Comedy took a knee after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and understandably so. We gradually learned to smile, then laugh again in the days and weeks that followed. Late-night hosts helped lead the way.
David Letterman and Jay Leno took our hands and guided us back to a sense of normalcy, raising funds for the fallen and boosting our spirits in their own inimitable ways. Letterman, a liberal, even praised Republican New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s leadership from the comic’s “Late Show” perch on his first night back on duty.
“Rather than offer up a joke-filled monologue,” reported The New York Daily News, “Letterman spoke seriously and frequently praised Mayor Giuliani, also a regular guest. The show was focused on the tragedy, audience members said.”
President George W. Bush, often the target of left-leaning media outlets and stars, got a brief reprieve from partisan sniping. The country was in mourning, and late-night comics reacted accordingly. We were all Americans back then, red state or blue.
The situation today, in many ways, is dramatically different. America didn’t lose 3,000 lives in a flash. We don’t fear a second, or third, terrorist attack equal in scope to the first one, or worse. Yet the country forever changed this month when the experts said life as we know it had to stop, no questions asked. We still don’t know when the new, new normal will kick in.
We do know this: Some businesses will shutter. A small group of friends and loved ones will get sick. A portion of that group, tragically, will die. The numbers could be frightening.
The battle against the coronavirus has no face, nor a nation to call its own (we’ll leave China out for the sake of argument). Still, it’s a moment for Americans, all Americans, to rally together and stay strong in the face of an invisible killer.
We’re seeing elements of that across the country, such as in social media praise for the truckers who restock our shelves or politicians like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo putting ideology aside to get things done. Yet for the current late-night team, nothing really changed at all.
Sure, Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, and Jimmy Kimmel aren’t yukking it up in their familiar studios. Still, each comic used less conventional platforms and settings to viciously, and often unfairly, attack President Donald Trump.
Colbert chatted with us from his patio to share a “Late Show”-style monologue calling President Trump racist. Why? President Trump called the virus by an accurate moniker by past flu standards—the Chinese or Wuhan Flu.
The CDC’s web site describes how a flu’s origin city is commonly reflected in its given name. Plus, media outlets used the same phrasing “dozens” of times before suddenly declaring it off limits and racist.
Those facts didn’t stop Noah from slamming Trump from the comfort of his couch. The Comedy Central host recorded a video snippet at home, where he played the race card against the president, a knee slapper in any setting.
‘You know Trump is the only person who could hold a press conference about a pandemic and then turn it into a fight about racism,’ Noah said. ‘Who does that?’ He imitated Trump urging Americans to ‘stay calm,’ and then five minutes later saying, ‘Kung-Flu is a term of respect, ask any Asian!’
Kimmel’s recent “minilogue” hit the same tired, inaccurate note.
“A great way to prevent a virus from spreading is to name it something racist,” Kimmel said.
Colbert also slapped Trump’s outreach to fast food chains like Wendy’s and McDonalds regarding the virus. Those chains employ and feed millions of Americans. For Colbert, it was a chance to mock Trump’s dietary choices. Again. Colbert’s team flashed a picture of Trump “hoarding” fast food at the White House, a shot taken from a celebratory gathering.
John Oliver, signing off for now from his HBO studio, behaved as if nothing had even happened. He savaged Trump as usual during his most recent, traditional broadcast.
Surprisingly, the most nakedly partisan host, Samantha Bee, restricted her first post-shutdown video to gags about her inability to split a log in two. She’ll probably attack Trump next time ‘round.
Jimmy Fallon, to his credit, struck a more positive note in his impromptu video clip.
“These are tough times, but we can get through this together,” he said at the end. “Be safe, wash your hands, and don’t touch your face. See you tomorrow!”
No president is above criticism, and journalists who fairly assess the strengths and weakness of a pandemic response do the public a service. That’s not happening, of course, an op-ed for another day.
Yet late-night comedians couldn’t pull a Tom Hanks when Americans needed it. Hanks and wife Rita Wilson caught the potentially deadly virus but used their platforms to ease the public and make us grin.
“There’s no crying in baseball,” Hanks cracked, referencing one of his many classic film lines.
The line made plenty of people smile. Today’s late nighters, by comparison, would rather bare their teeth than make us grin.