When a sitting President of the United States sides with Nazis, jokes just don’t cut it anymore.
After the pro-Nazi rallies in Charlottesville – which led to three deaths last weekend – and President Donald Trump’s horrifying statements in response to the rise of white nationalist groups in America, late night talk shows are trying out a new tone.
Hosts are jumping in and taking on a sitting U.S. president like they’ve never done before. There’s still room for jokes as the hosts convey their views – but as things turn serious, they’re taking a stand and using their voice to the fight against tyranny.
This is a long way from jokes about Bill Clinton’s infidelity or George W. Bush’s intelligence. Many hosts are now actively calling for an end to Trump’s term in office, in a way unprecedented during previous administrations, while also seeking to tackle the madness in a way that might actually make America a better place.
IndieWire has taken stock of how the more established voices tackled this terrifying chain of events – and not just this past weekend, but in the context of their track records to date in covering the Trump administration. Below, a ranking, from least to most revolutionary.
8. “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon”
Last fall’s infamous Trump hair ruffle didn’t help. But in broader terms, Fallon is struggling with an ongoing inconsistency in how he approaches the administration as the host of “The Tonight Show” and a public figure in his own right.
As the granddaddy of all late night shows, “Tonight” is in a tough spot: It’s the most mainstream, and naturally has an innate desire to avoid politics (or else, have fun with it – like various figures “slow jamming the news”). But that has muted Fallon’s voice in a time when his competitors are screaming louder than ever – leading to the show’s slip in total viewers as well as awards consideration: For the first time since its premiere in 2014, “The Tonight Show” wasn’t nominated for an Emmy.
Thus, it was remarkable that Fallon opened his Monday show by directly addressing the audience, saying that “even though ‘The Tonight Show’ isn’t a political show, it’s my responsibility to stand up against intolerance and extremism as a human being.”
Fallon’s remarks seemed truly heartfelt, as he spoke passionately about how white people must speak out against racism in order to create a better world for the next generation. But here were his exact words when it came to calling out Trump:
“The fact that it took the President two days to come out and clearly denounce racists and white supremacists is shameful, and I think he finally spoke out because people everywhere stood up and said something.”
Not only is that Fallon’s only direct reference to the Trump administration, his use of Trump’s title alone pays respect to the office of the President — the same office from which Fallon’s competitors are literally demanding Trump be removed.
In addition, on Tuesday afternoon, Trump’s press conference “clarifying” his remarks seemed to stand in direct opposition to how Fallon interpreted them on Monday. Because of the timing of the Trump press conference, it’s very likely that the “Tonight Show” staff had already taped the opening monologue for that night, which made no reference to Trump’s actual remarks, simply noting that Trump had traveled to New York that day. [UPDATE: An NBC representative confirmed that the show was taped before Trump’s press conference.]
But not only did other shows find a way to cover the Tuesday press conference, including “Late Show” and “Late Night,” but Fallon had returned to standard operating procedure, using a “Pros and Cons” desk bit to literally make Trump’s butt the butt of a joke [skip forward to one minute in].
Perhaps Fallon and the “Tonight Show” team felt they had said enough on the subject Monday, and thus felt comfortable returning to the far safer territory of more gentle mockery. But anyone who thought the Monday monologue was a sign of real change may have been mistaken.
7. “The Late Late Show With James Corden”
In between creating musical spin-off shows, Corden has been responsive to social and political issues. His monologue on Monday focused primarily on Trump’s delay in “renouncing racism,” as opposed to the tragic events that actually occurred in Charlottesville, but he ended on a heartfelt note that directly called on “this country’s leader to set a better example.”
Corden was also one of the hosts who responded to the Tuesday press conference that night with a full monologue, calling out Trump for once again “siding with Nazis.”
However, while the jokes weren’t bad, it was not revolutionary work — Corden honestly saved his best slams for Samuel L. Jackson during the latest “Drop the Mic” segment on Monday night. Corden at this point hasn’t been able to find the right balance between all the different things he wants to be as a host, but his Monday night statement did have enough power to convey that he could have a more profound voice, with more time.
6. “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah”
“The Daily Show” is dark this week, which is why Trevor Noah hasn’t chimed in with his own perspective on Charlottesville yet. But it’s worth highlighting this Tweet from the show’s official account:
Today is the day Donald Trump became president of the Confederacy.
— The Daily Show (@TheDailyShow) August 15, 2017
And Noah has kept relatively vigilant about highlighting the damaging effect of the Trump administration on the American psyche. In fact, the grimmest “Daily Show” take might honestly pre-date the election, when the show devoted its Halloween 2016 episode to depicting life under the Trump administration, four years in the future. In October 2020, Noah is doing the show as an underground broadcast, and other journalists and commentators, including Chris Hardwick, John Oliver, and the “Daily Show” staff are either under arrest or living under Trump’s dystopian rule.
In treating the topic like science fiction, the brutal, post-apocalyptic themed half hour was raw satire, and did mine Trump’s racist and sexist attitudes accordingly for comedy. It was however also terrifying, especially when it came to the way it expressed a legitimate fear over what the Trump administration will ultimately mean for the free press.
In October 2016, the concept of “fake news” as Trump defines it hadn’t yet been introduced into the ecosystem — Trump shouted it at CNN’s Jim Acosta in his first press conference as President. But it has since come to represent a chilling attempt to tear down the importance of the media today, something captured by “The Daily Show,” now and then, and proving the show was almost prophetic about how dangerous Trump might be for American institutions, a point which can’t be made enough.
5. “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert”
After an initial period of time spent actively trying to veer away from his “Colbert Report” persona, Stephen Colbert has found his own voice within the context of “The Late Show,” just in time for him to begin taking on politically tricky subjects during the election and beyond. And Colbert’s coverage of the Charlottesville events on Monday were a strong representation of his craft, focusing on the actual Nazis doing the protesting.
His 10-minute monologue on Tuesday was also full of fire, indirectly calling for Trump’s impeachment:
However, while the jokes were tougher, tonally Colbert didn’t offer much variation — still using a mocking Trump impression to sell certain punchlines. And most importantly, while “Late Show” has been consistently anti-Trump, there’s no denying, it is still also the birthplace of Cartoon Trump, an animated parody of the President that turns Trump into a bright orange caricature.
Cartoon Trump is graduating from “Late Show” bit to television star: Showtime recently greenlit a 10-episode animated series to be executive produced by Colbert. But it no longer feels palatable to portray Trump as a wacky character, when he feels so much like a threat.
4. “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver”
John Oliver has been anti-Trump forever, to a degree that’s unnecessary to recap, and thus he dug into the events of Charlottesville in his opening monologue Sunday night, before Trump’s Monday and Tuesday statements.
However, based solely on Trump’s initial comments about there being “many sides” to what happened that weekend, the show nailed one of the best jokes about Trump’s relationship to the white supremacist movement, which was meme-fied on Twitter Wednesday morning:
Regarding Nazis, cats, and Donald Trump: pic.twitter.com/kmOwVO3uqk
— Last Week Tonight (@LastWeekTonight) August 16, 2017
3. “Jimmy Kimmel Live”
Jimmy Kimmel’s breakout moment this year came when he made the political personal, tearfully telling the story of his son Billy’s birth just when Congressional debate over the AHCA was at its absolute peak. By making it clear how important health care is for every American citizen, Kimmel had an unmeasurable but profound effect on the discussion.
In that monologue, Kimmel pled for a solution that went beyond political parties, except to call out the Trump Administration for attempted health care cuts. But Tuesday night, Kimmel didn’t hesitate to actively call for Trump to be impeached.
Describing Trump as “completely unhinged,” Kimmel then provided the best recap of the press conference of all the late night shows to tackle this issue, most especially with the moment juxtaposing Trump’s comments about “very fine people” with actual footage from Friday of Charlottesville white supremacists chanting “Jews will not replace us.”
(Kimmel also had the best punchline related to Trump’s claim that he owns the largest winery in Charlottesville: “My wine is fantastic, especially the white.”)
“I think we might need an alt-President right now,” Kimmel said, before laying out his plan to shift Trump from the role of President to King — a theoretically safer position, for the sake of America. Jimmy Kimmel the activist is a relatively new look, but it suits him.
2. “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee”
The worst thing about “Full Frontal’s” campaign against not just Trump, but the increase in hate and fear within America, is that there’s just not enough of it: Only 16 half-hour episodes have aired since Trump took office (not including April’s savage “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner” special).
That said, Bee has been both a font of rage and a voice of sanity when necessary, bringing genuine empathy to the issues as well as actual action. While the show’s most recent episode aired on August 9, on Monday the show’s official YouTube channel posted the below excerpt from an upcoming segment in the works for September, spotlighting Life After Hate, “the only organization dedicated to bringing people out of the white supremacist movement.”
According to the clip’s YouTube description, Life After Hate just had its budget cut by the Trump administration, so “Full Frontal” isn’t just spotlighting Life After Hate’s work, it’s actively encouraging its audience to donate to the group. It’s just the latest example of why Bee’s voice is so vital to the national conversation — even off the air, she’s aiming to make change.
“Late Night With Seth Meyers” has yet to break into the variety talk series Emmys category, but it’s become late night’s flagship show when it comes to facing America’s political climate head-on. The “A Closer Look” segments, which dive deep into issues of the day, have become the show’s signature almost as much as Meyers’ vehement rejection of Trump as a worthy leader.
Monday, Meyers not only devoted “A Closer Look” to Charlottesville, but opened with a statement on the events of the weekend — including using the word “terrorist” — and used powerful language to point out the ways in which Trump has empowered the white supremacist movement (knowingly or not).
“You can stand for a nation or you can stand for a hateful movement, you can’t do both. And if you don’t make the right choice, I’m confident the American voter will do it for you,” he said.
Then, Tuesday, he called Trump “clinically insane,” calling upon Congress to “cut bait” on Trump as a leader.
The most important aspect of what Meyers has done with “Late Night” goes beyond the words he says, though. Instead, he’s actively chosen to use his platform as one which can elevate other voices — very actively and specifically voices that don’t belong to straight white men.
This has come not just in established franchises like “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell,” in which Meyers is joined by Amber Ruffin and Jenny Hagel, two members of his writing staff who just so happen to be black and gay (respectively), but occasional bits spotlighting Ruffin in particular, who’s proven to be an amazing talent in her own right.
Thus, while Meyers wasn’t able to react to Trump’s Tuesday press conference this week beyond the quick segment “Breaking Crazy,” a pre-taped sketch from the same episode was perhaps one of the most important and groundbreaking takes produced by a late night show this year. In “Amber’s Late Night Safe Space,” Ruffin brings Meyers not just into “her safe space” (a room filled with Ruffin’s favorite things, where unpleasant words like “nazi” can’t be said out loud) but the black experience in America.
“For black people, it has become very hard to find a place where you can chill out,” Ruffin says to Meyers, bringing a desperately needed perspective to all of the Charlottesville reactions put out there by late night television this week, all of which were voiced by white men.
This is where the revolution happens — by not just raging against the machine, but by amplifying ideas about community and humanity, the very things that machine is trying to crush.