On Tuesday night CNN has its first Democratic presidential debate, at 8 p.m., with another one on Wednesday evening. Ratings for last month’s Democratic debates on NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo were excellent, signalling a significant public interest.
Another signal that the political debates are a boon to the TV industry in the United States is the impact on the late-night shows. On Tuesday, Stephen Colbert on CBS, Seth Meyers on NBC and Trevor Noah on Comedy Central (Comedy Network in Canada) air live shows to feast on the Democratic debates on CNN. Usually their shows are taped in the early evening.
The emergence of leading Democratic presidential candidates is important to the late-night hosts and their writers. Because, really, they are all starting to look defeated by Donald Trump’s presidency. Where once there was savage indignation and searing jokes, there is now mere shocked–and-appalled exasperation. The more outrageous Trump behaves, the less funny it becomes for Colbert, Meyers and the others.
A few weeks ago, Trump issued one of his stunning tweets when he attacked a group of Democratic congresswomen of colour, demonizing them as foreign-born rabble-rousers who should go back to the “broken and crime infested places from which they came.” There was almost universal consternation, since Trump ignored the fact that the women are American citizens and all but one was born in the U.S.
How the various late-night hosts reacted was very telling. Several fell back on jokes about Melania Trump and her alleged status as disgruntled wife, a near-prisoner in the White House and of course, foreign-born. On Jimmy Kimmel Live, the host simply said that Trump was “out of his mind again” and showed a clip of Trump telling reporters that the congresswomen should leave the U.S. if they don’t like living there. Kimmel then joked, "As soon as he said that, Melania started running to the airport.”
On The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon joked that Melania Trump asked, “Hey, how come they get to leave?” Then came an interesting moment. "I don’t know what’s more shocking,” Fallon said, “That the President sent a racist tweet or that we won’t be talking about this in two days.” That garnered a very muted response from the studio audience. Fallon looked at the audience and simply said, “Too real? Okay.”
That’s the thing – as Trump hones his racist invectives for the 2020 election year, he becomes “too real” for the late-night comics. It is increasingly difficult to mock, with any sense of humour, what is undeniably disgusting.
Trump had issued his go-back tweet on a Sunday and reiterated his comments on Monday. This gave the late-night shows ample time to prepare their satiric ammunition. Yet by Monday night, Stephen Colbert was reduced to snarling at the camera, “If someone is leaving this country, it should be you! And if you’re looking for a new home, might I suggest that you go to hell!" Seth Meyers declared, speaking about the congresswomen, “This is their country, and they are treating it with a lot more respect and devotion than the racist gargoyle who sits around tweeting from the back nine of his chintzy golf course."
It all amounts to a kind of baffled umbrage. For years now Trump has provided the late-night comics with tons of corrosive comedy material that has a cathartic impact for the audience. Now he’s making them deeply uncomfortable because it’s difficult to be funny when the comic and the audience are actually unnerved by the President’s tweets, statements and behaviour. Just as Trump instinctively browbeats opponents with ever-increasing derision, the enlarging and expanding of his race-based attacks has beaten down the late-night comics. There are times, such as the occasion of his go-back statements, when the lot of them look conquered. It has become too real.
In September, there will at last be a new voice in late-night. A Little Late with Lilly Singh comes to NBC, airing after Seth Meyers. The Canadian-born Singh, a massive YouTube star, will be the only woman of colour on late-night network television, an arena dominated by white men. Maybe she’ll have a refreshing take on current events, and Trump, or maybe she will avoid the topic. In the meantime, the existing late-night comics are desperate for material offered by the Democratic presidential debates. Trump has overpowered them, as he had done to so many others.
And with that I leave you for a break of a few weeks. Be nice to each other and enjoy what you watch. I’ll be back at the end of August.