Veteran hosts like Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, John Oliver and Seth Meyers had time to prepare for what their shows might become under a Trump administration. But the world has changed in recent months, and this spring’s newest crop of late night hosts have essentially been thrown into the deep end of the pool – with some floating better than others.
What’s the secret to hosting a comedy show in these difficult times? On Wednesday’s bonus episode of “Pod Save America,” co-host Tommy Vietor asked “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah that very question. With respect to the current global uncertainty, Noah offered a simple guiding principle, one that came from his time living under Apartheid in South Africa: “Good comedy is true comedy…what connects with people is the truth that’s contained in jest,” Noah said.
Noah’s observation isn’t necessarily new, but it’s become more trenchant over the 19 months since he took over “The Daily Show.” And it’s bearing out in the ratings growth of both “The Daily Show” and “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” Now, for freshman shows debuting in the midst of political and social upheaval — including Freeform’s “Truth & Iliza,” Comedy Central’s “Problematic with Moshe Kasher,” and that network’s Trump parody “The President Show” — it has to be a guiding principle.
None of these new shows are a radical departure for late night. But the one that has managed to tap into its strengths out of the gate is “Truth & Iliza,” hosted by comedian Iliza Shlesinger.
Shlesinger’s show focuses on a different theme each week, and none of the unique additions – including the appearance of a “theme queen” (who embodies the week’s subject) or the quick on-stage assembly of her desk after the monologue, felt like unnecessary frills – but instead felt like honest ways to deconstruct the traditional talk show. Then, Shlesinger took advantage of her friendship with guest Mayim Bialik to deepen a discussion about collective female empowerment. And even a very funny sketch about restaurant portion size preference seemed like the logical extension of what Shlesinger is trying to build around with her weekly talk show.
Meanwhile, it took a few extra weeks for “Problematic with Moshe Kasher” to find its footing. The opening two episodes featured discussions on cultural appropriation and the dangers of technology, but most of those messages got bogged down by added segments that felt manufactured to be viral. The teen focus group and the throwback rap felt like the show reaching for clicks more than answers.
But “Problematic” is starting to hone in on the elements that make it a valuable contribution to on-air discourse. The show’s latest episode on Islamophobia in America zeroed in on a balance between audience questions and a guest appearance from Hasan Minhaj to make the kind of comedy town hall that could be a vital, sustainable model going forward. Kasher’s ability to bring an inquisitive, guiding hand to the discussion was a simple thesis statement for the show: instead of making proclamations from afar, let’s be better informed by the opinions of people who have lived these issues for themselves.
It’s not the duty of all Muslims to dispel the myths about their faith — something Kasher acknowledged in his introduction of panelist Reza Aslan — but a simple, truthful approach to this discussion meant that all involved could acknowledge the complexity of the issue. The prospect of more venues for healthy cultural analysis, even when delivered with the help of some disarming humor, is something that can only do more good than harm.
As for the spring’s biggest late-night wild card, Comedy Central’s “The President Show,” the weekly series is stuck in a near-impossible position. Anthony Atamanuik’s version of President Trump is reimagined as a late-night host broadcasting from the Oval Office, and if the show goes broad, there’s a risk/likelihood that the next day’s headlines will dwarf its absurdity. The show’s initial episode hewed pretty closely to the same sensational news stories that daily and weekly shows had been able to feast upon before last Thursday night’s “President Show” episode. As a result, the zaniest elements of the premiere (including a massive balloon drop over their replica Resolute Desk) felt like ineffective repackaging.
But the most memorable sequence from that first episode was the waning moments of a man-on-the-street package, with Atamanuik taking the president’s truck photo-op incident from late March and reframing it as a wistful memory of lost youth and an existential plea, enthusiastic horn motion and all. When just two days later a Reuters interview featured a quote from the President saying how much he missed his former life, Atamanuik’s riff became less a goofy bit of satire and something closer to what the inciting moment may have meant.
(For those who like their parody with a side of prophecy, in the aftermath of yesterday’s House health care vote, the show entered full Accidental Nostradamus territory.)
— Dave Itzkoff (@ditzkoff) May 4, 2017
The subject of these shows’ initial episodes — technology making us dumber, the pros and cons of public speech, and the absurdity of the current makeup of the executive branch — have now been woven into the fabric of political late night discourse. What really matters, is the believability of the hosts. Shlesinger has strong, intuitive timing, both in the studio and pre-recorded segments. Kasher has as undeniable self-deprecating streak that eases the tension around hot-button issues. Atamanuik has carved out a version of his satirical target that exists just a notch above where the real-life inspiration is. In 2017, the closer they find humor in truth, the better the chance for their shows to endure.