Last week, Time magazine ran a piece called “The New Politics of Late Night,” describing the politicization of late-night comedy shows reacting to Donald Trump’s candidacy. Through interviews with hosts such as Samantha Bee, we learned that entertainers see in Trump a uniquely horrible candidate they cannot ignore. To the extent they ever felt a need to treat both sides of the political spectrum equally, the current state of affairs has convinced some that fairness now is irresponsible.
Many conservatives, myself included, would quibble with the Time article’s assertion that this phenomenon of late-night shows siding with liberals is new. The article half-heartedly asserts that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert at times gave Democrats the business. This is true, up to a point. But the vast preponderance of their pointed critiques were directed squarely at the Right. If anything is new here, it is the willingness to proudly embrace abject partisanship.
As if on cue, within hours of the Time piece Jimmy Fallon hosted Trump on “The Tonight Show.” It was an interview like any other: friendly fooling around capped off by Fallon playfully mussing Trump’s iconic hair. It was exactly the kind of laidback exposure candidates have craved from late-night TV since long before Bill Clinton tooted his sax on “The Arsenio Hall Show.” But the reaction was different. It had to be—this is Trump, after all, a man who seems to singlehandedly make our entire country take leave of its senses.
Almost immediately the Internet came alive condemning Fallon. Suddenly he was a cutesy version of Leni Reifenstahl, using “The Tonight Show” to propagandize for Trump. His greatest sin, expressed over and over again, was that he had humanized a racist, bigoted xenophobe.
It is a strange charge on its face. If Trump certainly is anything, it’s human. He is probably way too human, based on his capacity to err. Trump is a walking Wikipedia of human foibles—ego, jealousy, dishonesty, and oversensitivity are all his hallmarks. But, like it or not, so is charm. One does not host a successful reality TV show without it.
The Jon Stewart Legacy
While it is probably true that the Trump campaign has led to an increase in over-the-top partisanship on our TV screens in the wee hours, this phenomenon has been building. Mock news broadcasts have been on TV for decades, but Jon Stewart with his “Daily Show” in the early 2000s managed to straddle comedy and news in a brand new way. He may neither have wanted nor expected this. As trust in the news media was evaporating, people got the sense that this comedian with nothing to lose might be telling the truth the evening news wouldn’t.
In his wake, his successor, Trevor Noah, and the hosts of other shows such as Seth Meyers, Samantha Bee, and John Oliver have infused their comedy programs with more and more politics. The shows do well enough to survive, so some people must find it funny or informative, but they are playing a very different role than the late-night comedy shows of old.
This format has traditionally thrived on silly celebrity interviews, stand-up comedy sets, and pet tricks. Importantly, they were shows for everyone. They told a shared story of our culture, not praising one half of the population while laying a withering critique on the other half.
Relax, It’s Just A Comedy Show
The morning after Fallon’s interview with Trump, David Simon, the creator of the TV show “The Wire,” took to Twitter to say “Fuck Jimmy Fallon.” On Twitter I quoted Simon, saying it’s just a comedy show and he should relax. This turned into an hours-long exchange that revealed just how unhinged reactions to Trump have become.
It quickly became clear that Simon didn’t simply object to Fallon’s softball questions, which are par for the “Tonight Show” style. He was suggesting that Trump should not be invited to appear on any non-news television programs.
Trump hasn't committed genocide, he's said ugly things. Do you want him blacklisted from TV for his beliefs? https://t.co/SO6QbjPaVK
— David Marcus (@BlueBoxDave) September 16, 2016
Soon Simon it made it clear that was exactly what he meant.
@BlueBoxDave David Duke hasn't killed anyone yet either. He says some of the same as Trump. Book him next. Your logical fallacy…
— David Simon (@AoDespair) September 16, 2016
Simon, like so many others, compares Trump to David Duke and even Adolf Hitler. Yes, Trump has done and said things I consider racist. On the other hand, I have done and said things that other people consider racist, and even “The Wire” has been accused of racism. Obviously, we have to be very careful about using such condemnations as an excuse to ban people from television.
Gothamist provides an excellent example of how quickly righteous indignation can turn into censorship of ideas that are very much within the normal spectrum of discourse. In a scathing attack on Fallon, Rebecca Fishbein lists the following sins as reasons that viewers should be protected from the danger that is Trump:
He [Trump] has threatened to put Peter Thiel, a billionaire who is using his money to silence journalists, on the Supreme Court. He has threatened to unconstitutionally block an entire religion from coming into the United States. He has picked an anti-gay, anti-science, and anti-woman running mate. He claims he has the expertise to run a country because of his ‘very good brain,’ and refuses to listen to advisors.
Suddenly we have gone from banning Trump from TV because he is literally Hitler to banning him because he chose Mike Pence as a running mate. This is illiberal nonsense. Fallon’s job is to do silly skits with Justin Timberlake and ease us to bedtime with mild jokes and interviews. It is not to set the limits of the Overton window or grill a presidential candidate like some character in “Good Night and Good Luck.”
Not Everything Has to Be About Politics
In 1953, Steve Allen became the first host of “The Tonight Show.” He was key in creating its format, which remains largely unchanged. In 1992 he talked to Charlie Rose about the show, its format, and its role in society, saying:
What did I create? I had the idea that a million years ago in some jungle or forest there was a fella sitting on the stump. There was a fallen log to his right and a couple of guys were sitting there having just come up from the river and they were talking.
‘Did you catch a big one?’
‘Yeah, pretty good.’
‘Well, I’ll see you later.’
That’s all there is to a talk show. We aren’t curing cancer.
Allen is perhaps being a bit too humble—after all, “The Tonight Show” would not only continue for decades, it would launch an entire genre of television. Importantly, it was a genre for everyone. It’s not the soap opera for housewives, it’s not the sports show for dads. It is a televisual lingua franca, always focused more on what we share and less on what divides us.
For better or worse, millions of Americans have voted and will vote for Trump. While I am not one of them, nothing gets me closer to it than seeing progressives use him as an excuse to shut down legitimate discourse. In many ways this increasing tendency to silence those who run afoul of political correctness is central to his appeal.
Trump is not a legitimate excuse to turn late-night television into political propaganda. Fallon interviewed Trump the way he interviews everyone. It wasn’t propaganda; making the decision that Trump is too far beyond the pale to appear on his show would have been.
The United States has survived bad presidents and can again. Should Trump win, it will survive him, too. What the country might not survive is a culture in which we can no longer even listen to each other, one in which everything from comedy shows to football games become wars of political ideology. Let late-night be late-night, let Fallon be Fallon, and if you don’t like Donald Trump, your remote control has an off button.