Late-Night TV Commentary

Late-night TV has become a significant platform for political discussion in the media as well as an echo chamber for critics of President Trump. Since Trump announced his bid for the presidency, he has been the target of endless mockery from late night TV hosts. The jokes always write themselves, with each tweet, antic, or new policy development increasingly looking like a South Park episode come to life.

It was funny for a while, but after three years, it’s definitely grown stale.

Coming from a person who agrees with the jokes, at this point they’ve become oversaturated. The problem isn’t the fact that they make fun of the Trump administration, but how redundant and ineffective the commentary is. There are two aspects to this that need to be evaluated: late-night TV as a work of comedy, and late-night TV as political commentary.

As comedy, late-night TV isn’t inherently boring. Most of the material is pretty solid, with zingers and clever jokes that elicit light chuckling or the occasional laugh. The issue is that Trump jokes are so one-note and repetitive, with all the hosts saying different versions of the same thing. Despite the President’s erratic tendencies, there is predictability in his unpredictability, which becomes the source for a lot of the punchlines. The President said that 3,000 people didn’t die in Puerto Rico? Make some joke about how the Presidency keeps hitting new lows. The daily format doesn’t help, likely prompting the writers to go for easier jokes; it’s already tiring to hear about him on a daily basis through media coverage, so unoriginal nightly jokes just make things worse. Many of these shows were also apolitical prior to Trump, which further solidifies just how easy and it is to use Trump as a source of comedy and a gateway into politics.

As commentary, it’s very poor. Now, of course, many will defend this by stating that these hosts are comedians first, and their main job is to entertain. This is fair to acknowledge, and I agree. However, when the jokes you make are about something relevant to the real world, then it must also be evaluated on the basis of what it says about the real world. The commentary is asinine for the most part: late-night TV hosts will get applause for saying our President is a narcissist with several scandals five times a week. Their target audience, most of them Democrats or left-leaning individuals, exalt them for being so “woke,” and then go to sleep, comfortable with the fact that their views are being reaffirmed in an echo chamber of like-minded people.

Something Jon Stewart understood incredibly well about political commentary is that you had to focus on the costs associated with bad decision processes. He would spent entire segments just looking at one specific Congressional meeting, dissecting the ineptitude of Congressional leaders and really highlighting how nothing was being done. The Colbert Report did very well with its own twist, as does Trevor Noah to a lesser extent (since Noah falls into the same trap of cheap Trump jokes as other current late night hosts). Last Week Tonight with John Oliver takes this principle even further than Stewart, spending upwards of thirty minutes on a topic and really diving into the costs of bad decision processes, with only briefer jabs at Trump for the most part — though it is important to note the inherent left-leaning bias.

Late-night TV hosts are a small subset of Trump critics, but many of them exhibit everything wrong with how political criticism is approached. There is so much focus on Trump as a person and on his specific actions, but what really needs attention is the administration as a whole, its failures, and what it costs the nation. In fact, if anything, Trump himself should be mentioned less or not even mentioned at all. When Jon Stewart or Michael Moore made fun of the Bush administration, no one was really talking about Bush. In the modern political landscape, the same should be true in order for criticism to be effective. Trump thrives off the attention he gets, and it distracts us from the real issues at hand. But taking that attention away while focusing on what his administration neglects or is responsible for is a far more effective strategy, and it transcends the self-congratulatory echo chamber that late night TV has become.

The Democratic Party has an opportunity to retake the House — if not the senate — with mounting frustrations against the administration from the general public. But they have failed to capitalize on this simply because they spend so much time focusing on the wrong issues. Democrats’ tactic for criticizing Trump is the same as late-night TV hosts, which is to focus on Trump himself while claiming the moral high ground. This doesn’t do anything, as the Democrats also have to contend with their own scandals and reputation, and it doesn’t change the minds of those who don’t care about what Trump does or says individually. The only way for Democrats to get through to voters is to present them with something that forces them to fundamentally reevaluate the way they view the administration, judging based on whether or not Trump’s policies are actually good for the nation. Until then, just like late-night TV hosts, their criticisms are empty and meaningless.