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Politics Is a Joke Now—And The Early 2020 Campaign Proves It
‘Stay in your lane, news!’ says ‘Daily Show’ executive producer Jen Flanz. ‘We got this! Comedy is our job!’
Onstage, Stephen Colbert is tossing Kirsten Gillibrand a big fat set-up pitch. “I’m just curious,” Colbert says, mock seriously. “Do you have anything you’d like to announce?” Shockingly, Gillibrand does. “Yes!” the New York senator says, grinning. “I’m filing an exploratory committee for president of the United States—tonight!”
Upstairs, in a conference room above the Ed Sullivan Theater, 22 reporters are watching an in-house video feed of the taping, and typing out stories that can be filed as soon as the Colbert show lifts the agreed-upon embargo. Gillibrand’s appearance is the second political news-making event in a week for Colbert: Kamala Harris had been a guest five nights earlier, ostensibly to promote her new memoir, but really to tease her own official announcement of a 2020 presidential run.
CNN media columnist Brian Stelter smartly identified “the Colbert Primary” as a new Democratic campaign test. (Gillibrand’s camp is quick to point out that their senator’s guest spot on Colbert had been booked even before Harris’s.) “It’s not just that Stephen has a great audience for Democrats: four million people who tune in because of the anti-Trump shit he does,” a strategist for one contender tells me. “It’s that the platform in and of itself gives you gravitas—you have to be a certain level of candidate to even be on Colbert.”
A late-night comedy show, bestowing gravitas on a politician? Americans looking to comedians to cut through the spin? Comedians earning more credibility than mainstream political reporters?
That shift has been under way for two decades, thanks largely to Jon Stewart, who turned The Daily Show into political satire with a clear point of view. Beginning with the 2000 Bush-Gore presidential campaign, and then truly finding its groove during the absurd Florida recount, Stewart’s “Daily Show” created a late-night half hour that was equal parts silliness and substance, one that exposed the hypocrisy of elected officials and critiqued the superficiality of TV news. It put real politics into political humor, and it won awards and became a ratings hit.
“Our parents watched Johnny Carson for jokes that gently tucked them into bed,” Jordan Klepper, a former Daily Show correspondent, says. “Today people watch late night to try to digest what happened during the day and figure out how to feel about it.”
The change has accelerated in the past two years. Stewart trained a generation of talent that has gone on to host politically-savvy shows of their own, including Colbert, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, Wyatt Cenac, John Oliver, Larry Wilmore, and Hasan Minhaj. His sensibility also lives on in sharply political segments done by mostly apolitical comics like Seth Meyers and Jimmy Kimmel.
The supply side of the recent dynamic is Trump, who provides the current group of late-night shows with endless material. So the resistance, to paraphrase Gil Scott-Heron, is being televised. In the hands of Colbert and company, it’s very funny.
Less amusing is that mainstream TV news is following the late-night lead. Network and cable news long ago copied a video technique pioneered by The Daily Show—digging up clips of politicians contradicting themselves. That’s healthy, as is the newfound willingness to depart from the “both sides” journalism playbook, an even-handedness that doesn’t work when the president lies all the time.
But what is strikingly new, and somewhat unnerving, is how, in the Trump era, late-night attitude is seeping across mainstream TV news coverage. Where Stewart used to rub his eyes in cartoonish disbelief in reaction to the inanities of Texas Republican congressman Louis Gohmert, NBC’s Katy Tur rolls her eyes after reporting the president’s latest false claims about immigrants. Where “Senior Foreign-Looking Correspondent” Aasif Mandvi raised a sarcastic eyebrow at President George W. Bush’s Iraq troop surge, CNN’s Jim Acosta pulls an incredulous face doing a segment about Syria from the White House lawn.
“The mainstream news has gotten closer to how we treat the campaigns and politicians,” Steve Bodow, a longtime Daily Show executive producer, says.
“There are inflections and eye rolls from anchors and reporters on CNN who are supposed to be above that. On the one hand, I appreciate it—it shows that they are thinking human beings, and if they hear something that’s a particularly stinky piece of bullshit, it’s hard not to react. On the other hand, I could do with less snark or attitude. There are ways to do it that are more rooted in fact and analysis than emotional reaction.”
Another Daily Show executive producer puts it more succinctly, and only half-jokingly. “Stay in your lane, news!” Jen Flanz says. “We got this! Comedy is our job!”
True, though the borders are going to continue to blur during the 2020 presidential campaign. The Democratic candidates are eager to appear on late-night, especially to stand out in the large crowd of contenders, and to sell themselves as willing to take a joke.
“It’s a great way to make you point with edgy, interesting hosts,” says a strategist for one likely contender. “And it’s not just the main show that’s valuable. With the clips from late-night shows, we’re able to bite-size them into 30-second pieces that you hope go viral and have a life after the show itself, and are bigger than your standard policy speeches.”
On the other side, the Democratic competition to take on Trump is being greeted eagerly by late-night hosts and writers, who are thrilled to have some new characters to ridicule and deconstruct.
“Put this in print: Trump gives us no joy,” says Miles Kahn, an executive producer for Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. “We're a bunch of nervous writers and comedians and producers and researchers who are very scared, and it's hard to write comedy when you're scared and upset. I think all of us would have been happy to struggle to make comedy out of a really boring, first female president fiscal conservative war hawk.”
“We don’t aspire to be part of the resistance,” says Dan Amira, who is the head writer for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.
“A lot of our stuff happens to be targeted at the president because he’s fun to talk about. But we’re also going to make fun of the Democrats, and we want to inform people who these candidates really are. We did a segment the other day about all the candidates who are apologizing for past positions that are no longer acceptable in the Democratic Party. There’s probably gonna be one of the main things to pick apart.”
Bee has successfully mined laughs, and outrage, from focusing on the impact of politics in women’s lives, and on the treatment of women in politics. The multiple women in the Democratic presidential field will hand “Full Frontal” even more opportunities in that direction.
“It will be interesting to see how the media gives the women who are running for president the Hillary treatment,” Kahn says. “What are Kamala Harris’s shortcomings going to be? How is she unlikable? All the stuff that the male candidates will never get. And we're going to weigh the candidates the way that they should be weighed—here's the positive, here's the negatives. Instead of, you know, ‘Is her voice too high? Is she wearing a cough-suppression machine?’”
Kahn sighs. “There’s a lot of good journalism out there. But I think mainstream TV reporters are letting their emotions shine through less because of a reaction to Trump and more because they’re embracing the sad commercialization of news. If they’re interesting personalities, they get more airtime and more social media buzz. If the media treats these candidates with respect and covers these campaigns intelligently, great. But do we really kid ourselves to think that this isn't going to be treated like a fucking circus?”
So in the meantime, as mainstream news takes on more of the characteristics of late-night comedy, late-night comedy is pushing further into territory closer to good-old-fashioned journalism. Klepper’s new show, called Klepper and debuting in June on Comedy Central, will be plenty funny, but it will be built around extended reporting on deeply serious issues.
“We've given so much energy to talking about the big orange guy and the chaos that he's created that we’re forgetting so many other stories of people who are dealing with the day-to-day consequences of the bullshit that he spews,” Klepper says.
“So let's talk with vets who have very real PTSD issues. Let's talk with people dealing with shootings at schools. Let's talk to DACA students who are trying to go to college. Nobody is talking about them because we're caught up in the big game of who's going to win the next big election.”
Klepper’s new direction is largely motivated by what he thinks is interesting and important. But it is also propelled by how he sees mainstream news coverage of Trump and the 2020 campaign evolving. “When I see White House reporters screaming on Twitter, there’s something very human about that,” Klepper says.
“But I don’t want my news to be human. I want it to be better than that.”