Many Americans tuned in to watch late-night television after the election, looking for some nuggets of humor to be mined from a state of depression, anxiety, and fear. I was more curious than anything to see what kind of comedy they could drum up at a time when nothing seemed to be very funny.
But looking at the current state of late-night talk shows, I’m disheartened to see a platform still very much dominated by white men, and unfortunately, these are the voices we’ll be hearing from each and every night in the coming years. They will be the ones making jokes about racism. They will be the ones trying to explain the feelings of those who will suffer under a Trump presidency. And sadly, many of these late-night hosts still fail to recognize or acknowledge their own white privilege.
On the Late Show the day after the election, for most of his 16-minute monologue, Colbert maintained a cheery disposition. If you were looking for a moment of somber reflection, there was none to be found. Every potentially serious comment Colbert could have made about the legitimate terror of a Donald Trump presidency was deflated by a weak punchline. “We finally have an answer to why bad things happen to good people,” he said. Could it be racism and sexism? No, said Colbert. It’s the electoral college. Cue laughter.
His tone-deaf act continued when he joked that when he feels “shaky,” he likes to put on kitten ears, and proceeded to put on said ears and prance around the stage. “Seconds ago I was sad,” he said, “but now, sexy kitty!” Who exactly is that joke for? Can you imagine Muslim-Americans who are uncertain of their place in America laughing at that joke? Are we supposed to find it funny that a white man can put away his sadness and fear in favor of kitten ears?
All this is not to say that humor has no place in television or in our lives. God knows we need something to laugh at during this dark time, and there is nothing wrong in seeking out entertainment to lighten our moods.
But late-night as an institution is not a form of escapist television. Late-night isn’t a sitcom, and it isn’t Gilmore Girls. When Jimmy Fallon said on the Tonight Show, “My job is to come out here every night and try make you laugh, take your mind off things for a while,” he is forgetting that late-night does not exist in a bubble. It is humorous commentary on the news, with a splash of pop culture. And when the news is dominated by a plague of racism, it is irresponsible to choose not to address it, especially if you have the privilege of speaking to millions of Americans every single night.
There is a way to do comedy right, and if you’re watching Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, that’s where you can find it. Make no mistake, it is not a coincidence that the best late night comedy is coming from a woman whose show boasts one of the most diverse writing staff in late-night history.
She made me laugh plenty of times during her tirade of righteous outrage, and part of that has to do with the fact that she openly acknowledged the racism and bigotry that exists in our country. “It’s pretty clear who ruined America,” she said, pulling no punches. “White people.” Her honesty and sincerity makes us feel like it’s okay to laugh at the silly jokes interspersed throughout the show, because humor tends to carry more weight when it’s accompanied with sincerity. We can see that with Late Night with Seth Meyers — the moment when Meyers teared up talking about what voting for Hillary meant for his mother made his comedy all the more powerful. We can see that also with Trevor Noah and the diverse set of Daily Show correspondents who spoke both humorously and emotionally about their anger and fear.
As for Colbert, Fallon, and the like, when they make silly jokes while tiptoeing around their own personal beliefs, we feel uncomfortable more than anything because we’re just not quite sure if their humor comes from a place of genuine empathy or understanding.
But forget about humor for a moment. What about guidance and inspiration? Late-night can be a vehicle for hope, and there were certainly some attempts at conveying messages of optimism and guidelines for the way forward.
On the subject of explaining Trump’s presidency to children, Colbert relayed an anecdote about how his showrunner Chris Licht (a white man) dealt with that very issue. One of Licht’s sons woke up to the news and burst into tears, the story goes. “This is the magic part,” Colbert says with great relish, making us all anticipate something heartwarming and inspirational. Instead, it turns out Licht told his son, “Don’t worry son, being president is not that big of a job.” The line was met largely with silence from the audience (save for one solitary “Yeah!”).
It is white privilege to be able to comfort your children with lies about the severity of a Trump presidency. Buzzfeed recently collected a few essays from writers of color about what they are telling their own children. Writer Manuel Gonzales jotted down a few items to prepare his kids for the coming years, including, “How to find openings through doorways, alleyways, thick crowds of strangers,” “How to be the kind of Mexican that people forget is Mexican at all,” and “When to stand, how to stand, when to let go, and what should never be let go.” Nicole Chung writes, “I believe they need to hear the truth from us — now, more than ever. They must know what they are up against, so they can plan; see what their friends are up against, so they can stand with them.”
Colbert did add a more serious list of things to tell children: “Work hard, be kind, care about other people, don’t be selfish, don’t grab them where they don’t want to be grabbed, and they’ll make the world a better place that Trump can.” None of these things are inherently wrong, of course. But it’s hard not to shake the feeling that the parents he is addressing are the ones who look like him.
As far as hope goes, James Corden attempted to end his set of toothless jokes with this message: “So treat people with love and respect. Go out and put your arm around someone, even if you hate their politics, and tell them that you care.” Meyers also touted a platform of empathy and compassion. “I felt a lot of emotions last night and into today, some sadness, some anger, some fear,” he said. “But I’m also aware that those are a lot of emotions that Trump supporters felt, emotions that led them to make their choice. And it would be wrong for me to think that my emotions are somehow more authentic than their emotions. We’re always better as a society when we have empathy for one another.”
Empathy and kindness are undoubtedly appealing emotions in all this turbulence. But we forget that black men and women have been trying for generations to be gracious to the white people who benefit from society, only to be met with zero empathy or understanding from the other side.
Yes, we should all be kind to one another. But millions of minorities in America have been waiting for kindness and understanding all their lives, and are still waiting, and while they wait they pay the price with their lives. And while it is okay to empathize with the fears and anxieties that the white community may feel due to economic hardships, it is not a reasonable request to empathize with the underlying racism that drives those fears, or their desperate desire to retain their sense of privilege to the detriment of the marginalized. It is not reasonable to ask women who have been sexually abused to empathize with those who didn’t care they were electing a sexual abuser. The fear is that the winning side will use these words from late night spokesmen as an excuse to shut down any understanding of the losers. The winning side had no empathy for minorities and women when they campaigned for Trump. And they certainly have no incentive to empathize now that they’ve won.
To his credit, Meyers does briefly address his own white privilege, and is the only late night host to do so thus far. “As a white man,” he says, “I also know that any emotions that I’m feeling are likely a fraction of those being felt by the LGBTQ community, African-Americans, Hispanic Americans, Muslim Americans and any number of the immigrant communities so vital to our country. Hopefully the Trump administration and Trump supporters will be compassionate to them. Because they need your compassion.”
Conan O’Brien took a different approach by emphasizing the value of democracy. “Americans have the right to feel happy, angry, pessimistic, optimistic,” he says, “but everybody should feel grateful that we get to vote, and if we don’t get our way, we have the chance to try again. It is a beautiful thing.” While he skirts the issues underlying why some might feel angry and pessimistic, he does offer a tangible morsel of hope in that the next presidential election is four years away, and midterm elections are only in two years, and that there is still a chance to mobilize and make your voice heard when the time comes. But again, what are the marginalized communities supposed to do in the meantime? And what can white allies do to help? On this, no white male host attempts to provide an answer.
It’s an unfortunate reality that white men are still the spokesmen of television. But with their voice and their platform, they have a responsibility to use their privilege and power to speak up for those who can’t. Elevate the voices of minorities and women. Listen to them. Feature them as guests on their shows.
Maybe most importantly, they can do something that only they as white men can do: speak to fellow white men. Talk about what it means to have white privilege. Be an ally to the marginalized. Because for many Americans, late-night hosts are a cultural touchstone, a lens with which to view social, cultural, and political issues. Being a part of American culture can indeed affect change in the world.
Yes, it is late night television — I recognize that these shows are meant to be consumed as light fluff before bedtime. But maybe that’s a luxury we can only afford when the country isn’t shaken up by an overwhelming force of inequality and hatred.
And yes, television is also a business, and must be concerned with viewership and ratings and appealing to a broad audience. But that is exactly what NBC said earlier this year, when they invited Trump to host Saturday Night Live, and again when they invited Trump as a guest on Fallon. Both occurrences were opportunities to normalize Trump to millions of viewers. It’s good for business, the network said. Was it worth it?
So let us lament the fact that there are so few people and women of color in late-night television. Let us lament the fact that the white men we do have as hosts may not recognize their own privilege. But let us also hold them responsible for it, and demand better. I implore the current roster of late night hosts to consider what they want their legacy to be. Look back on your silence, and ask yourself, was it worth it?