Late night getting LESS POLITICAL
New cast of characters not as partisan
fair-minded,” said Nicolle Wallace, co-host of The View and a campaign adviser for Republican candidate John McCain and George W. Bush. “From where I sat on the ideological spectrum, he was incredibly important.”
Not so much Leno’s CBS rival Letterman, who on The Late Show was a scathing critic of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and relentlessly ridiculed McCain for cancelling an appearance on his show during the 2008 financial crisis.
Leno was succeeded by Jimmy Fallon, who so far seems reluctant to allow partisan rancour to spoil the funhouse atmosphere of his show. His emphasis on games and musical parodies means fewer punchlines drawn from the headlines.
Lichter found that, while at Late Night, Fallon had about half as many political jokes as Letterman or Leno — a trend that appears to have continued since he moved to Tonight last year. As an interviewer, he seems averse to confrontation. Perhaps the most controversial subject to come up in his recent conversation with Jeb Bush was the use of peas in guacamole (Fallon is for; Bush against).
This September, two more big changes are in the offing that could reduce the Beltway chatter in late night.
On Sept. 8, Colbert will take over for Letterman, leaving behind his highly political Colbert Report persona.
At Comedy Central, Colbert engineered a new form of participatory satire with his Bill O’Reilly-esque character, running for president twice, forming a super-PAC to educate viewers about the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and even testifying on Capitol Hill — in character, naturally — about migrant workers.
“Colbert’s the most overtly political talk-show host,” Lichter said, “and he’s walking into a show that is the most different from what he’s done before.”
Based on a spoof of GOP candidate Donald Trump Colbert released online in June, his appetite for political satire appears to remain strong, but simply by virtue of hosting an hour-long network show, he’ll probably have to diversify.
On Sept. 28, Trevor Noah — a relatively unknown comic from South Africa whose standup draws from his experiences as a mixed-race child raised during apartheid — picks up the mantle of The Daily Show from Stewart. He will bring a unique take on race and cultural identity, if not an exhaustive understanding of American electoral politics, to the job.
When Stewart took over from Craig Kilborn in 1999, few could have predicted the host of the short-lived Jon Stewart Show would make The Daily Show essential election-year viewing. And perhaps even fewer might have guessed he’d become “a thought leader for this generation,” said Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and once a frequent target of Stewart’s mockery.
Though Stewart has continually balked at the idea he is anything more than a comedian, as host of The Daily Show, he has gained such stature the New York Times likened him to a “modern-day equivalent of Edward R. Murrow.” In 2010, Stewart attracted a crowd of 200,000 to the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on the National Mall.
Stewart’s absence is going to be felt acutely in 2016, particularly by those on the left who saw him as a galvanizing figure and helped many of his segments — including, most recently, his heartfelt lament over the church shootings in Charleston, S.C. — go viral.
“The truth is that the loss of the existing Daily Show and The Colbert Report has taken away a big, one-two politics-centric punch in late night,” said Frank Rich, a columnist for New York magazine and executive producer of the White House satire Veep.
“No one else is as politically attuned as those two shows.”
Still, it’s not as if Stewart became a hugely influential figure overnight. Among late night’s new class, there are already several worthy contenders for his throne.
On Late Night, Seth Meyers peppers his monologue with topical wisecracks influenced by his years as anchor of Weekend Update on SNL. He’s also turned the show into something of a political salon, with guests including Vice-President Joe Biden and presidential contenders Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina and Bernie Sanders. Stewart protege John Oliver has earned raves for his HBO show, Last Week Tonight, which specializes in deep-dive investigations of news topics.
Another open question is how much candidates will be willing to visit late-night shows — something Obama, to the dismay of his critics, has done with unusual frequency. In March 2009, he became the first sitting president to go on a latenight program, and has since visited nearly every couch on broadcast, cable and even online outlets such as Between Two Ferns. By doing so, Obama has “expanded the reach of the bully pulpit,” said Democratic strategist Donna Brazile.
Late-night television provides an opportunity for buttoned-up candidates to show a “softer side” of themselves to a mass audience, said Steele. “One appearance on The Tonight Show will reach more people than your biggest mass mailing. It is smart politics to sit in the chair for six or 10 minutes.”
Though Jeb Bush bravely slow-jammed the news with Fallon in his Tonight Show appearance in June, it’s unclear whether his image-conscious GOP rivals — or the famously controlled Hillary Rodham Clinton — will be as willing to yuk it up with late night’s less- established talents.
Noting most politicians are pretty clueless when it comes to pop culture — “They have their aides to tell them what to put on their iPhones” — Rich predicts 2016’s candidates will be even more wary. “The fact that there’s going to be a new cast of characters in late night, they’re not going to want to go on those shows.”
They are, however, certain to provide plenty of fodder — especially Trump, whose campaign has already been such a comedy gold mine Letterman was briefly lured out of retirement to deliver a Trump-themed Top 10 list in a surprise appearance this month. (“I have made the biggest mistake of my life,” he said of leaving The Late Show before the real estate tycoon entered the race.)
“Here’s the bottom line,” said Macks, “there’s not going to be a shortage of material.”
U.S. President Barack Obama talks with host Jon Stewart on The Daily Show last week.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush (left), a Republican presidential candidate, appears on
The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon earlier this month.