline to “SNL.” Therefore, these comedians have been in this industry long enough to know what works and what doesn’t.
More importantly, however, is that they understand the gravity of this moment. Art, at its best, possesses an unrivaled ability to bring people together, both literally and figuratively. Think of going to the movies, a concert, or a show and then talking about it with other people afterward. Better yet, think about how many times you and your friends have gotten into heated debates about music, film or TV. Now think about late-night television: it’s no different for these comedians, right?
Perhaps I am too cynical — no two senses of humor are alike. What I may not find funny, you might and that’s okay! However, I think we’re kidding ourselves if we said that these entertainers didn’t have more potential to engage their audiences, especially at a critical period in society like today. This does not necessarily equate to an increased amount of political jokes — no, actually quite the opposite. Comedy needs to be an escape from the stress of the current day, not its satirical framing. In this sense, I do not think we have forgotten how to laugh; rather, we have not had anything to laugh about.
Sam Woiteshek is an opinion columnist and can be reached at email@example.com