What’s the point?: The laziness of late-night political satire

Wednesday, October 24, 2018 - 3:05pm

Jimmy Kimmel and a guest

Jimmy Kimmel and a guest Buy this photo
ABC

For comedy writers and late-night personalities, the Trump presidency seemed to come with a silver lining: It was an unexcavated gold mine of material. Unless the nuclear holocaust arrived faster than expected, his four-year term would be commemorated by hilarious impressions, quotable moments and general buffoonery.

The blissful avoidance of the ramifications of Trump’s election that marked the television immediately following Nov. 9, 2016 was a clear indication that nothing had been learned from the election itself. The campaign was treated as a farce — thus the results were what we received. Now, there also seemed to be an underestimation of his ability to implement concrete change that could regress our country. The eagerness with which late-night personalities raced to joke again, in spite of the gravity of our situation, now reminds me in a lot of ways of the joyous, careless send-off marches that preceded World War I. Despite there being an understanding that the soldiers were entering into a war, no one truly knew the hell they were in for. People had survived wars before; as a country, we had endured terrible presidents.

We were gonna be fine. Right?

Just like the fate of the soldiers, two years later, common Americans still find ourselves fighting the war from the trenches with no clear end to the madness in sight. However, for those in television, life inside the trenches looks a bit different. A new renaissance of late-night television has dawned. A mere four years ago, “Saturday Night Live” was clinging onto the last strands of relevancy, and people were solely tuning into “Jimmy Kimmel Live” to see Mean Tweets. But in 2018, the world of late night has been completely overturned by the results of the 2016 election. Network ratings are booming and late-night personalities are more relevant and influential than ever before.

In the beginning, it was therapeutic to laugh along and marvel at the seemingly golden age of comedy into which we had entered, but two years down the line, my laugh lines have begun to show. As I watch the continuous attacks on marginalized groups and the appointment of more officials armed with the ability to strip away human rights, simply laughing along feels almost hollow.

I had to ponder why.

Despite the variances for each late-night program — from Jimmy Fallon’s choreographed, tepid shots at Trump to Seth Meyers’ more analytical dissection of his ineptitude to Samantha Bee’s outright, overt assault on the Trump administration — when you distill it down, everyone seems to be saying the same thing. These identical takes become even more troubling when you realize that despite feeling like we’re “sticking it to the man” by laughing, in reality, nothing is being done. Two years later, I have come to wonder what even is the point anymore?

In regards to news satires like “The Daily Show” or “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” the argument could be made that these programs’ “point” is to educate. Through laughter, we learn. I will not refute this point, as I can attest to the fact that I have learned plenty of useful information from these programs. However, this positive effect hinges on the simple question of who is watching — or rather, who wants to watch. While our country is more polarized than ever in terms of liberal versus conservative, there still remains a large sector of the population that considers itself to be moderate.

As a leftist Black feminist, I sought out programs like “The Daily Show” or “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.” Frankly, moderates who are too apathetic to even definitively pick a side are not going to seek out these shows because of the very fact that they are, well, apathetic. Thus, the information that could be considered educational for those who do not know it already, or do not know that they should care about it is being presented to the liberals who have already bought the product the writers and personalities are selling. These programs’ “niche-ness” is a double-edged sword: While being able to take a more hardlined stance against the Trump administration, they are too niche to reach the audience that would make them effective. They’re screaming into the void.

On the other hand, network late-night shows face the opposite affliction. Nightly late-night variety shows often fly under the radar of critique because, traditionally, their purpose has been to entertain. Although now the opening monologues more often swing politically, there are still wacky sidekicks, funny bits and celebrity guests. Because of this “entertainment” appeal, the major networks of ABC, NBC and CBS still reach the broadest audience and report the highest ratings.

Unlike the more niche cable programming, a vast array of people are watching. However, because of this very fact, they must take a “safer” stance on divisive issues. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that Seth Meyers, a more open critic of President Trump, receives lower ratings than Jimmy Fallon, who keeps his show as neutral as possible but will sometimes bend to pressure and half-heartedly mock 45. This presents a chicken-and-egg conundrum: Are these shows highest rated because they are apolitical? Or rather, are they apolitical because they have the highest ratings? Either way you slice it, it’s the same issue; people are missing out on the opportunity to hear the better, analytical critique of the administration.

As much as it hurts me as a TV buff to admit it, our salvation from this administration will not be delivered solely through television personalities and witty monologue one-liners. Despite Trump’s obsession with what is occurring in the media, in reality, comedians are doing no more than just getting under his skin. Although this is a noble feat (who wouldn’t want to piss the guy off?), it is no substitute for real, substantiated change.

While I am not suggesting a temporary hold on all comedy until the regime is ousted, I am suggesting that we do not rely on sharing funny clips of Colbert on Facebook to like-minded friends as our only form of objection to the policies and acts of our current executive branch. It will not be and has never been enough to merely laugh along while the world crumbles, because before you know it, the laughter will subside and you’ll discover a world you no longer recognize.