There is no doubt that the entertainment industry leans left. This tendency is on display in acceptance speeches and the social agenda of many television shows and movies. But this leftward lean is no more evident than on late night comedy shows.
No other avenue of mass media produces the same level of sharp criticism with such a high frequency. SNL, The Late Show, The Tonight Show, and The Daily Show embody this world of political commentary to greater and lesser extents. Such regular output means that they must draw material from America’s cultural conversation, particularly as that conversation appears in the news.
July 15, 2015 seemed like a gift to these shows as Donald Trump descended an escalator and announced his candidacy for President of the United States. Comedians immediately recognized the comedic potential that presented itself with this announcement. Jon Stewart likened this news, coming in that last six weeks of his tenure as host of The Daily Show, to “some kind of comedy hospice, where all I’m getting is just straight morphine.”
In the months that followed, comedians skewered then candidate Trump, hoping to get as much mileage out of his campaign as possible before the assured victory of Hillary Clinton. However, the demeanor changed on November 8th, when Donald Trump pulled out the unlikely victory over Clinton. The embodiment of this shock was perfectly captured in the live special event hosted by Steven Colbert. As excitement turned to disbelief, comedy gave way to drama.
In the months since, late night comedy has continued its focus on the Trump administration and has found many easy targets. While they critiqued President Obama sparingly, they are targeting trump ruthlessly. As a strategy to boost ratings, their nightly roasting of the President may bring them an uptick in viewership, similar to the “Trump bump” that newspapers are currently riding.
With so much of America’s news and cultural attention focused on the White House, I find myself pondering one question consistently. Will this intense focus on this singular figure turn out to be detrimental to the long term health of late night comedy?
While a foundation of this comedy genre has long been political commentary, one must ask how long such an intense focus on one individual or group can continue without the jokes growing stale and the audience growing bored. This problem is compounded by the fact that the rest of the media is similarly focused on President Trump in a negative manner. If we Americans have proven anything as a people, it is that we have a notoriously short attention span and we move on fairly quickly.
What will the late night shows do when America wants to move on from the nightly Trump jokes because they have reached their maximum Trump capacity? President Trump seems to be offering up softballs for comedians, but can they resist when Americans are asking for something different?
If late night shows become so addicted to Trump, they could lose their cultural impact and their voice. And if they are addicted, how will they break their cycle of addiction? Will Americans stay around to see them through their withdrawals? In many ways, late night comedy may be eating a steady diet of cake and ice cream. If they are not careful, they could find themselves battling the long term side effects of an unhealthy diet.