The Politics of Late Night Television

Comedy Features Jimmy Fallon
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The Politics of Late Night Television

There’s something wrong when somebody gets called out on the internet for messing up somebody else’s hair.

The implications of the interview are tremendous in this election cycle, but also in the battle for late-night television dominance that never seems to end. Whether you agree with Fallon and NBC’s decision to treat Trump as a harmless grandpa, the reaction shows that this brand of silly, brainless late-night comedy is getting left behind. We’re no longer interested in sketches and games. Rather, we’re attracted to entertainment with a bias and a program with a strong point of view on politics.

"The next time I see you, you could be the President of the United States," Jimmy Fallon told Donald Trump on last Thursday night’s episode of The Tonight Show, just before asking the candidate if he could fuss his hair.

It’s obviously a problem for a number of reasons, most concerning Trump’s history of making xenophobic, racist, and sexist remarks to court voters and attention. Most called out Fallon for not taking a stand against this bigotry (myself included), blaming it on cowardice and privilege.

"Trump can be a total sweetheart with someone who has no reason to be terrified of him," Samantha Bee remarked on Monday’s episode of her TBS show. "I noticed there were no cutaway shots to [Fallon’s house band] The Roots. I wonder why."

You can blame the prevalence of The Daily Show and all its descendants for this change in late night television, since those are the shows that rose to prominence based solely on their frustration in current events. However, politics and late-night have always had a close relationship, despite the latter’s tendency to focus on celebrity gossip and comedy.

As lax as late night TV is perceived to be, politics has always had a place there. Nowadays, we mostly remember the times where office candidates can let loose and show constituents their more "human" sides (see former President Clinton playing the saxophone on Arsenio Hall). As much as late night talk shows have become a brainless hour at the end of the day for many, they have always been still on the forefront of modern issues and not just with giving more facetime to candidates and public figures. Tonight Show host Jack Paar was interviewing Fidel Castro on Cuban soil in 1959 and being the first one to interview Robert F. Kennedy after his brother’s assassination. In 1971, Dick Cavett moderated a debate between John Kerry and war veteran John O’Neill on the Vietnam War on his program.

Johnny Carson, considered by many in comedy, including David Letterman, to be an icon of the current brand of late-night, decided to keep his politics out of his program, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
“In my living room I would argue for liberalization of abortion laws, divorce laws, and there are times when I would like to express a view on the air… But I’m on TV five nights a week; I have nothing to gain by it and everything to lose," Carson told Life Magazine in 1970. He would rarely have political figures on his show and avoided controversy on purpose. "I don’t care what the critics say about the show’s blandness."

The men that followed Carson, including Letterman and Jay Leno, were a tad more political. Both were more than Carson, which is to say that they mentioned that politics existed, but didn’t reflect their own in interviews. When Letterman left the show in 2015, The Washington Post noted that while some may have noted some liberal tendencies in later years, especially when it came to Republicans such as President Bush and Mitt Romney, his ideologies were mostly kept to himself. Letterman spoke out against these critics, arguing that while Bush may have been the butt of many of his jokes, it had little to do with politics.

“A case could be made we are leaning one side than the other but it’s not driven by anything other than who’s easier to make fun of,” he said.

Leno, on the other hand, made a lot of political jokes, often making it his specialty. Unlike many in show business, Leno seemed to leaned right and skewed towards an older audience (although in some interviews, he’s denied that he voted conservative). Basically, he was the late-night host that the internet hated.

It’s not surprising then that Fallon was the one to replace Leno as the host of The Tonight Show on NBC considering for decades, Leno was seen as the most conservative of the late night personalities due to his tendency to not cause controversy or ask the tough questions, even if he did engage in a lot of political humor. Fallon is defiantly anti-political, welcoming politicians from both sides onto his couch. His schtick is as the fun and wacky guy of late-night, so he’s not going to be asking any of those tough questions. Instead, he’s going to be petting Donald Trump’s head.

Fallon has never been on par with his more politically-charged contemporaries. When he took over The Tonight Show in 2014, he acknowledged that he wouldn’t be touching those kinds of issues or engaging in serious debates.

"Other people do that better," Fallon said, according to the New York Times. "I leave that to Barbara Walters or Oprah Winfrey. The political stuff? Jon Stewart and Bill Maher, they have it. And Stephen Colbert, who is an animal. He’s amazing. Those guys are good at it. I don’t want to mess with that."

In response to the backlash surrounding the Trump interview, Fallon reaffirmed this stance, just before having Hillary Clinton as a guest on his show.

"Have you seen my show? I’m never too hard on anyone," he said in an interview.

It’s nice to see that Fallon played to his own strengths. Most people would rather see somebody with the knowledge and experience interviewing senators than somebody known for cracking during live sketches on Saturday Night Live. Fallon dances with his guests. He doesn’t need to talk policy. In fact, he probably shouldn’t.

However, what Fallon and the people at NBC failed to realize with this strategy was that the majority of the audience that they are trying to court—the young, college-aged and 20-something millennials—are looking for something more substantial and political. You can argue that the way to get their fix is to wait an hour for Seth Meyers, but his show is more of a Weekend Update successor that’s dry and punchy and hasn’t lived up to the standards set by his peers.

We’ve gotten used to seeing politics after 11 p.m. There’s The Daily Show, which set the standard for news coverage in the new millennium and for a brand of political satire that’s branched off into a number of spinoffs, such as The Colbert Report, The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. The latter two in that list have become the subject of weekly news coverage, with outlets recapping the angry, well-researched reports presented and turning both the hosts into sensations that they couldn’t have been under Jon Stewart.

It’s not that there’s no place for somebody like Fallon in late night. Just glance over to Comedy Central where @Midnight was favored ahead of the recently-canceled The Nightly Show as evidence that something must favor dick jokes over discussions on Black Lives Matter. However, even @Midnight is more political than Fallon, throwing unique insults at all politicians, but saving its best ones from Trump ("a corn husk doll cursed by a witch" is a personal favorite).

Fallon was going to lose this battle no matter his response. Having both presidential candidates as guests isn’t a controversial move, but in the eyes of an audience that has latched onto its late-night hosts as one of its sources for political and news commentary, treating them equally and without any mention of policies and statements was.

Everybody has an opinion on Fallon. My mother, for example, is a Kimmel person, but will turn on Fallon because he’s mostly "harmless." When I had to work late-night shifts at a newspaper, I would turn on The Tonight Show while I worked because it was good background noise and occasionally amusing things would happen. When he interviews the child actors from Stranger Things, it’s charming because he’s almost like a grown-up kid himself. It’s braindead entertainment and that’s what he’s always been good at.

It’s just that at this point, with this election, the seemingly constant deaths of black people at the hands of police, the refugee crisis, the debates on what to do about Islamic extremism, among many other serious issues, it’s not enough to just be "harmless."

Carli Velocci is a pop culture and technology writer in Los Angeles. You can read her work in Geek, ZAM, the Boston Globe, Polygon, and anywhere else brave enough to publish her. You can find her on Twitter @velocciraptor.

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