Perhaps you’ve heard: There’s been plenty of news out of Washington, D.C. lately.
Under ordinary circumstances, this would make the jobs of late-night comedy writers that much easier. But over the past year, these headlines are causing much more anxiety than laughs, even for the people whose job it is keep people entertained. A panel of late-night staffers spoke to the Television Critics Association on Saturday about the new challenges that have come with their job descriptions as things change in the White House.
“My first thought is always, ‘Were all going to die,’” said Christine Nangle, head writer for Comedy Central’s “The President Show. “Then you have to remember, is there anything for us to pull from?”
Even for shows that are only on once a week, there’s no rest for staff members who are keeping a closer eye on the news cycle than usual. As much as that churn can cause issues for shows trying to plan out episodes in advance, that constant engagement with push notification-worthy headlines means that there’s a shorthand that hosts can have with their audiences.
“You can reliably predict every time you hop on a plane or take a nap, something is going to happen,” said Ashley Nicole Black, correspondent for “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.” “Sometimes it’s nice that there are things you know you don’t have to explain.”
A shorter news cycle has often brought with it an added level of snap judgment among politics obsessives. For Hallie Haglund, writer at “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” that’s meant taking a deep breath when a fresh story breaks. Haglund cited the headlines surrounding President Trump’s additional meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin as a recent story that forced the writing staff to consider that there was a different angle than the prevailing news media approach.
“It took us halfway through the day to really be like, ‘What exactly happened?” Haglund said. “The way you saw the headlines and the teases to these news segments…it’s important that we don’t just pass along what’s being put out there because we’re allies in a sense, but it’s our job to continue to challenge that, even when we agree.”
Though most late-night comedy has approached politics from a more progressive viewpoint, all the panelists stressed the necessity to avoid the offhand dismissal of fans beyond their usual viewer base.
“A more conservative person may not watch it and say ‘I’ve been wrong this whole time,’ but for people who do watch it, it helps give you a critical eye towards what’s going on and helps you digest media better. As citizens out in the world, it’s better to have more people like that,” Nangle said.
By offering that same amount of patience, they hope it eventually leads to more of the same coming from the viewers’ side, whether they’re Trump supporters or not. “The Jim Jefferies Show” head writer Jason Reich talked about how the defensive responses to his series began unusually early.
“Before we were even on the air, we had people tweeting, ‘Oh, look it’s just another Trump-bashing show from another liberal comedian,” Reich said. “I think there’s a knee-jerk reaction on both sides, but we’re trying to keep an open mind.”
Even though the Trump administration has been the all-consuming force enveloping the political comedy world, the panelists also spoke about connecting audiences with other important stories happening elsewhere in the country.
“Being a weekly show, we know there are some things that other people are going to get to before us. I’m sure Colbert or Trevor [Noah] is going to cover that really well, so we don’t have to. But being the only female host, there are things we know nobody’s going to touch that are there for us…Those are just stories that nobody’s going to try to make funny who doesn’t have a uterus,” Black said.
In the end, the goal is comedy. Even as more viewers are filtering the days’ headlines through this perspective, this era has these writers mindful of how they see their responsibilities.
“We don’t want to deliver a lecture to people or make it a history lesson, but hopefully we’re able to expose people to a topic that they didn’t know about or approach a topic from a different angle,” Reich said. “In that sense, there’s always an informative component, but first and foremost we’re trying to be funny.”