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Stephen Colbert with guest Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, on June 28.CBS Photo Archive/CBS via Getty Images

Jimmy Kimmel is taking most of this summer off, and you can’t blame him. His last show before the break was on June 17th. He timed his holiday well.

What happened next was the United States Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, another ruling gutting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, several days of explosive testimony at the Jan. 6 hearings and weekly mass shootings.

Right now, a good barometer of the emotionally debilitating state of the U.S. is a look at the toll taken on the late-night shows. Such programs and their hosts are struggling to deal with the daily news diet of shock, scandal and rage.

During the Trump era and through the pandemic, something shifted in the late-night arena. Several hosts, including Kimmel, became less the cheerful, quipping TV performers, and more the conscience of the U.S. At present, being the conscience of a nation is back-breaking work, not to mention an awkward position to be in.

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Then during the COVID-19 lockdowns, the hosts were obliged to work from home, like most others. This humanized several of them, making them more representative of the general population. And now they are as flummoxed as everybody else.

On the first Daily Show after the Roe v. Wade decision, Trevor Noah was coldly furious: “Women in America just lost control of their own bodies,” he said. “Which, I don’t care who you are, is a horrifying thing to be faced with.”

The jokes were thin: “This is especially crazy, when you consider that countries like Mexico and Ireland are moving forward in the opposite direction. You do realize how weird that is, right? Ireland has had violent conflicts between Christians and other Christians, and even they are looking at America like, ‘Don’t you think you’re taking it a wee bit too far with the Jesus stuff?’”

Seth Meyers, on his NBC show, abandoned comedy completely. Instead, he had as guests three of his women writers who talked to each other about abortion rights and then introduced Alexis McGill Johnson, president and chief executive officer of the Planned Parenthood Federation, for a chat.

Later, sometimes using language that can’t be quoted in a newspaper, Meyers tore into the Supreme Court: “It’s a rogue court, hellbent on remaking America as an authoritarian right-wing theocracy. Conservatives have shattered the court and shredded whatever remaining legitimacy it may have had.” Further, he called the court “a corrupt and anti-democratic institution.”

Meanwhile, Stephen Colbert took the awkward tack of blending rage with jokes: “So, reproductive rights in America lasted for less time than The Young and the Restless,” he joked. “Jack Abbott’s evil twin is going to be so shocked when he comes out of his fifth coma.” Then came a relentless attack on the court, followed by a joke about Kentucky Fried Chicken: “Americans having rights taken away is like KFC changing its slogan from ‘We Do Chicken Right’ to ‘There Is No Constitutional Right to Chicken.’ ”

It was all unnerving, really. Some of these guys look painfully vulnerable right now. Even with the help of an army of writers, often they cannot find the right tone, the appropriate sense of beleaguered fun, the grim sarcasm that doom-scrolling the news can invite. They’re not sages, these late-night hosts; they are employed to put things in a context that’s both rueful and has some truth. It’s beyond them.

And they are mostly guys. (Seth Meyers is the only one who acknowledges this and tries to make amends.) Samantha Bee, whose show goes weekly rather than nightly, is also on a summer break, and her show was already curtailed when she contracted COVID-19 in June. Her final outing involved talking to a law professor about Roe v. Wade and a rant telling viewers and all women to “raise hell” about the Supreme Court decision. In truth, even before her COVID-19 experience, there was an air of exhaustion about Bee’s performances.

It was a tonic, then, to have Chelsea Handler fill in for Kimmel’s show: “I’m Chelsea Handler, your guest host until the end of the week, or at least until Republicans make it illegal for women to talk,” she began. “At this point, I’d probably have more rights if my vagina were an AR-15,” was one of the wisecracks. She was more direct and coolly eviscerating than the other hosts. There was none of the tortured appeal to Democrats to “do something!” on her part that characterized the rest.

But the Roe v. Wade decision was just a portion of the last few weeks. And over this period, a pessimism has pervaded late-night shows – and an outright doubt that anything except pessimism is appropriate. The cutting jokes aren’t so easy to find, and the job of hosting looks terribly onerous.

Many of the hosts look like they wish they were on holiday, like Kimmel.

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