Political Comedy is Killing the Absurdity of Late-Night

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Political Comedy is Killing the Absurdity of Late-Night

At the start of his New Year’s Eve Late Night special, Seth Meyers launched into a long segment called “A Closer Look Back at 2016: The Year in Politics.”

I could not have changed the channel faster.

It’s not that I don’t share Meyers’ politics; if anything, I’m further left than his show typically skews. I also like Seth Meyers. He’s a brainy guy with a sharp comic voice who manages to squeeze surprisingly endearing interviews out of even the most boring celebrities. But I can’t rub my face in the dystopian awfulness of our current political situation any more than I already do. I’m finished with late-night political comedy until further notice.

Look, I get it. Not everyone is a professional writer, paid to be hyper conscious of everything awful that is happening in the world at all times. And the situation right now is bad, like possible nuclear war-bad if Trump keeps on tweeting the way he has been. But late-night comedy used to have a more careful balance between escapist absurdism and political comedy—a balance that definitely tipped decisively in the latter direction during the 2016 election. And I believe that balance is still important for our funny bones and for our collective sanity.

In 2017, we definitely need late-night shows to skewer Trump and to remind us that his presidency is perilous. But sometimes—perhaps especially at the end of a long day—we need to give ourselves permission to forget, if only for an hour. Things will still be bad in the morning.

Now if, unlike me, you can’t get enough of men sitting behind desks telling jokes about politics, you’ve got a lot of options to choose from right now. You can watch Meyers’ meticulously-researched “Closer Look” segments or you can tune into John Oliver for a cathartic dose of British exasperation. Most Saturday nights, you can—but but probably shouldn’t—check in with Colin Jost and Michael Che for their take on the week in Trump and if you really feel like punishing yourself, you can wince your way through The Daily Show while Trevor Noah tries and fails to develop a coherent voice, night after night. And if you’re adventurous enough to watch a 100 percent desk-free political comedy show featuring a woman, Samantha Bee has got you covered (and she’s probably the best of the bunch, especially now that Larry Wilmore is off the air). As it stands, everything that happens in Washington is dissected on half a dozen different shows, delivered in half a dozen slightly-differing voices on half a dozen networks. The next day, hundreds of headlines proclaim that a late-night host “destroyed” or “decimated” something while recirculating five-minute clips of the political comedy crew to every corner of my Facebook feed. There’s no other way to describe it but “saturation.” Jon Stewart perfected a winning formula and now everyone else is iterating on it endlessly, flooding late-night comedy with wry takes on the evening news. Do any of us really like any of these segments, I wonder, or do we just like being seen as the kind of people who would watch them?

Maybe it’s time to try something different—particularly because all of the “eviscerating” that late-night comedians have been doing hasn’t been all that effective. As Adam Felder wrote for The Atlantic after yet another wave of over-enthusiastic John Oliver headlines full of violent verbs, “Oliver’s victims remain surprisingly whole.” As Felder pointed out, any political impact a John Oliver rant might have is an ephemeral one, circulated “within an echo chamber” of people who are already “likely to agree with the show’s position” and who move on to the next segment “immediately thereafter.” Oliver calls Donald Trump “Donald Drumpf,” everyone shares the clip, and nothing happens. At worst, the current glut of political comedy isn’t just ineffective but actively harmful. Turning legislative attacks on our civil and human rights into comedy might be effective if the satire were more finely-tuned but, otherwise, we’re just laughing mirthlessly all the way to hell. In a sense, it’s not surprising that peak political comedy and President-elect Donald Trump are happening at the same time; both are perfect examples of politics and entertainment collapsing into each other.

I’m not arguing for late-night to be an apolitical distraction. The people who want to consume unchallenging comedy at the end of the day can already watch Jimmy Fallon get into super soaker fights with celebrities or James Corden singing in SUVs with them. But late-night comedy used to have a creative, experimental, and absurdist spirit that is quickly dying in an age when we are presented with two choices: political news shows or mindless celebrity pap. David Letterman was smarter than probably 80 percent of the current late-night hosts but he didn’t do deep dives into the news every night. Instead, nearer the start of his career especially, he gave us unforgettable remote segments and strange experiments like wearing a suit made out of magnets or dropping bowling balls onto cars. The underlying joke of the bowling ball segment was the contrast between its stupidity and Letterman’s intelligence and platform. If Jimmy Fallon tried something similar, he would probably just gush, “Oh my gosh! That’s so cool! The bowling ball totally demolished that windshield!” So, no, I don’t want late-night to be dumb; I just wish we had some Letterman-style zaniness to look forward to during a Trump presidency that will not get any more awful if one or two late-night hosts changed course and did something a little more fun for old time’s sake.

Nowhere do I feel this loss more acutely than in Letterman’s former home: NBC’s Late Night slot. Letterman handed the reigns to Conan O’Brien, who proved to be a worthy successor with remote segments of his own and weird sketches like his staring contests. Even the now completely-domesticated Jimmy Fallon ventured into the realm of the absurd when he held the 11:30 timeslot with his aggressively weird “Let Us Play With Your Look” segments in which a celebrity guest re-styled an audience member’s hair while Fallon sang a repetitive song in a blond bob wig. Now Meyers, as terrific as he is at what he does, has brought Late Night back down to earth with a resounding thud. There are obviously still writers under his care who would be more at home under a Conan O’Brien-type host, but Meyers conveniently crams their odder suggestions into infrequent “Casserole” segments full of sketches that once would have been the bread and butter of Late Night. It’s during “Casserole” that his writer Conner O’Malley gets to do interpretive dances to the Charlie Rose and Home Improvement theme songs—probably some of the best comedy bits the show has ever produced.

We need the Conner O’Malley interpretive dances of the world right now just as much as we need the John Oliver takedowns. There is value in laughing when you can during trying times—especially when your laughter is caused by the sort of weird, winky jokes that only comedy writers who have suddenly been granted access to a network budget can seem to pull off. Even the most hardened of revolutionaries can’t keep their noses to the grindstone 24/7. At night, when all of your anxieties about the world and the future are already flaring up all on their own, it’s OK to want to watch something other than a man behind a desk spit them back at you with bizarre metaphors and pop culture references thrown into the mix so that it just barely counts as comedy.

The hardest I have laughed this entire election season and its aftermath—the most life-giving joy I have felt in front of a television during a political moment when I genuinely fear for my security—didn’t stem from watching a comedian break down the election. It happened when, sick and tired of the nonstop political coverage, I turned to my old standby Conan O’Brien. While other late-night hosts were busy reminding us of how terrifying everything is all the time, Conan went to Berlin and, among other things, visited a dominatrix who made him kneel on the floor, put on a rubber dog mask and woof for her.

The dominatrix patted him on the back, called him a “good little doggie,” and Conan slowly turned his mask-covered head toward the camera, Jim Halpert-style.

It was perfect. I didn’t change the channel. And for just a few minutes more, I got to forget.

Samantha Allen is the Internet’s premier alpaca enthusiast. Follow her on Twitter.

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