It’s 1964, and Johnny Carson can be seen, poking his head through the curtain and idling up to the microphone, casual-like because he’s enjoying the applause—no, basking in the applause. He’s having the time of his life. And he had it every night for three whole decades as he assiduously defined the art of being a late night talk show host. Carson has always made it look effortless: gliding between jokes in a monologue that was watched by millions, every night, and usually talked about well into the next day’s office chatter.
In 1992, Jay Leno replaced Carson on “The Tonight Show,” and filled Carson’s shoes admirably. Leno also had a long and successful run on the show, all the while skillfully maintaining his political neutrality. Leno saw all politicians, from both sides of the isle, as objects of comedy, but never something to loathe. Instead, he knew his role well: to find humor in the droll, dry, often self-effacing nature of American political life. He told jokes we all shared in, a kind of humor that we were all in on. It was about holding up a mirror to our own civic identity—our politicians, our media, and our political culture—and laughing at ourselves.
Remember his “Headlines” segments? (As a journalist who spent about a year doing layout and design for a newspaper—a job that included writing a preponderance of headlines—I always enjoyed these bits because some of the best humor can be completely unplanned!) Consider the classic clip from the beginning of 2000, when Leno flips up a headline from the Detroit Free Press that reads “Truancy session poorly attended.” The irony is self-evident, the humor accessible to all—regardless of your party affiliations.
Since Leno’s departure in 2014, however, the late night talk show scene has fragmented into a host of competing pretenders to the throne. Jimmy Fallon is at “The Tonight Show,” which airs alongside “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” and Trevor Noah’s “The Daily Show.” Lots to choose from, but, surprisingly, very little difference in the subject matter: all are viciously anti-President Donald Trump, anti-Republican, and uproariously enthusiastic about all things progressive and Democratic.
THE BYGONE ERA OF LATE NIGHT TALK
Notice how little partisanship we get from Johnny Carson in this clip from August 1964. His style hadn’t changed, almost 30 years later, when he left the show. Carson’s monologue was focused on current events, of which politics was just one element of the news. Here, Carson begins by telling a joke about baseball players from the New York Yankees having an argument on the bus over a harmonica.
When he finally gets to politics, he focuses on the 1964 Democratic National Convention (which, unlike the virtual reality embarrassment we recently witnessed, planned on featuring real people, in a real building). Carson notes that the convention will be opening in Atlantic City on Monday (two days away at that point), and they’re already having problems: not enough hotel rooms for the reporters.
He then quips that the Democrats have decided to change the lyrics to “Hello Dolly” (a Broadway hit at the time) to “Hello Lyndon,” in honor of President Lyndon Johnson, a man desperate to win the presidency in his own right after having assumed the office following the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Johnson was months away from winning the largest percentage of the popular vote ever achieved by an American presidential candidate. Still, he’s fair game for Carson here, who says the choice of music “is smart. Because if you’re going to choose a song from a Broadway musical that’s the one to take. Who would want ‘What Kind of Fool am I?”
It’s funny, almost wholesome. But the political jokes never attempted to be cruel, rude, or acrimonious, and Carson never played favorites. He was known for poking fun at Republicans as much as Democrats. As a professional courtesy, he never revealed his own political affiliation—if he even had one—or indicated how he voted.
In stark contrast, there’s no question about how today’s late night hosts are voting. They are not just biased against President Trump; they are Democratic activists who should be getting paid by the party for their work. Following President Trump’s September 15th ABC Town Hall in Philadelphia, Seth Meyers claimed that the President “lied as often and he breathed” and said the best thing about the event “was watching normal people interact with a nut job like Trump.”
There’s a tendentiousness to how hosts like Meyers pretend to “report” the news in what they obviously believe is a humorous fashion. They deftly blur the line between objective reporting, slapstick (crude) humor, and punditry, so that they can never be held fully accountable to the standards of any one genre. President Trump and Republicans are always seen as figures of ridicule and contempt, and current events are interpreted for the audience through the prism of Democratic talking points. There is no desire to accommodate the range of political beliefs Americans adhere to, no equal opportunity evisceration of the Democrats.
Consider the stridently anti-Trump Stephen Colbert, who never misses an opportunity to accuse Trump of racism or stupidity. When President Trump called the coronavirus “the Chinese virus,” Colbert was quick to chastise the President for his use of “a very racist term.” Even after re-mixing the bit with a news clip during which the President explains that he said “Chinese” because the virus came from China and it is, therefore, an “accurate assessment,” Colbert holds his line, shooting back that “it is not,” and continuing to slander the President as a racist.
Colbert was still at it just last week, dutifully delivering Democratic talking points about how climate change is somehow the cause for the California wildfires—served with a side of anti-Trumpism.
All kidding aside, none of this material can really be defined as comedy. It’s crude, political carping that has clearly been written for a partisan audience. (Have you noticed that people in the audience don’t even laugh at the comedy, but clap like they’re listening to a political speech!)
Perhaps the least funny of the not-funny late night hosts is Trevor Noah, who seems absolutely in love with himself (so much that he can’t resist snickering at his own “jokes”). During Noah’s 2019 Netflix special, he did a skit called “The S*** Donald Trump Says,” Noah delivers a stand-up comedy routine that is entirely devoted to ridiculing the President. Noah does pitifully poor impressions of Trump, attempts to find humor in the border wall by suggesting the Mexican drug cartel is a source of comic relief, and suggests America is just as racist as South Africa, where he was born.
This skit is not part of his evening show, but it might as well be. Noah uses the same material, night after night, pandering to coastal Democratic “humor.” In a “Daily Show” segment from July 2019, Noah insists, without any foundation, that Trump believes people can’t be non-white and American “at the same time” because of the President’s criticism of radical congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-MN), who came to America from Somalia but often doesn’t seem to like the United States.
There’s no generosity whatsoever. Noah can’t even give President Trump credit for his masterful speech at the Republican National Convention, calling it “boring.”
Today’s late night hosts have created a genre of “comedy” that hitherto has never existed: the politically partisan stand-up comic. Where Carson and Leno strove to be inclusive in their quips (before that word developed authoritarian connotations), the Colberts and Noahs of the late night scene have no desire to either expand their audience to include those who vote Republican. In effect, they have reduced the comedy monologue to a fierce political diatribe.
LATE NIGHT PUNDITRY: THE OBNOXIOUS MEDIA GENRE THAT NOBODY ASKED FOR
If you scan the news clips every morning, it is unusual not to find a plethora of anti-Trump segments from late night talk. These sound-bites sound like PAC-funded media campaigns: tweet-able clips to fill liberal timelines.
What it is truly disturbing is that much of the mainstream media that is supposed to be promulgating straight news (and not entertainment) is, at times, indistinguishable from the commentary of late night talk. (Like the time CNN news hosts like Don Lemon and Chris Cuomo broke into an impromptu duet of the theme from “All in the Family” because they believe President Trump is no better than having Archie Bunker in the White House.) The lines between news, partisan “witticisms,” and pre-scripted talking points have all been blurred—and the wholesome humor of good-natured late night civic comedy is nowhere to be found.
It wasn’t just the monologues that separated Johnny Carson from his sarcastic and obnoxious successors. His nightly presence was a fixture in our households because he created content relevant to American culture. Carson used to talk to stars, real celebrities, and personalities of all sorts. There was always Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Don Rickles and Gene Kelly. None of them went on air to talk about their politics. They knew that doing so would mean alienating half of their fans, and disappointing the audience in the studio and at home. Unlike a lot of famous people today (who look more like homeless people in their torn jeans and touques), stars at that time used to know that you had a public image to maintain, and that meant looking presentable, minding your manners, and not estranging your adoring public.
Even politicians kept it low key during these appearances. Late night shows implied a specific tone and tenor, no matter who you were, and politicians played their part well. Can you imagine Democratic Vice President Hubert Humphrey appearing on the “Dean Martin Celebrity Roast?” Well, he absolutely did, as did future Republican President Ronald Reagan. Both men possessed a keen sense of humor, and the knowledge that sometimes, Americans all have to laugh together—regardless of our party affiliation.
Here’s Reagan getting a broadside of good-natured abuse from Don Rickles:
In an interview with Barbara Walters in 1984, Carson was asked whether he regretted not delivering more biting political remarks with the loyal national audience he possessed every night. In an explanation that could be a reprimand from beyond the grave to the second-rate talent available today, Carson responded, “If you start to take yourself too seriously, and start to comment on social issues, your sense of humor suffers somewhere. I’ve seen other people—whose names I won’t mention—who do humor and somewhere along the line they want to make their views known. I try to do it humorously.” He notes that he had received criticism from some who accused “The Tonight Show” of having no “sociological value, it’s not controversial, it’s not deep,” but, Carson contends, the show “is basically to amuse people, to make them laugh.”
In 1979, Johnny Carson also told CBS newsman Mike Wallace in 1979 that he didn’t want to use “The Tonight Show” to promote politics. “Once you start that, you start to get that self-important feeling that what you say has great import. And you know, strangely enough, you could use that show as a forum, you could sway people, and I don’t think you should as an entertainer.” Johnny Carson knew he was an entertainer. He knew his job was, at its core, one that was meant to bring Americans together as they shared in a laugh or two.
It’s obvious that the crop of late night hacks dominating the airwaves today don’t think of themselves as entertainers—and they’re right. They’re not entertaining anybody.
Instead, these late night hosts like to think they’re some special class of political pundit who can use comedy shows to deliver the same insults, night after night. These hacks are symptomatic of the political divide that threatens to annihilate civil political discourse and throw the nation into chaos—even more so because they aren’t offering deep insight or knowledge of the issues they cover. As they sit around their living rooms and backyards throughout the coronavirus lockdown, bereft of suits and ties, they appear before the world as just what they are: annoying, smart-aleck pests at best—slandering bullies at worst.