As The Story of Late Night unfolds weekly on CNN, we are obliged to ponder this: Why is Canada bereft of such entertainment, and what is the tone and temperature of U.S. late-night in the immediate post-Trump period?
On the first issue, we couldn’t take it in Canada. Nobody has the guts for it, not the broadcasters or the audience. And it’s not that there isn’t enough material, or a shortage of persons with strong and noisome opinions. Politics here is deeply partisan and weird scandals erupt often. The standing army of Canadian pundits is never less than 1,000. That’s a fact. About 946 are anti-Justin and 54 are pro-Justin, but we seem to like it that way. Thing is, outside of the Quebec TV market there is absolutely no appetite for arguing or mockery on late-night TV.
The best we’ve got, heaven help us, is the At Issue panel on CBC TV’s The National. It’s no chuckle-fest, that weekly item. Nor was it meant to be, yet it sometimes beggars the definition of banality. A person was reminded of the dullness of Canadian TV debating and argument last week when Chantal Hébert tore a strip off Alberta Premier Jason Kenney while Andrew Coyne looked vaguely aghast and Althia Raj looked as though she wanted to step away from this madness. By Canadian standards, it was very strong stuff.
Meanwhile, in the United States, the expected drop in temperature following the departure of Donald Trump hasn’t happened. Across the late-night shows, there are now two targets to vilify with relish: the Republican Party and Fox News.
The other night, Samantha Bee started her Full Frontal show with a weird joke that featured a colostomy bag and then said, “And there’s another thing that makes me smile. The Republicans Party eating each other alive!” There followed a long sequence in which Bee’s show played news coverage of the allegations surrounding Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, and Bee simply inserted sarcasm and mocking jokes every now and then. One of the few jokes that can be allowed in print seemed to refer to Gaetz as “old Funko Pop head.” It’s hard to tell; Bee talks rapid fire.
If anything, the tone of late-night comedy is even more scathing and ferocious than before.
Last week, Jimmy Kimmel mocked a photo Texas Senator Ted Cruz had posted showing him hanging out with Trump at Mar-a-Lago. Taking his sweet time to interpret the photo, Kimmel noted the table the two politicians were seated at, and concluded, “That’s where they seat you at a wedding in hell, with those two.”
Right now, it seems, much of late-night is a continuing series of skirmishes in the ongoing culture wars. Tucker Carlson of Fox News provides endless fodder for Kimmel, Seth Meyers, John Oliver and others. This can range from high-dudgeon outrage at the untruths propagated by Carlson to low-level lampooning of how Carlson speaks and looks. But Kimmel took an interesting tack recently. He had Dr. Anthony Fauci as a guest and played a clip of Carlson questioning why college-age students should take the COVID-19 vaccine, when “young people are not at risk of dying from COVID.” Fauci demolished Carlson in two sentences. Now that was like a public-service announcement.
Meyers has long since abandoned any idea that outright partisanship should be avoided. He sees his role as a pure public service, night after night. The other night, he ripped Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida for signing a new election bill into law, and doing so exclusively on Fox News. Meyers’s explanation of this weirdness was blunt: “The GOP has attempted to rebrand itself as a populist pro-workers party, but it’s all a giant fraud,” he said. “All they really care about is dismantling democracy and purging anyone who disagrees with the unhinged lie that Donald Trump actually won the 2020 election. They don’t care what it means for you, so long as Trump can say, ‘I feel great.’ ”
In part, the sheer strange vigour of U.S. late-night is being fuelled by one aspect of the pandemic – while these shows have returned to being taped in a studio, there’s no audience in the room. The people sitting in the seats are writing staff and others who work for the show. It makes for a peculiar dynamic.
Whatever the reason, the swagger of it all is vastly entertaining, at a distance in Canada. Anyone who expected post-Trump late-night TV to become an arena of torpor and the repetition of mindless celebrity humour was dead wrong. It’s bracing, and the longer this period continues the more the glaring absence of any Canadian equivalent – even a single, weekly late-night argumentative brawl – seems piteous. No guts, no glory.
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