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Late-Night TV Writers Know They’re Awful, But Their Solutions Are Worse


From his new perch at The Atlantic, Andrew Ferguson uses the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (WHCD) to mourn the death of late-night television. His assessment of Stephen Colbert, James Corden, Samantha Bee, and Seth Myers and others is too withering to excerpt, but the basics are familiar:

The one quality that unites these late-night jokes is that they scarcely ever make me laugh – or you either, I’m guessing… Very often, they are simple statements of fact, with minimal humorous adornment… [N]obody seems to be trying… The two-step formula of a stand-up joke, setup followed by punch line, has been edited down to the first step and left at that.

Ferguson self-deprecatingly adds: “Typically slow on the uptake, I first learned about this evolution in humor the way I learn about too many things, from the daily news briefing that The New York Times drops in my email queue each morning.”

He diagnoses polarization as late-night’s cause of death: “Jokes that nearly everyone understands as jokes require shared assumptions, even a broad reservoir of lightheartedness and goodwill, and we no longer share those in our fractured republic. Humor has been privatized.” This theory rings partly true, but Ferguson already captured the better explanation: “nobody seems to be trying.” This is what television writers say while admitting their shows have become unwatchable.

At Mel magazine, one network late-night writer tells author Miles Klee: “[E]very single person in late night knows it’s a dumb factory of lazy ideas… [The host] makes fun of it, the head writers make fun of it, the staff writers watch the tapings and just lament it all. But the alternative is taking a risk, and network TV just isn’t about that.”

Sadly, the television writers (and Klee) suggest two solutions to the awfulness of late-night shows that would only make them worse.

First, writers suggest the shows are not sufficiently leftist. The aforementioned scribe told Klee “the late night writers’ rooms are all extremely homogeneous groups of cynical, miserable white comedy dudes who figure out the ‘formula’ for the show early on and then never really work harder than they need to. Which makes sense, because the other big thing is that the people who make the actual decisions on these shows are all older, white dudes who are out of touch (but don’t think they are) and are never thinking in terms of comedy or upending power or doing anything interesting with the format…”

Similarly, a mid-level TV writer opined: “They think [joking about] ‘covfefe’ is brave… These are people whose version of ‘liberal’ just means not being white trash. And not calling their coworkers gay slurs.” Klee suggests the shows cannot compete with “the scabrously funny, unbroadcastable sh– people tweet about the president 24/7.”

In reality, leftists on Twitter are grossly unrepresentative, even of Democrats. The only group arguably more out of touch than the progressive white dudes running late-night television are their lefty writers. Late-night appeals to a slice of Boomer “Resistance” types. Dialing the noise up to 11 would only make the appeal of these shows more selective.

Furthermore, actual funny people understand limits force them to be more creative, and being funny is the point of comedy. Consider Jerry Seinfeld, explaining why he does not swear or do sex jokes: “A person who can defend themselves with a gun is just not very interesting. But a person who defends themselves through aikido or tai chi? Very interesting.”

Or Donald Glover, talking about his FX show: “The No. 1 thing we kept coming back to is that it needs to be funny first and foremost. I never wanted this sh– to be important. I never wanted this show to be about diversity; all that sh– is wack to me. There’s a lot of clapter going on.”

Puritantial social justice mobs are almost never funny—except as a target for comedy. And mocking them is more transgressive than typical late-night fare.

The second solution writers suggest is imitating John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” on HBO. Oliver is less banal than the competition and tries to “compartmentalize” Trump talk in the opening minutes of his program. But he has the same problems Ferguson identifies, and the ratings to prove it. (Klee claims “[y]ou get real information there,” as if that is praise of a comedy show.)

Ironically, few have critiqued late-night better than Michelle Wolf, who got “comedy” canceled at the WHCD. In an episode of her now-defunct Netflix show, she parodied the genre to devastating effect: “Well, I just finished the monologue, I addressed all the news this week, and now I’m at a desk. So you know what that means, it’s Segment Time! That’s right, this is the time of the show where we do a viral segment, and since this is a comedy show in 2018, you know one thing for sure—this comedy segment’s gonna be sincere and angry. And you can also tell that it will be funny, because I’m sitting down, there will be graphics, and facts, and. So pencils out, Wolf Pack! The comedy lesson starts right now.”

Wolf’s conclusion was just as sharp: “Writing jokes is hard. It’s really hard. You know what’s easier? An earnest plea. So I’m gonna throw my pen down on the desk, and I’m gonna shake my head in crestfallen bewilderment. I’m gonna look you in the eye, and I’m gonna tell you that Trump! Is! Bad! The news! Is! Bad! Which means that I, a comedian, have to do you, the news’s, job. Not because I want to, not because it makes me feel important, or gives me a false sense that I’m making a change, but because they’re out there doing their horse-and-pony show.”

Unfortunately, Wolf learned this only by making all of these mistakes at the WHCD.

Polarization contributes to the death of late-night comedy, but mostly because it is another rationalization for those unwilling to make any effort to appeal to people who are not exactly like them. Laziness is the central characteristic of the age of infotainment. Conflating news and entertainment means less effort goes into reporting.

It has turned cable news shows into boring simulacra of sports shows, and sports shows into boring simulacra of political debate. Programs like “The Daily Show” used to parody news shows. Now they have mated with what they parodied, to predictable, boring, lazy results.