Late-night comedy rushes into the Trump era
'He's taken the country hostage, in a way,' says Daily Show executive
HBO's ads promoting John Oliver on Last Week Tonight depict him cowering behind a desk, with the tag line, "Scary times call for a scared man."
Be not afraid. Between Oliver's return Sunday from a three-month hiatus and Donald Trump impersonator Alec Baldwin's stint hosting Saturday Night Live, this is shaping up to be a big weekend in what has already been a promising start to the Trump era in late-night comedy.
Melissa McCarthy's SNL impersonation of White House press secretary Sean Spicer exploded on social media last weekend. Seth Meyers and Trevor Noah are nightly newscasters of the absurd, Samantha Bee is continuing her biting work and Stephen Colbert's opinionated topicality has rejuvenated his CBS show in competition with NBC's Jimmy Fallon.
A mountain of material
"We have to live in [Trump's] world now," said Steve Bodow, executive producer of The Daily Show on Comedy Central.
"We used to be able to observe him, but now we have to live in his world. He's taken the country hostage, in a way."
The mountain of material has been daunting. Bodow's fellow executive producer, Jen Flanz, likens the pace to cramming for a different test every day.
Bee seemed breathless recently telling viewers, "Believe me, we are not done," and beseeching them to stick with her through a commercial break after comparing confusion surrounding Trump's immigration order to the "healthcare.gov of Islamophobia."
Once an occasional feature, Meyers' A Closer Look segment is like a newspaper opened every day at the top of his show. There's so much to work with that he said he toggles between "multiple constitutional crises" and "mundane, every day weirdness," like confusing comments Trump made about historical figure Frederick Douglass.
The Daily Show's Noah did a "Profile in Tremendousness" about Trump's Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, mocking the jurist's story about crying when he first learned of the death of former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia as "the whitest thing I've ever heard."
Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj has also emerged as an important voice, a Muslim comedian at a time many Muslims feel under attack.
.<a href="https://twitter.com/hasanminhaj">@HasanMinhaj</a> breaks down how Trump implemented a Muslim travel ban using barely-legal precedents. Full video: <a href="https://t.co/IOiZ3kxwXL">https://t.co/IOiZ3kxwXL</a> <a href="https://t.co/TX4nrlghcK">pic.twitter.com/TX4nrlghcK</a>—@TheDailyShow
Into this maelstrom steps Oliver. He's made it a point in past years to say he wanted to avoid the day-to-day tumult of politics, believing it best suited to those with a nightly platform while he concentrates on his investigative comedy. But some things are hard to resist, and his show about Trump's family name change from "Drumpf" was one of last season's highlights.
How much will Trump dominate his upcoming round of shows?
"We'll work it out," he said. "I could lie to your face again. I don't know. We're very anxious to not make it all Trump all of the time, both for the level of interest and on a level of what the human soul can sustain."
We thought, OK, we all need to think about being in a place where we're probably going to be quite critical of a sitting president...What does that mean for us? I don't know if it's going to change anything particularly, but it's important for us to think about.- Samantha Bee
Oliver said that "there's a lot of low-hanging fruit with an administration like this and you kind of have to reach past that."
Bee and her staff had a "what now?" meeting after an election they weren't alone in thinking would turn out differently.
"We thought, OK, we all need to think about being in a place where we're probably going to be quite critical of a sitting president," she recalled. "What does that mean for us? I don't know if it's going to change anything particularly, but it's important for us to think about."
Bee hasn't soft-pedaled her comedy, and she recently announced plans for a non-Trump alternative to this spring's White House Correspondents dinner, an annual gathering of Washington media with the president and other elected officials. But she has recognized other views, like her bid to find some common ground with conservative commentator Glenn Beck.
The show also has to make a special effort to find some moments of joy each week, she said.
"There is so much happening, so much coming at us on a daily basis, that we do have to think about what we can do that's just plain silly," she said.
Colbert and Stewart, together again
Colbert, whose show had been floundering so much that early last year there were whispers it wouldn't last, sharpened his focus during the campaign to become pointedly topical. He's not been afraid to bring back his former Comedy Central character and former Comedy Central colleague, Jon Stewart. When he returned from a vacation following Trump's inaugural, more than 4 million people sought out his first monologue on YouTube.
Last week, Colbert also beat NBC's Tonight show host Jimmy Fallon in the ratings for the first time since the week Colbert took over for David Letterman on the Late Show in September 2015.
Colbert walks a careful line, since CBS is dominant in the parts of the country where Trump has his strongest base, but he's been careful to mock Trump, and not necessarily the people who supported him.
Fallon, who's been the late-night comedy king from the instant he took over from Jay Leno in 2014, is the one comic clearly struggling in the new era. Critics and Trump opponents criticized him last fall for a cringeworthy interview with the Republican candidate where Fallon playfully mussed his hair. When Fallon brought back his Trump impersonation recently, that fell flat, too.
"Being soft in an era when Fallon competitors like Samantha Bee, Seth Meyers, Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah are delivering strong critiques of the president could hurt Fallon and his Tonight show in the long run," critic Laura Bradley wrote in Vanity Fair.
Fallon's form of breezy comedy felt right for the times three years ago, much less so now. He's evidence of how things can change — and may change again still.
It's a blistering pace to keep up with. As Meyers noted, "two weeks into the Trump presidency, and already it feels like two years."