I don’t watch late night. Not on TV, anyway. Like everyone else—barring a pesky, old-fashioned fraction of everyone else—I ingest my nightly political comedy in the morning: generally on Twitter, usually over one or two cups of coffee, always in three- to eight-minute portions, sandwiched between other activities. This is how we’re supposed to watch it. One of our oldest television institutions, late night comedy has adapted to the contemporary media landscape by gravitating toward short segments prepackaged for viral afterlives. That digital short—that rap battle, that carpool karaoke segment, that weirdly cinematic field piece—isn’t for the viewers at home; it’s for you, on your iPhone, waiting for the train. The contemporary media landscape, meanwhile, has adapted by sharing these segments for the ad revenue promised by thousands and thousands of clicks. (Please, check out the links on the sidebar when we’re done here). Everybody wins.
It’s no wonder, then, that late night’s race toward share-ability has also been a massive shift toward mediocrity. I would venture that there are, at present, two distinct schools of late night comedy—with one indistinct school floating between them—and that these schools are neatly separated into network and cable. Both pursue some balance of entertainment and cultural commentary—journalism, even—but one puts entertainment far, far above the other. Network late night shows are promotional vehicles, longform advertisements for movies, TV shows and records; they encourage celebrity worship by worshipping celebrities, commercialism by selling products. Cable shows, though certainly money-making and ratings-hungry machines, are far less constrained by the shackles of consumerism. The two best ones forsake celebrity guests entirely, and the best is supported by subscribers rather than advertisers. It is no coincidence that they are also, generally, funnier. They don’t need to appeal to such broad, bland audiences, and have greater leeway to tell jokes with greater precision and idiosyncrasy.
Much ink has been shed these last few months over the role of late night—what it is and what it should be. I think the answers here are obvious. When you have a massive platform, you must use it for good, or at the very least not use it for evil. Yes, many people turn to comedy for distraction, but there are certain things from which it is irresponsible to distract people. This is the primary factor I have taken into consideration in the following ranking of political comedy this election season. Does it make an effort? Is the effort worthy? Funniness is the least of my concerns; funniness is the bare minimum requirement of any work of comedy. It’s assumed a show will be funny, though, sure, many are not. The more pertinent issue is to what end it is funny. I don’t believe, as many think pieces seem to, that late night can save the world. And I’m not sure it can even change the world. But I do believe that, at its best, it should at least try.