My introduction to late-night television was very recent. I remember utilizing shows by the likes of Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers to understand the partisan political landscape in America, starting when I got elected as an opinion editor at the Cardinal back in December 2019. At first, I couldn’t stop watching. The YouTube algorithm loves the monologue content these shows produce, and I found myself deep in a rabbit hole. At the time, I quite liked it. The shows seemed clever to me then, I must embarrassingly admit.
Fast forward to more recently when I saw this tweet put out by Colbert’s late-night show, and I found myself realizing things. Firstly, I realized just how little late-night content I was now taking in. Secondly, I realized that these shows are straight-up unfunny, regardless of political bias or comedic preference.
As part of my deep dive into the world of late-night television last year, I decided to learn more about Stephen Colbert and soon discovered his famous eponymous character from “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central. Alas, today’s Colbert is miles away from the character that fearlessly faced Bill O’Reilly on his own show.
The tweet in question makes suggestions for names to call the former president by, keeping with a bit where Colbert does not name the last president, and asks followers for their own suggestions. Uninspired names based on massively overused jokes include “Sir Eats-a-lot” — the “joke” being that Trump is obese, in a country where about 42% of adults are obese and obesity poses serious health concerns for the population, “Mayor McTreason” — an incredibly imaginative reference to the Capitol riots on Jan. 6, 2020 — and “Covfefool,” a reference to a misspelled tweet that has its own Wikipedia article, from almost half a decade ago.
The replies to this tweet were mostly ripping the show apart, rightly calling out the lack of originality and the fall of Stephen Colbert from his Comedy Central prime, but every so often, I found tweets from people that genuinely found the jokes funny and added more incredibly original names into the mix. Some other names suggested by overly enthusiastic boomers include “Orange Foolio,” “Big Mouth von Tiny Hands” and “Orange Circus Peanut,” which came from another late-night television personality, Samantha Bee. All birds in the same nest.
(As part of my research for this piece, I also found this website dedicated to Donald Trump nicknames. Four hundred nine hilarious nicknames, they say. If I had to endure this, so do you.)
Now, I love myself some good puns. I particularly relish in puns that make people writhe in agony. However, I would never call myself late-night television material or even an up-and-coming comedian. I can be funny at times, but not once have I thought I am fit to sit in Colbert’s writers’ room. Yet now the standards are so incredibly low that I might actually stand a chance.
After Joe Biden won the presidency, I — among many others — wondered how mainstream news and late-night television would respond. In my opinion, mainstream news has done a decent job of focusing on matters pertaining to the current administration, like the recovery from COVID-19. Late-night television, however, seems to have had a much harder time getting over the previous administration.
The shows I mentioned at the start of this piece are a mere handful of many shows that took on the role of satirizing the actions of the previous administration. Some may say that’s a good thing, as it helped rationalize the news which would otherwise hit like a train. Perhaps that explains the ratings boom and also how someone like me was drawn in. As I'd said earlier, YouTube algorithms relished this stuff and so did viewers in America and beyond. The videos did numbers, and I was definitely a fan for a while.
But if we are to look at things critically, these shows are now all one and the same. Maybe in 2015, you could say that Seth Meyers, Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert’s shows had their own unique identity. After Trump got elected, however, you could bounce around from monologue to monologue and hear the exact same jokes. It was probably still fine then, as writers were forced to write about Trump against their will. Now, after Biden has taken charge, these shows cling onto references to Trump even when the news cycle has moved onto different — and arguably more important — things. It is just jarring.
Maybe it is the safe thing to do. Maybe there are enough boomers who still enjoy the “orange man bad” punchline each and every night on every network because they are now comfortable. The steady ratings certainly seem to suggest that. Though isn’t this just turning a blind eye to other matters that could use comedic dissection? When Jimmy Fallon — another late-night juggernaut (by some miracle) — had John Oliver on his show and Oliver tried using the platform to call attention to the treatment of warehouse workers and unions, Fallon was desperate to move away from the topic. It was an embarrassing watch, yet perhaps quite representative of the late-night television landscape today.
Like most things, late-night television is no longer its original self. Driven by profits and ratings and not necessarily the desire to genuinely amuse and entertain, these shows are inconsistent and have sold their souls to an exceedingly obvious extent in the last half decade or so. I don’t deny that corporate interests have always been a thing. I also don’t deny that there was some positive impact the satire had on people that use comedy to cope. In fact, I definitely believe humor is an incredible weapon for social change. However, those that wield it refuse to use it as it should be. Today’s landscape reeks of performative stuff like rainbow capitalism: Insincere efforts at appealing to political or social causes for financial benefits more than actual care for the craft itself, the causes or the people most affected.
If I was an aspiring comedian looking to drive social change now, I would turn to YouTube, TikTok or Twitter and try building a name there, rather than dreaming of late-night television as a bastion of comedy and a space to make a difference.
This is the sad decline of late-night television.