One of the redeeming elements of the 2016 election coverage media hellscape has been watching Seth Meyers and the “Late Night” writing team navigate the fine balance of rational reasoning and rational indignation that seems to have eluded most shows which air more than once a week.
Last Monday marked the beginning of the show’s fourth season, which opened with their strongest statement yet, an installment of their segment “A Closer Look” focusing on Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s history of birtherism. Using a weekend’s worth of prep and six years’ worth of evidence, the 10-minute clip is indicative of the concise morsels of fact-checking that the show has been serving up on a near-nightly basis, through the primaries and up through last evening’s live show.
While critics lament the Jon Stewart-less state of daily comedy, Meyers has steadily worked to cover much of that same ground in the “Late Night” A-block. Before the emphatic return of “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” and the handy debate primer that was last Sunday’s “Last Week Tonight,” Meyers arguably did the best job of filling this essential late-night comedy void in the few weeks since the end of the Summer Olympics.
For a generation of people who’ve forsaken the nightly news in favor of John Oliver’s epic destructions, Meyers has become a lone network watchdog. Despite Colbert’s late-night pedigree, Kimmel’s value as a universal foil for Democrats and Republicans alike and Fallon’s undiscerning affability, Meyers has been able to adapt to the heightened lunacy of the day-to-day campaign news simply by keeping the “Late Night” rhythm that’s been there for over a year.
No one’s going to confuse “A Closer Look” for “See It Now.” But in a late-night atmosphere where one-liners mostly feed on nebulous perceptions of candidates and political figures, these mini-overviews every night bring a much-needed influx of cohesion and context. When the last few months of this presidential campaign have been marked by false equivocation, a dependable distillation of the day’s craziness means more. Especially when it’s outside the confines of basic cable.
While the other live shows from last night zeroed in on specific moments from the debate as the jumping-off point for monologue quips, Meyers spent half of Monday night’s “A Closer Look” setting the scene, incorporating background from the Sunday shows and the candidates’ respective preparation strategies. The result was a focused look at the evening’s noteworthy moments that still managed to sneak some choice “Family Feud” and Sully jokes into its overall arc.
“Late Night” has solidified its place as a go-to source for political commentary, but that hasn’t come at the cost of a balanced late night show. For devotees of the traditional format, “Late Night” still has a revolving door of fresh musical talent, both in the show’s 8G Band and on its guest list. Whenever other networks have to interview the third lead on “Scorpion,” Meyers is right there talking about the latest season of “Law & Order: SVU” with Ice-T.
But rather than use “Late Night” as a show purely to grow a personal brand or simply to cater to famous guest stars, Meyers has also done an admirable job of ceding the floor to collaborators. One of the goofiest, surreal late-night segments of the summer was “Who’s That Guy?” a five-minute sendup of unsung character actors that was essentially a vehicle for John Carroll Lynch’s comedic chops. Last week saw the return of the dependable “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell,” where “Late Night” writers Amber Ruffin and Jenny Hagel deliver monologue jokes that would otherwise get Meyers in trouble.
Though Meyers sits in a chair once occupied by Conan O’Brien, this incarnation of “Late Night” is probably closer to the territory formerly trod by CBS lead-in competitor Colbert. “The Late Show” hasn’t entirely forsaken politics as an evening hook. In fact, both Meyers and Colbert had the same (“F**k you, exclamation point!”) punchline in response to Trump’s faux birther proclamation two weeks ago. But the “Late Show” segments that have popped up more than a few times (the Fuzzy Hat proclamations, the Confessional Booth and the occasional Celebrity Blanket Fort) have become repackagings of the same style of joke that the “LSSC” writers thrive on but haven’t figured out a way to evolve from. To put it in Conan/Colbert parlance, it’s like putting on a parade of “In the Year 2000”s when audiences are in dire need of a daily dose of “The Word.”
But considering that late-night shows are also in dire need of eyeballs, here’s something to note: in the last three months, the five most-watched videos on the “Late Night” YouTube channel are all Trump-themed installments of “A Closer Look.” Viral content and clearly articulated commentary don’t have to be mutually exclusive on network TV. The “Late Night” team is showing the value of well-crafted comedy, not merely relying on star power and spontaneity to produce something shareable. It’s must-watch work, and they’re cranking it out faster than anyone else in the business.