Just about a year ago, while other comedians on the late-night scene, from Seth Meyers and John Oliver to Stephen Colbert and Samantha Bee spent the evening denouncing then-candidate/full-time racist hairball Donald Trump, who was in the throes of accusations of coziness with Vladimir Putin and Islamophobia and racism, one man had the courage to ask the really tough question: if he could ruffle Donald Trump’s hair.
I’m talking, of course, about the infamous segment on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, where Jimmy Fallon spent the interview asking the softest of softball questions, without a hint of pushing him on any issues or criticizing anything he ever said. The segment was widely criticized, with many suggesting Fallon was helping to humanize or normalize Trump.
What was the issue, exactly? After all, Stephen Colbert also had Trump on as a guest last year, and Seth Meyers had Kellyanne Conway on just eight months ago. And sure, Fallon asked some pretty tame questions, but he isn’t a journalist, and it’s not his job to ask the tough questions. Is he really to blame for trying to keep his show apolitical, to want mass appeal? Apparently, yes.
In the Trump era, it’s become increasingly clear that few people are interested in that kind of mass appeal. People want sharper comedy, comedians who aren’t afraid to be critical, to call out bullshit when they see it, to denounce hate. It’s no wonder that the more sharply political late night hosts, like Trevor Noah, Oliver, Bee, Colbert, and Meyers are getting ever-increasing audiences and attention.
Indeed, consider the fact that Colbert’s most popular segments on YouTube are monologues where he denounced or criticized Trump. Bee’s show, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee is almost dominated by Bee eviscerating Trump to shreds, perhaps most notably with her segment “Pussy Riot”, made shortly after that tape with Billy Bush came out. For six glorious minutes, Bee alternated between strained, venomous sarcasm and unsurprised fury, unleashing a badly-needed female perspective, noting: “We know this is shocking for most normal men, but every woman I know has had some entitled testosterone monster grab her like a human bowling ball.”
Not only that, but even the relatively apolitical Jimmy Kimmel got a moment in the sun during the height of the health care debate. After an emotional monologue where he discussed his newborn son’s heart condition, Kimmel begged Congress not to remove protections for those with pre-existing condition, pleading in a cracked voice, “If your baby is going to die, and it doesn’t have to, it shouldn’t matter how much money you make.”
And even more recently, as Trump refused to outright condemn white supremacists and Nazis in Charlottesville, late night hosts ranging from the less political James Corden to the more political Meyers lined up to criticize his silence and condemn white supremacy in the strongest terms.
And in the world of standup comedy, the specials that have been more widely celebrated have recently been those that either dealt specifically with politics or the issues on the periphery, even if those jokes weren’t the main focus. Jen Kirkman discussed sexism and harassment in Just Keep Livin’?, Roy Wood, Jr discussed race and blackness in Father Figure, Hasan Minhaj discussed Islamophobia in Homecoming King, and Maz Jobrani discussed being an immigrant in the aptly named Immigrant.
Even here in Canada, comedy has taken an ever-sharper political edge. Just take the satirical site and now comedy show The Beaverton, which in addition to featuring video segments and articles mocking Trump and the alt-right, also isn’t shy about criticizing the Canadian alt-right, especially in their biting satire of the alt-right, heavy on racism and light on facts Canadian “news” site, The Rebel with their own spin, The Rebelton.
There are still plenty of (mostly straight, cis, white, male) comedians who don’t like this shift at all. Fallon, for his part, has been reluctant to change his show toward a more political tone. Obviously, that’s his prerogative. However, it’s worth noting that we aren’t living in an age when politics is business as usual. The United States’ president is a racist, a misogynist, and Islamaphobic. He’s in cahoots with white supremacists. He and his party don’t care about the effects of their actions, even when people’s lives are at stake. Health care? DACA? Climate change? Just some pieces in a cynical, spineless game. No offense to Jimmy Fallon, who I’m sure is a very nice guy, but it’s irresponsible to avoid this stuff altogether as though they’re just touchy political topics. Comedy has evolved to acknowledge that reality, whether or not all comedians want to get on board.